Just one issue dogging Blazers' ahead-of-schedule start
POSTED: Dec 16, 2013 12:27 PM ET
Center Robin Lopez (left) has proven to be a godsend for LaMarcus Aldridge and the Blazers this season.
After all your posturing, all your little speeches, you're nothing but a common thief!
I am an exceptional thief, Mrs. McClain!
-- "Die Hard", 1988
The Portland Trail Blazers are a very, very good jump shooting team.
But are they exceptional, as in exceptional enough to be a real factor in the playoffs?
That we are discussing this is a testament to what general manager Neil Olshey and coach Terry Stotts have done in just more than a year to improve the Blazers' standing. A quarter of the way through this season, the Blazers have obliterated what looked to be their limit, calmed their star player and brought Rip City back to its loud, proud past as one of the league's best crowds.
Portland's 21-4 start, the best in the West after Damian Lillard's game-winner Sunday night in Detroit -- on a jumper, of course -- beat the Pistons, has made the Blazers relevant now, not a couple seasons from now. With Lillard on his rookie deal and Nicolas Batum under contract through 2016 (Portland matched Minnesota's $44 million offer sheet in 2012), the Blazers were thinking it would be more like 2015 or '16 before they made their move -- assuming they could keep All-Star LaMarcus Aldridge in the fold.
They've already beaten Indiana, Oklahoma City, San Antonio and Houston, and won at Golden State on the second night of a back-to-back. They won 11 in a row in November, have just one road loss and have yet to lose two straight games. The team with the league's worst bench last season now has legit options that should ease the burden on a suddenly solid starting five.
And, "Cousin" LaMarcus is ballin'!
Those were "M-V-P" chants at Moda Center on Thursday, when Aldridge (no relation -- we both think) posted the first 30-point, 25-rebound game in franchise history in a 111-104 win against Houston. Aldridge started 1-for-8 from the floor and looked horrible for a quarter and a half. But for the last two quarters, he wasn't just the best player on the floor; he was one of the four or five best players in the league.
"Right now, he is the best power forward in the league, no doubt," Batum said.
Aldridge on Success
But, although Aldridge is getting more chances down low, he's not a dominating back-to-the-basket player. He's more of a pick-and-pop, fadeaway-jumper scorer. Center Robin Lopez, a godsend in so many other ways, is not a guy to throw the ball to in the paint. The Blazers have no one who can make a living there.
Portland, though, does one thing, over and over again -- shoot 3-pointers. Following their game Sunday in Detroit, the Blazers are second in the league in 3-point percentage (.412) and are second in attempts. Entering Sunday they were leading the league in offensive rating, averaging 114 points per 100 possessions (it "fell" to 110.3 after Sunday's game), ranking sixth in the league in effective field goal percentage (.520).
The Blazers have, in eight days, twice broken their franchise record for made 3s in a game. Saturday, they rained 3-pointers in Philly, making 21 from distance in a 34-point romp.
They don't let a quarter, or two quarters, of subpar shooting affect them. The backcourt of Lillard and Wes Matthews ranks third and fourth, respectively, in the league in 3-pointers made (Batum is also in the top 10). Matthews is ninth in 3-point percentage. Teams that are so dependent on the perimeter, it has been said about a billion times, eventually succumb to depending on the perimeter game.
You know: live by the jumper, die by the jumper.
No less than the Zen Master Tweeted Saturday:
Aldridge Dominates Rockets
But, at least so far, Portland's vastly improved team chemistry is holding off the doubters.
"I didn't think we'd win 11, 12 in a row," Aldridge said last week. "I couldn't have thought of that. I didn't think that we would jell so easily. I feel like, new guys, old guys, this is the best chemistry I've ever seen a team have so far ... I think every so many years, you put together this team that just sort of clicks. And I think from the first guy to the last guy, this team clicks."
That is exactly the response Portland wants to hear from its eighth-year forward. He was not happy with the team's lack of depth and unproductive center play last season, which was manned by undersized starter J.J. Hickson with rookie Meyers Leonard not ready to contribute. Rumors swirled that Aldridge wanted to be traded, and while the Blazers denied they were shopping him, that didn't stop more rumors involving the usual suspects, from the Knicks to the Bulls.
But the Blazers didn't bite. Instead, they made the team around Aldridge better.
