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David Aldridge

Kobe Bryant
The Lakers should sit injured Kobe Byrant for the rest of the season to gain Draft position.

Lakers must be strong, not rush Kobe back this season


Posted Dec 23, 2013 4:15 PM

He said, adamantly and consistently, that he trusts what they're doing, that they always have come through when the chips were down, so he'd trust them now to make the moves necessary to get him and his team back on center stage, playing games that matter in May and June.

Kobe Bryant needs to trust the Lakers now.

And the Lakers have to be strong enough to do what's necessary to give their franchise the best chance to return to relevance.

Someone -- Jimmy Buss, mainly -- has to have The Talk with Bryant, and tell him there's no point to his rushing back this season. There's really no point to him playing again this season. The fractured lateral tibial plateau Bryant suffered last week will heal in about six weeks. But Bryant shouldn't -- can't -- push it this time. He needs to sit out as long as possible; not just until he's healthy enough to return to the court, but until he can finalize the rehab on the Achilles's tear that initially sidelined him for the start of the season.

His personal trainer, Tim Grover, said as much, sending a Tweet last week that the knee injury Bryant suffered could actually be a blessing.

It could be -- but not just so that Bryant can get healthy.

It buys the Lakers some time. Enough time to make the moves they need to once again contend the next two seasons, maybe the last two seasons of Bryant's career. It allows them, frankly, to lose enough to assure themselves good position in the Draft next June, which is their best chance to add a good, young -- and, relatively, cheap -- player who can help rebuild the franchise's luster.

The Lakers, the last six months have shown, are no longer The Lakers -- the end game for any free agent of substance, any star who wanted to win a championship, who wanted to be more famous, who wanted to play for one of the NBA's two marquee franchises.

Dwight Howard, who was supposed to be the lynchpin of the next era of Lakers dominance, couldn't wait to leave town. Chris Paul never even contemplated leaving the Clippers for the team across the hallway at Staples Center. LeBron is a pipe dream; the best Angelenos can dream of is Carmelo Anthony, a great scorer, to be sure, but not someone who can, on his own, will a team deep into the playoffs. (Along those lines, it was interesting to hear 'Melo say the SuperFriends were "smart" to get together in Miami during his "Inside Stuff" interview with Ahmad Rashad.)

But for the most part, the Lakers can no longer just pick the stars they want. The Lakers will have millions to spend in free agency next summer if they don't re-sign Pau Gasol -- but if they don't, what was the point of giving Bryant that two-year, $48 million extension that kicks in next year?

Bryant insisted after the new deal was announced that he believed the front office had a plan to not only re-sign Gasol, but also still have enough space afterward to sign a marquee free agent. To do that, general manager Mitch Kupchak would have to renounce just about everyone playing for the team this season, likely including some players he and Mike D'Antoni would like to keep, like Steve Blake and Jordan Hill.

Instead of doing that, the Lakers should get in the game, and rebuild the same way everyone else does today in the NBA -- value the Draft, be wise in free agency, and try to use one big asset to pick up two or three smaller ones.

It will not be easy. It will, most assuredly, be quite difficult. Kobe Bryant does not abide. He does not sit quietly as things happen around him. He is not an observer. He is an active participant. And he will be angry, incredulous, if Jim Buss and Kupchak and D'Antoni tell him that, no, even though he may be healthy in six weeks after breaking the bone above his kneecap, he will not be of any use to them this season.

But it's the only way.

The Lakers must -- must -- come out of next June's Draft with a potential superstar. To have the best chance to do that, they have to have more than one or two ping pong balls in the Lottery hopper. To do that, they need to put Bryant in drydock -- and, perhaps, send Gasol on his way for some assets, which will allow the remaining players to continue to play as hard and as doggedly as they've done for D'Antoni -- while assuring they'll have absolutely no success doing so in the treacherous Western Conference. Kupchak is too smart to be swayed by the Fools' Gold his current roster is displaying; they play for rings in the City of the Angels, not plucky eighth-seed seasons.

Understand: with the prices they charge for seats and suits, with Time Warner Cable expecting a return on its $3 billion investment, the Lakers cannot go into full tank mode. They can't have a 20-win season. And they can't trade Gasol for pennies on the dollar. A deal for the 33-year-old will be difficult. But it isn't impossible. And next year's Draft is so potentially deep, there could be great players remaining late in the Lottery, where L.A. figures to be. (Kobe, after all, went 13th, to Charlotte, in the celebrated '96 Draft; Nash went two picks later, to Phoenix.)