Last season, the Blazers had the worst bench in the league, handcuffing Stotts' decision making and exhausting the starters. Olshey didn't have much to work with, but he parlayed assets he'd gotten in earlier trades (second-rounders from New York in the Raymond Felton and Marcus Camby trade, plus one of the two second-rounders Portland got for helping to facilitate the three-team deal that let Boston sign Courtney Lee in 2012) to get his coach better depth.
With Houston needing to clear room for Dwight Howard, the Rockets were willing to give away former top five pick Thomas Robinson for a couple of second-round picks. Olshey then used one of the other second-round picks, along with the Draft rights to rookie center Jeff Withey, to get into a three-team deal that sent Tyreke Evans to New Orleans, Greivis Vasquez to Sacramento and Lopez to Portland.
Not wanting to sign anyone for longer than the two seasons Aldridge has left on his deal, the Blazers went for short contracts with vets like Mo Williams, Earl Watson and Dorell Wright to bolster the bench. Batum and rookie Allen Crabbe are the only players with guaranteed money in 2015-16, (though Lillard could certainly have a huge extension off his rookie deal in place by then, when he'd be in the fourth-year team option year of his rookie deal).
In the summer of '15, the Blazers anticipate either re-signing Aldridge, to go with Batum, Lillard, rookie C.J. McCollum and Leonard still on their rookie deals, with enough space remaining to make a max offer to a free agent -- or, if Aldridge did decide to leave via free agency, more than $30 million to put players around Batum, Lillard and McCollum.
But that's then. After last season, Portland needed a starting center now. There aren't, as you can imagine, that many available from year to year. The Blazers thought about bringing in a guy like Marcin Gortat, who was available all summer, but thought of him as an offensive-oriented big who needed touches. And offense wasn't the problem.
Raining 3's in Portland
Lopez didn't have great terrestrial numbers for the Hornets in 2012-13. But, he was 12th among centers in PER last season, ahead of more well-known centers like Tyson Chandler, Larry Sanders, Joakim Noah and Roy Hibbert. That stat didn't mean he was a better player than any of them, but it did mean he didn't waste shots (he had a true shooting percentage of .573). Lopez was also one of the league's best offensive rebounders last season.
And, he was a center who could guard other centers. That made him desirable in Portland, where Aldridge was getting tired of being the de facto center.
"What Robin Lopez has brought is that he has allowed L.A. to be L.A., a phenomenal power forward," Olshey said Sunday. "And we hope he will be able to be a power forward for part two of his career."
Even though he'd been on losing teams for most of his career in Phoenix and New Orleans, Lopez got a lot out of those experiences.
"I don't think I'd be having the same effect here if I hadn't played in New Orleans," he said, "and I hadn't been getting heavy minutes. That gave me a lot of experience. Especially with New Orleans being such a young team. At my age, I was kind of an old vet on the team."
So, against teams like Houston, it is Lopez who uses his body up banging with Dwight Howard, contesting shots when he can, getting on the glass (Lopez has seven double-doubles this season) and being a pressure release on offense. He gets the odd putback or layup and is able to step out to the free-throw line and make a set-shot type jumper.
Inside the NBA: Blazers Breakdown
It's nothing fancy. But the chemistry between Aldridge and Lopez -- and everyone else -- looks natural.
"You kind of feel that initial spark of chemistry pretty quickly," Lopez said. "Even before training camp, I think, when we came back, those first couple of weeks when we were just scrimmaging, we had a lot of guys that were just willing to get after each other. In pickup games we were playing like it, too, you know? And that was special. That was something I hadn't really experienced on any other team."
With Lopez and Aldridge up front, Portland is second in the league in offensive rebounds and third in overall rebounds.
"It's easy for me," Lopez said. "Playing next to L.A. makes my job easy. 'Cause he's an unbelievable two-way player. Everybody sees him getting it done on offense, but on defense, having him back there, I know I'm not the only guy protecting the rim. There was one play [Thursday] when Chandler Parsons got to the rim, and L.A. got there first. And he had to go around him. But that put me in position to get the block."
The two did a local commercial for a Portland car dealer that displayed their uniquely horrible singing form and in which Aldridge parodied his supposed unhappiness in the Rose City.
"He's one of those teammates that's easy to play with, because he doesn't demand things," Aldridge said. "He doesn't care if he gets touches. He's going to crash the boards and get shots like that. He listens when I try to teach him things. He blocks shots, clogs the paint, always has everybody's back on the floor. And for me, he's 7-1, seven feet, and that takes that bigger defender off of me, and puts it on him, and I get the actual power forward."