With Kobe again ailing, there's no reason to keep Gasol around any longer. He plays his best basketball with Bryant; the two have been great teammates, their trust in and with one another unshakable. But the two of them, alone, cannot conquer the West. They won their two rings together with a productive Andrew Bynum playing center, a clear-headed Lamar Odom coming off the bench, a younger Trevor Ariza and Metta World Peace at the wings and Derek Fisher doing what Derek Fisher used to do in the playoffs.

And, Phil.

I'm not playing fantasy GM here; it won't be easy to find a taker for Gasol, given his age and his likely contract demands after this season. The teams at the top of the heap this season, like Indy and OKC and San Antonio, don't have a need; the teams at the bottom, your Sacramentos and Utahs, don't have the desire, or pieces the Lakers surely would seek, and they're not about to part with near-certain high Lottery picks, not in this Draft.

But there has to be room somewhere for a big with as much tread left on his tires as Gasol.

What follows is pure speculation, not "rumor."

A team like Dallas, which is competitive but not a threat with its current roster, could use an upgrade at center (Gasol surely can't play the four with Dirk Nowitzki there). Minnesota has run aground after a promising start and must always look to improve the roster whenever possible to keep Kevin Love interested in staying. Chicago is faced with a tough, tough decision about what to do with its roster while Derrick Rose is, again, in limbo. Memphis just happens to employ Pau Gasol's brother, Marc.

And the Nets again have to deal with the loss of All-Star Brook Lopez for the season -- and who are all in to win now. There are other teams, like Cleveland and Phoenix, that might be willing to send some of their extra Draft picks they've hoarded the last couple of years for a young veteran.

Pau Gasol is miserable playing for D'Antoni; they've fought all year in the papers and blogs. It's not a criticism, merely an observation, that only Amare Stoudemire, in Phoenix and New York, has been able to play center the way D'Antoni wants from his big man -- and that version of STAT is nowhere to be found these days.

The dilemma, clearly, is finding young players who are advanced enough to be able to help Bryant at a high level in his Quixotic quest for a sixth ring.

The Lakers struggled to find any cohesion with Bryant back on the floor after recovering from his ruptured Achilles'. They were 2-5 with him back, everyone struggling to find their spacing that had come easier with him out. Los Angeles was not better without him. But the Lakers' roles were more easily defined. They moved the ball, and sometimes Nick Young or Xavier Henry or Jodie Meeks got hot, and Hill worked the glass, and L.A. was .500 -- hardly great, given the franchise's pedigree, but about all that one could expect this season.

Bryant was still working himself into prime condition, and now, he'll need another month after he comes back to do it again. Even if he's back in four weeks, say, instead of six (Kobe tends to rush this rehab stuff), he won't be himself again until after the All-Star break. Who knows how many games the Lakers will be out of contention by then?

No, the Lakers' season is lost, buried among injuries to the same position, over and over -- point guard -- like the aliens who hit the same spot over and over again as they entered the earth to start up their machines in War of the Worlds. Steve Nash, Blake, Jordan Farmar, and now Kobe, who was only pushed into point guard service because the others were out indefinitely. Bryant and this group will never find common ground. They need to milk every bit of production out of themselves collectively to have any chance of winning, and Kobe has never been an ensemble player.

He is a star. He does his best work with other stars. And the Lakers' only chance of getting him one or two to play with him as he rides off into the NBA sunset is to sacrifice the rest of this season.

DRIBBLES

Stephen Curry was at the mall Sunday night, getting his last-minute shopping done, dutifully returning the call from the fellow who wanted to know what's up with all the turnovers that have made the Warriors look so, so bad on occasion this season.

"Working out the kinks, man," Curry said. "I don't even know how to explain it. A lot of it is sometimes we're too unselfish on possessions, where the defense is telling you to shoot but we make the extra pass. Sometimes it's just us trying to play too fast. We've got so much talent, we can't let that be our demise on the offensive end of the floor."

In a time where advanced numbers have become dominant, turnovers—one of the old ones—is the only one that explains Golden State's 15-13, currently out of the playoffs record in the west.

The Warriors are just as deadly on 3-pointers as they were last season, when they won 47 regular season games, knocked Denver out in the first round of the playoffs and gave San Antonio a stiff six-game challenge in the conference semis. Golden State is second in the league in 3-point percentage (.402), third in pace (97 possessions per 48 minutes).

And Golden State's defense is even better than it was last season. The Warriors are currently sixth in the league in defensive rating (102.1/100).