The Starters: Rockets and Blazers Action
Thus freed, Aldridge has exploded. Entering play Sunday, his PER of 24 was eighth-best in the league. He's on pace for career highs in points, rebounds and assists, all while playing fewer average minutes than he did last season -- or three of the four seasons preceding it.
"This year has been interesting so far, because I've definitely gotten off to one of my better starts," Aldridge said. "I feel like, I don't know if teams are buying into my start. Some teams didn't double early. But these last five or six games, I've seen teams do different things. One team fronted and brought the big behind me, but then Rob was really good that game just going to the basket, just taking his jump shot ... so they stopped it. Teams are trying to double-team me, but our team is just so much better this season, it's hard to do."
Stotts knows his team, too. In his first season, he'd hoped to utilize Aldridge the same way Dallas used Dirk Nowtzki, with a lot of isolation sets. But Nowtizki is the best jump shooting big man in history, and he's 7-foot-1. He can shoot over just about anybody. Aldridge had less success with it than the Diggler.
"I think his first year, [Stotts] came in with all these ideas," Aldridge said. "I think he's starting to realize that we're very different. We both take mid-range shots, but very differently. I'm more of a pick-and-pop player on the right block, whereas Dirk is on that left block, and he's more of an iso player. So I think his first year, it was more just learning what I like, and vice versa. I think this year, we have a really good balance of putting me on that block and the pick-and-pop."
With a team that couldn't make major expenditures for a couple of years, the Blazers had to get improvement from their core group. Stotts has done that, and more, in his third NBA coaching stint.
The Blazers interviewed a lot of candidates, but knew they had to build with what they had. Stotts was a round peg that fit a round hole, with a system that was immediately applicable to what they thought possible with the existing players. The overused word "partnership" is nonetheless the right one to describe who Stotts fit into the team's bigger picture philosophy.
Inside the NBA: Blazers Discussion
But good coaches also adjust to conditions on the ground. Stotts adjusted. Now, there are more pick and rolls, and more postups for Aldridge.
"We got more movement, movement into pick and rolls," Lillard said. "It's not like the defense is just set watching him. It's movement, and then right into a pick and roll, so the defense is sort of out of position. It's tough to get back to them. And with his ability to make mid-range shots, if he keeps getting them, he's going to knock them down, like he has been."
There is irony in Aldridge's game being the spoke of Portland's offense, given its penchant for threes and the analytics community's disdain for mid-range jumpers. But as defenses prioritize chasing the Blazers' shooters off the 3-point line, that decision leaves plenty of room for Aldridge to operate at the elbows and in the pick-and-pop game.
"We've definitely made some noise with our 3-point percentage, and guys being so good this year," Aldridge said. "It's like, do you want to give up twos or threes? And once they start making threes, they really make them. So teams have been like, okay, we're going to give up this two and not this three. If I get going enough, they will double, and then we get both. Our best games this year have been when I start off clicking, and then they double, and then guys get easy shots down the stretch."
And the stretch is where Lillard takes over. According to NBA.com/Stats, after making his game-winner Sunday, Lillard is shooting 78.9 percent (15-of-19) in overtime periods in his first season-plus, covering eight extra-session games.
Bringing in Williams (and fellow vet Watson) to try and get Lillard's numbers down -- or, at least, to get him off the ball from time to time -- was a necessity. Now, Stotts uses Williams and Lillard together, and when McCollum returns from the broken left foot he suffered during in October, Stotts will have even more options.
The Starters: Blazers for Real
"I think it'll come down to us defending," Lillard said. "Everybody knows we're a jump-shooting team. But it'll definitely come down to us having to defend ... I think we have enough shooters where I can't see it being a night where at least one or two guys aren't making shots."
Indeed, to keep this up, the Blazers will have to win some grimy games as well as shootouts, and they have hardly been a shutdown defense, ranking a pedestrian 21st and 18th, respectively, in defensive rating and points allowed per game.
And so, the question -- can a team without a true low-post option go all the way -- hangs in the air in the 503. People like the Chuckster say no.
"I got a lot of respect for Chuck," Matthews said. "Can't say. We don't know. Right now, our formula's working. All we can say is we've won every kind of game. We've won every kind of game. We've grinded it out. We've had blowouts. We've had games where we've shot the lights out; we've had games where we didn't shoot the lights out. We've had games where we defended well and games when we didn't defend well, and we've won every type of game."
But a perimeter run to a title is hardly unprecedented.
The Mavericks upset the Heat in 2011 to win The Finals without any real paint monsters -- though Tyson Chandler was an exceptional finisher of lobs. The Mavs shot very few free throws, finishing 27th in attempts. They were very good, but not the best, in offensive and defensive rating (eighth in the NBA in each).
The Beat: Terry Stotts
What they didn't do is miss -- both inside and outside the 3-point line.
Your memory is that the Mavericks rained threes on people all season, with Nowitzki rising up and Jet Terry going flaps down. But it wasn't really the case -- not in the regular season, at least. During the season, the Mavericks were fifth in the league in 3-point attempts, but just eighth in 3-pointers made, and 11th in 3-point field goal percentage. They were first in 2-point field goal percentage (.516), and fourth in overall field goal percentage (.475).
What Dallas did was get hot in the playoffs.
In the postseason, the Mavs made 39.3 percent of their 3-poiners, up from 36.5 percent in the regular season. They led all playoff teams in offensive rating (112.9 points per 100 possessions), three-plus points higher than their regular season rating (109.7), and maintained their league lead in effective field goal percentage (.519, just below their league-best regular season EFG of .525).
And, it's December.
It's the time of year when fans can chant "M-V-P" and Aldridge can smile, though he doesn't believe it. The Blazers are the story in the NBA so far this season. The trouble is, there are four months to go before the playoffs.
"We haven't proven anything," Aldridge said. "We haven't done anything. The Spurs have Tim Duncan, Hall of Famer, Tony Parker, one of the best point guards in the league. So when they go on a 13-game winning streak, that's just who they are. We're still building our brand, our name here, with this group of guys. So we've got to go out every night like we're hungry. We have to be dogs every night."
(last week's ranking in brackets; last week's record in parentheses)
1) Indiana  (2-0): Pacers remain only undefeated team at home in Eastern Conference after wins over Miami and Charlotte.
Magic vs. Thunder
2) Oklahoma City  (4-0): Thunder does Indy one better, winning its 12th straight at home without a loss to start the season Sunday against the Magic -- the first time in 20 years the Thunder franchise has begun a season with a dozen wins in a row at home.
3) Portland  (4-0): Most impressive part of Portland's amazing start this season: Blazers won their 11th road game Sunday with their overtime victory in Detroit, tying the amount of road wins they had all of last season.
4) San Antonio  (4-0): Tim Duncan revitalized: The Big Fundamental has shot 56.9 percent (58-of-102) over the last eight games.
5) Miami  (1-1): Shane Battier's struggles from the floor continue: He's 14-of-43 (32.6 percent) in his last 10 games, including 9 of 34 (26.5 percent) on threes.
6) L.A. Clippers  (3-1): After long road trip, Clips have a chance to make some hay at home, with 11 of their next 15 through mid-January at Staples
7) Houston  (1-2): Rockets trying to hold down the big man fort behind Dwight Howard with Terrence Jones starting at the four until they can get something for Omer Asik.
8) Denver  (2-1): Got Ty Lawson (hamstring) back into the starting lineup.
9) Dallas  (1-2): Mavs, who have gotten by with DeJuan Blair and the ineffective Samuel Dalembert at center, got Brandan Wright (shoulder) back Saturday for the first time this season, to the tune of 19 points in 19 minutes.
10) Golden State  (1-3): Mark Jackson calls out his team after its loss Sunday to the Suns.
Wizards vs. Hawks
11) Phoenix  (3-0): Our SHC broke it down last week: The Suns' unexpected hot start has them thinking about shopping some of those numerous picks they have in next year's Draft if they can get an impact player in return.
12) Atlanta  (1-2): Keep hearing the Hawks are still in the mix for Asik; can only assume Paul Millsap, with that very attractive two-year, $19 milion deal, would be a primary chip -- and Millsap has shown an ability to step out and hit the three this season; he's made 13 of his last 28 beyond the arc.
13) Minnesota  (3-1): In four games since returning from his grandmother's death, Kevin Love shooting 37-of-75 (49 percent) overall, 11-of-14 his last two games on threes.
14) L.A. Lakers  (1-2): Lakers are going to miss Steve Blake (torn ulnar collateral ligament in elbow, out at least six weeks) a lot more than people think.