But they're kicking the ball all over the place, committing 17.3 turnovers per game. Only the 76ers and Rockets have committed more overall miscues. Yes, some good teams like the Thunder commit a lot of turnovers, too. But no team that aspires to go deep in the playoffs can be as careless with the ball as the Warriors currently are. They're not forced mistakes, with defenses trapping or pressing the Warriors all over the court. They're just giveaways -- bad alley oops, dribbling into traffic, you name it.

"Our turnovers have killed us this year," All-Star forward David Lee said -- and that was before the Warriors went into full-on Keystone Kops mode Thursday against the Spurs.

San Antonio, famously, was without Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili. They were on the back end of a back-to-back. The Warriors were rested, and at home, with Andre Iguodala (hamstring) back on the court after missing 12 games.

Yet Golden State refused to blow the Spurs out, playing with amazing carelessness, to the tune of 24 turnovers. Curry and Klay Thompson (five turnovers apiece) threw it away. So did Iguodala (four). Kent Bazemore (two in five minutes) turned it over; Harrison Barnes (three in 19 minutes) turned it over.

"It's almost like there's four minute, five minute stretches where that's all we do," Curry said.

So instead of calling it a night early, San Antonio kept at it, and soon enough, Marco Belinelli got hot, and the undermanned Spurs stole the game at the end (on an admittedly questionable tip in by Tiago Splitter). Just another in a series of strange losses this season.

"When we get our half-court defense set, we're pretty good," Lee said. "Teams have been getting a lot of early offense and a lot of fast break points off of our turnovers. That's everybody's fault. You put yourself at a defensive disadvantage when you do that."

It's made things a bit uneasy in a place where there was nothing but good karma last season, with a team that wholeheartedly bought what its coach was selling. The Warriors were exciting, ratcheting up what was already one of the best home-court advantages in the league.

Mark Jackson hasn't at all changed what he expects from his team. Only the results have.

It forced Jackson to call out his players, after consecutive losses to the Rockets and Suns.

"I'm finding that the guys in suits and ties want it more than the guys in uniform," Jackson said after the Phoenix game on the 15th. "I don't see anybody in uniform with that same passion (as assistant coach Pete Myers). Enough is enough at some point. We're going to be fine, but we have to turn this thing around, it's as simple as that. We're watching the same movie every single night. It gets old."

Last week, Jackson said the teachable moment had passed.

"When they don't play well, you inform them, you let them know, and they respond," he said. "I've got a great group of guys. They understand it...we talk about it, and they made the adjustments."

The Warriors were going to be adjusting anyway this season, with Iguodala's presence in the starting lineup relegating Barnes to the bench -- which a few teams thought odd, given Barnes's emergence toward the end of last season. But after a dalliance with Dwight Howard in free agency, Jackson and the Warriors' management thought Iguodala was too versatile to pass up.

But when Iguodala went down in late November, Barnes went back into the starting lineup, leaving the Warriors painfully thin on the bench. They've already lost Jermaine O'Neal for a couple of months after wrist surgery earlier this month, and Marreese Speights struggled with consistency.

The Warriors, it says here, truly miss Jarrett Jack, who left for Cleveland via free agency. Jack was a perfect fit, both on the court and in the locker room, an older head who could spell Curry at the point, yet make big shots himself in the fourth quarter. The Warriors had hoped Toney Douglas would fill some of that void, but Douglas has struggled until recently (which is why the Warriors had an interest in getting Kyle Lowry from Toronto -- but only if the Raptors were just looking to get rid of him; Golden State wasn't going to talk about any of its core group, including second-year forward Draymond Green).

The starters have held up their end of the bargain, for the most part. But they've had their issues, too.

Lee says he's only started to feel like himself again the last half-dozen or so games, where he's posted seven straight double-doubles and been much more effective on the glass than earlier in the season.

"It's been more of a balanced attack with us this year, and that's what's made us most effective," he said. "I'm kind of getting the feel of my role ... with Klay Thompson taking his game, really offensively, his role increasing, as well as having Andre, and then having Bogut healthy, I think we definitely have a more balanced approach offensively. Whereas last year, I think a majority of the time, it was me and Steph in pick and roll."

Golden State's offense this season isn't the issue. The Splash Brothers have picked up where they left off last season.

There certainly will be no controversy when it comes to Curry and the All-Star Game this year. The turnovers are an issue, but otherwise, Curry is playing better than ever, with a PER currently eighth overall in the league and second to Chris Paul among point guards.