15) New Orleans [NR] (2-1): Pelicans holding their own, so far, without Anthony Davis, going 3-3 in first six after Sunday's loss to Denver. But the rest of the Pelicans' road trip is brutal: at Golden State, at Clippers, at Blazers.
Dropped out: Memphis .
Phoenix (3-0): The Suns continue to confound, winning five straight, and nine of their last 12, after Sunday's victory over Golden State. Want to know how they're doing it? Check out The Beat at 5:30 p.m. Monday on NBA TV, when we'll have GM Ryan McDonough on! Yes, we'll ask him if he's really happy with all this winning.
Philadelphia (0-4): Four games, four losses by an average of 15 points -- the average skewed, to be fair, by the 139 (!)-105 beatdown handed to the Sixers Saturday at home. Now that's more like it, Tankosauras!
The Rockets will contend for a title by doing ... what?
With the Blazers hot, the Suns surprising and Kobe Bryant back in L.A., the attention is off of the Rockets for now, as they try to figure themselves out. There are issues.
Rockets vs. Kings
They're not a good defensive team. Houston is currently bottom third in points allowed and middle third in defensive rating -- though that's an improvement over last season's numbers, as Dwight Howard's presence has helped. They're an outstanding offensive team, rating third in offensive rating and second in points scored. Which is about what they did last season when they pushed Oklahoma City hard in the first round of the playoffs.
But they didn't have Howard last season. Now they do.
Yet the Rockets are a solid, comfortable second in the Southwest Division, and they've had several outstanding wins in the first month. They gave Portland its only loss at home in November and San Antonio its first home loss of the season. The potential for something special is there.
But Houston isn't anywhere near where the West's elite teams are this morning.
Howard has lived up to his end of the bargain. His offensive numbers may be a little down compared with years past, but he's playing on a team with more options. Coach Kevin McHale has tried to get Howard the ball more in different spots in the halfcourt.
His free-throw shooting is still awful, at 56 percent, which is only good compared to what it was the previous two seasons in Orlando and Los Angeles (49 percent each year). Houston basically faces the same end-of-game situations the Magic and Lakers dealt with. But Howard has accepted a leadership role in Houston and he's vocal and making an effort.
Magic vs. Rockets
"We're all still trying to get used to playing with each other," Howard said last week. "The different styles, learning how to run the floor, and also slow the game down. That's something we're still trying to learn, and that's going to take time. But I just want to come in and do my job for this team, be an offensive and defensive presence in the paint. It's not all about scoring. But making the defense collapse, kicking it out to our 3-point shooters. And just understanding that."
But the Rockets are still in transition. Injuries have played a major role, with Jeremy Lin (knee, back) and Chandler Parsons (back spasms) missing time. Most importantly, James Harden was slowed through parts of November with a sore foot, and badly sprained his ankle in Sunday's loss to the Kings.
Last season, Harden was one of the NBA's best stories. Coming over from Oklahoma City, he instantly became an offensive superstar and showed he was indeed capable of being an offense's first option. But his defense was always in question, and this season, with the greater expectations on Houston, he's been called out in the blogosphere for his lapses. (It's not a criticism that the organization necessarily disagrees with, by the way, though Rocketeers insist Harden has put in a much better defensive effort the last few games.)
"I think in the last few games, you've seen his defense really go up," Lin said. "I think he's really risen to the challenge. We just have to continue to sustain that. He played great defense against a few players in the last few games and really made it difficult. When he's locked in and he's making plays, getting a lot of deflections, and other people are really pressing the ball, and Dwight controlling the paint, we're tough."
Harden, proud like any star, says he's not being singled out by opposing teams.
Suns vs. Rockets
"To be honest, I don't see it," Harden said last week. "I don't see teams just focusing on going at me, and if it is, it's not easy. This summer my mindset was just trying to get into shape so I could play both ends of the floor at a high level. Early in the season, the injury kind of slowed me down a little bit. But getting back into a rhythm defensively and offensively is something I've been trying to do ... it was lingering for weeks. I just had to sit down a couple of games."
The issues came as general manager Daryl Morey figures out where he's going to send disgruntled center Omer Asik on Wednesday or Thursday. Asik, who just changed agents to the powerful Arn Tellem, wants out. He's angry that he lost his starting center spot when Howard signed for four years and $88 million last summer.
Asik proved completely unwilling to back up Howard, and now he's out with a bruised thigh (Houston insists he's really hurt and not just conveniently unavailable until he's traded). Greg Smith, who was a surprisingly effective player for the Rockets last season, has played in just three games this season and is out with a sprained knee. That's left the Rockets to put Terrence Jones in the starting lineup next to Howard.
Jones is athletic, to be sure, and he's long enough that the Rockets felt comfortable enough leaving him one-on-one against LaMarcus Aldridge last week. With Patrick Beverley replacing the injured Lin in the starting lineup, Houston has the capability to be a deflection-happy group.
But the Rockets are still struggling on defense, and it's not all on Harden.
One of Howard's pet peeves with the Lakers was their inconsistency with "help-the-helper" defense, a staple of every team from CYO (do they still have that, by the way?) to the NBA. If Howard left his man to stop a penetrator, the defensive rotation from the next man over to his man was often late. It's something the Rockets' bigs are trying to be more consistent with, too.
"When you have principles, and you're committed, and you play defense, and your superstar is committed, that's when everybody has to pick up," forward Omri Casspi said. "It's a lot easier [with Howard]. Dwight is always gonna crack back for you, always be there. If somebody's posting me up and I'm playing the four, and it's a bigger guy, I know he's always going to be my help from the weakside. So we have to crack back for him as well."
Despite their defensive lapses, the Rockets are still an offensive load to handle. Harden is as good a one-on-one player as any in the game. He's as strong as any two and as versatile as most ones.
Howard is never going to be as smooth offensively as some of the all-time greats, but he's worked hard on a hook shot and drop step that he can use effectively at times. He's still a load when Houston utilizes him in screen-and-roll sets. According to Synergy, Howard is shooting 69 percent when he's been the roll man this season. But McHale has emphasized that Howard has to be better posting up. Overall, his PER of 21.50 is 20th best in the league.
But Howard's presence has not changed what the Rockets do. Nobody takes more threes than Houston, which leads the league both in overall attempts (657 entering play Sunday) and in percentage of field-goal attempts from 3-point range (34.6 percent, according to basketballreference.com). The Rockets are second in the league in offensive rating (tied for second with Miami at 110.2 points per 100 possessions) and are third in effective field-goal percentage (53.7 percent).
Getting Lin back will help, though guys I respect point out that Beverley has been part of an outstanding offensive starting five with Harden, Parsons, Jones and Howard. With most combinations, the Rockets can put three shooters, minimum, on the floor surrounding Howard.
"The only thing I hope is we continue to play this way, continue to trust each other, continue to build a chemistry on and off the court," Howard said. "We want to peak at the right time. We're playing good basketball right now, but we know we can play better, and that's what we're striving for."
But do they know who they are yet?
"We'd like to think so," Lin said. "Our identity on defense, we talk about our principles, and we pride ourselves in certain aspect of being able to take away certain things, take away their first option. And I think offensively, our identity is pretty well known in terms of being able to score. Coach always says we're not worrying about what the other team is doing; we have to make sure we're us tonight."
That means, for example, encouraging Jones to let it fly. Making or missing is important, but just shooting the ball will continue to create the spacing that will give Howard more room in the paint and give Harden more room to drive.
"We've had a lot of injuries ... but overall, it's been pretty good," Harden said.
The leadership piece is something Harden had to get used to last season. He and Howard, obviously, have had to try and police the locker room.
"We're kind of the veterans," the fifth-year guard said. "We kind of get everybody ready, get everybody's mindset ready, whether it's practice or the games. Just being more vocal, and showing hard work and what it takes to be good."
Things will also improve when Morey finalizes the Asik deal and brings in another piece that can help up front. A source confirmed Sunday that Boston may be trying to work its way into the deal, as ESPN.com reported. But many around the league continue to believe Morey has a deal in place, likely with Philadelphia, either for forward Thaddeus Young or center Spencer Hawes, and is looking to see if anyone will sweeten the deal.
"Every single day, it's a grind," Harden said. "This league isn't easy at all. We've got to keep everybody intact and focused on what's important every single day. It's a long season. There's going to be some ups and some downs, but if we can stay consistent, we'll be fine."
As with Europe in the late '70s, the Eastern Bloc continues to trail behind the times. From Geoff Cummins:
Great article on why the East is so bad at the moment, I was originally planning to ask that exact question but you just beat me to it.
My question is related to that though. Given just how bad it is, and (could be wrong here) the several more years-at least-it is going to be bad, do you think the NBA may look at making the playoffs top 16 teams regardless of conference? If it were up to you would you do it? Don't get me wrong, I like the division/conference set up and appreciate why a change like this will not occur, but on the flip side, it is just painful to watch sub .500 teams for even 4 games in a row while there are so many worthy teams out West that have 'gone fishing' who are far more entertaining and actually have a chance of upsetting a top seeded team.
It's an understandable frustration, Geoff. As Portland's Wes Matthews told me last week, every game every night in the West is like a playoff game, with all the good teams jockeying for position every night. There's no getting around it; there will be some good teams left out of the postseason in the West. The only saving grace is that they'll then be in line to add to their teams -- and, ironically, making more West teams even better -- in a stacked Draft. I have advocated trying to bring better balance with weighted schedules for the previous season's best teams, as the NFL used to do, though that wouldn't directly impact the East-West imbalance.
The stars don't always come out at night. From Hannah Anderson:
I'm sure you get hundreds of e-mails every year about this but this truly bugs me: the selecting of starters.
I'm all for fans choosing the starters or fan voting in general. But what really irks me is that it's a popularity contest. Like, I love Derrick Rose and all, but he played only 11 games. Yes, he's phenomenal but he does not deserve to be on a team called All-Stars (because he is out for the rest of the year and only played 11 games).
If it is solely a popularity contest, which can definitely be a thing that I don't mind, then they should call it something different.
But if it is truly an All-Star team, as in, those who are playing the best up until that point, injured players should not even be on the list for fans to vote for (Kobe, anyone!?!?! Or Danny Granger)
I understand that there are the First, Second and Third Team All-NBA squads at the end of the year and those are for the best players in the league. But, still, don't call it an All-Star team if it isn't. In lower level sports (like college and high school), All-Star selections are based on how good a player is, not how popular they are among the fans.
One more complaint: when fans (or coaches) pick older players to play just because of their legacy. This is a yearly thing, not a lifetime achievement award. Players get that when they're inducted in the HOF. I'm not saying older players don't deserve to be there, but if Duncan wasn't having a great year (hypothetically, because he actually is having a good one), putting him on the team because he's a future Hall of Famer is a dumb reason, in my opinion. Get someone else who is playing well (like LaMarcus Aldridge, Kevin Love, etc.) to play in his place because they will actually play in the game. That should also include reserves because Nate Robinson is playing very well for the Nuggets this year but is only a write-in vote (ridiculous!).
That is the end of my rant. If you have any possible idea as to why this is, please let me know so I'm not killing myself trying to vote for the actual best athletes in that given year
Your initial impression is the correct one, Hannah -- the All-Star Game is a popularity contest, nothing more. Personally, this does not bother me, but I understand the frustrations of fans who truly do want to see the best players in a given season get their opportunity to shine. That is why I have advocated expanding the All-Star rosters to 15 players for years now. There's no reason not to, other than increasing the likelihood that some players may not get to play much in the game -- but guys like Duncan don't really want to play a lot, anyway, so it would be relatively easy to allocate minutes even with bigger rosters.
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(weekly averages in parentheses)
Inside Stuff: Home Court
1) LeBron James (21 ppg, 11.5 rpg, 7.5 apg, .536 FG, .688 FT): Leads all vote getters for the Feb. 16 All-Star Game in New Orleans after the first round of voting with 609,336 votes, less than 2,000 ahead of Durant (607,407).
2) Kevin Durant (26.8 ppg, 8.3 rpg, 4.5 apg, .563 FG, .848 FT): Western Conference Player of the Month for November picking up where he left off in December, averaging 29.3 points per game in first nine games of the month.
3) LaMarcus Aldridge (25.5 ppg, 14.8 rpg, 1.5 bpg, .642 FG, .800 FT): Became just the fourth player in Blazers history to post at least four 20-point, 20-rebound games after his 31-point, 25-rebound effort against Houston on Thursday. The others: Bill Walton, who had eight such games while in Portland; Sidney Wicks, who had six, and Mychal Thompson, whom Aldridge tied with four.
4) Paul George (13.5 ppg, 3.5 rpg, 4.5 apg, .261 FG, .786 FT): Horrible shooting week for George, but proved his all-around mettle by competing defensively against LeBron James and Dwyane Wade throughout the Pacers' come-from-behind victory over the Heat Tuesday.
5) Chris Paul (26.3 ppg, 3.3 rpg, 9 apg, .574 FG, .839 FT): Seems CP3 was a little perturbed that John Wall was saying he was the best point guard in the league. Saturday, Paul's play against Wall and the Wizards did his talking: 38 points, including 5-of-7 3-pointers, and 12 assists in the Clippers' rout of Washington to end their 10-day east coast trip with a 4-3 mark.
15,969 -- Kings' average attendance at Sleep Train Arena through the first month of the season -- a 24 percent increase over last season, and the largest increase of any team so far this season, according to the Sports Business Daily.
Ray Reaches 24,000
24,007 -- Career points for Miami's Ray Allen, who became the 22nd player in league history to reach the 24,000-point mark Saturday night in the Heat's win over Cleveland. He got to the mark just after the Spurs' Tim Duncan, who is the man directly ahead of him on the NBA's all-time scoring list (24,073 points).
11 -- Consecutive losses for the Timberwolves in Memphis before Minnesota ended its losing streak at FedEx Forum with a 101-93 win Sunday night.
1) Brad Stevens says Rajon Rondo will be back next month. Wouldn't it be something if the Celtics were still in first place in the Atlantic when that happens? And wouldn't that give Danny Ainge an interesting decision to make before February's trade deadline?
2) I am amused at the garment rending by some about whether Danny Granger, who will return to the Pacers' lineup Friday, will accept a reserve role now that Paul George has exploded. I have no doubt that Granger understands that Indiana has a chance at something special this season, and will fit right in as Indy's "sixth starter."
3) Paul Pierce off the bench for the Nets? Maybe not a bad idea, at least for now.
4) Finally, a collegiate organization makes a smart, common sense decision about its student athletes and money. Of course, in this case, that organization is the NAIA, not the NCAA. Figures.
5) Glad to see Chris Douglas-Roberts back in the league after the Bobcats signed him out of the NBA Development League and the Texas Legends last week. Still think CDR can be in someone's rotation and can help a good team.
1) No doubt, losing Marc Gasol was a big blow to the Grizzlies, as was losing Tony Allen and Ed Davis for stretches. But Memphis' scoring issues (less than 100 points in five of last six games, all but one losses) are becoming a major problem.
2) Condolences to Kevin McHale, whose mother passed away last week. We are thinking of you, Kevin; this has been a brutal last year for you and your family, and we hope you are able to see better days soon.
Rockets vs. Kings
3) I hope Rudy Gay can stick in Sacramento. He is not a perfect basketball player, to be sure, but he's being made out by some to be some kind of uber-selfish guy, and I don't believe that's true.
4) Lamar Odom does not need any more bad news, and yet, it keeps coming.
5) Nothing personal, but I've had just about enough of Ron Burgundy for a while.
-- Kobe Bryant (@kobebryant), Thursday, 11:51 a.m., responding to Jim Brown's statement on the Arsenio Hall Show that Bryant is "somewhat confused about culture" and "doesn't quite fit what's going on in America" because Bryant lived for a few years in Italy growing up.
"We have five wins. We need players here."
-- Kings general manager Pete D'Alessandro, on the team's motivation to acquire Rudy Gay from the Raptors last week.
"The fact that I'm not getting the ball in the post affects directly my aggressiveness. When I'm not getting the ball where I want to, where I'm most effective, where I can bang guys and utilize my skill, that affects my aggressiveness and overall intensity."
-- Pau Gasol, lamenting his role in Mike D'Antoni's offense to the Los Angeles Times. D'Antoni retorted that the Lakers' advanced numbers show posting Gasol is a detriment to the team's offense, and said Gasol needed to "play harder" if he wanted to be more of a featured player. No, it does not sound like this is going to end with Gasol in Los Angeles past this season -- which is why the rumor mill started sparking up last week about the Lakers possibly dealing Gasol, a free agent at season's end, before the trade deadline.
"We can run. We have proven that, every coach that has coached the Denver Nuggets, going back to Dan Issel and Doug Moe, they take advantage of the altitude up there. But any of those Denver Nuggets teams, have they culminated in a championship in the NBA? Not in the NBA. When I look at that, something has got to change."
-- Nuggets coach Brian Shaw, to The Sporting News, on why he feels he has to try and make Denver a better halfcourt team in order to be successful in the playoffs. After a slow start, the Nuggets have started turning things around and are currently third in the Northwest Division.
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