"I think he just lets it come to him," Thompson said. "I think that's why he's so good, because he takes what the defense gives him. He comes off of that pick and roll, and if they're sagging off of him, he just hits that jumper most of the time. If they're up on him, and he sees to roller going to the rim, or if I'm on the backside, he hits one of us for a great look."

Thompson is shooting 43 percent behind the 3-point line, and is tied with Damian Lillard for the most threes (87) in the league. He's trying to be even more efficient this season, working out daily with assistant coach Lindsey Hunter.

"Coach Hunter has done a great job of telling me not to rush," Thompson said. "I still have my fair share of games this year where I'm taking my bad shots. There's been a few games where I've been rushing. But I've learned from them. I try to stay patient. Coach Hunter has done a great job of telling me, you're a natural scorer. Shots are going to come your way. Play hard on the defensive end and play unselfish, and it'll all be good."

Thompson did a lot of shell and closeout drills last summer to try and improve his perimeter D, which started to pick up toward the end of last season.

"I look at tape, but it's something with experience, too," he said. "This is my third year. I've been going up against these guys, especially in the Western Conference, for three years now. I feel like I've gotten at least 10 games against each of them. And I watch a lot of NBA, too. I know their tendencies. I know how they play. Even with guarding (Manu) Ginobili, the guy's notorious for going left. He's going to get left. That's why he's had such a good career. But my job would be to try to get him to take contested twos."

Speaking of which...the Warriors' struggles haven't just been with turnovers.

Golden State make a huge leap last season defensively, jumping from 27th in defensive rating in 2011-12 to 15th last season, finishing eighth last season in opponents' effective field goal percentage (.486). It was Jackson's mantra: "we're a defensive team." And they did all that without Iguodala on the roster. Yet, after Iguodala was injured Nov. 22nd, the Warriors' defensive numbers slipped noticeably.

In their first 12 games this season, Golden State allowed just 95.6 points per game, giving up more than 100 points just three times. Opponents shot 42 percent against them. And in those 12 games, the Warriors were 8-4. After Iguodala's injury, though, they allowed 105.3 points per game over 12 games. Opponents shot 44.9 percent. And the Warriors went 5-7.

But, given their defensive improvements last season, why would their defensive numbers slip this season while Iguodala was out?

"That's a good question," Thompson said.

"We have new players," Curry said. "You would think that we made strides personnel wise to be a better defensive team, but you have to execute the game plan every single night. I know we've shown every third game that we're a dominant defensive team. But that consistency is the difference between two games over .500 and being at the top."

And, on many of those third games, the Warriors have butterfingers.

"The nights we're getting stops, and rebounding the basketball, you don't let that mean anything if you just give the ball back," Curry said.

The Warriors might also be dealing with enhanced expectations. Though Jackson says his team always felt like it belonged last season, it may not be as much what Golden State is doing as what is being done to it.

"Last year, teams underestimated us a little bit," Lee said. "This year, teams come at us with their A game. That really, we've talked about it from training camp on. That really shouldn't change our approach. We haven't accomplished anything. We haven't been to a Finals, or a conference finals. We still have a lot to accomplish, a lot to prove. Whether we're the hunted or hunter, we have to come out with that same aggressive mindset."

Tonight would be a good place to start. It will be Iguodala's first game back in Denver since he signed with Golden State in the summer. A seven-game eastern trip awaits at the end of next week. O'Neal is expected back, hopefully, within a few weeks.

There's time to make a move, even in the top-heavy West.

"I think we've underachieved," Curry said, before he returned to his shopping. "We feel like we should have a better record than we had now. The lessons we're learning from underperforming are valuable for us, they'll toughen us up as a team. Because it isn't going to be easy."

TOP O' THE WORLD, MA!

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

1) Miami [5] (3-0): Very interesting lineup Erik Spoelstra used down the stretch in Wednesday's big win over Indiana, matching up against the Pacers' size with Chris Andersen and Chris Bosh playing together up front, Ray Allen and Dwyane Wade at the wings and LeBron James playing, essentially, point forward.

2) Oklahoma City [2] (3-1): Convincing 13-point win at San Antonio Saturday night leaves no doubt: Thunder, whose nine-game win streak ended Sunday in an inexplicable home loss to the Raptors, is the current class of the west.

3) Portland [3] (2-1): Coffee is for Damian.

4) L.A. Clippers [6] (4-0): Since calling himself out on Twitter a week or so ago for poor play, Jared Dudley is 28 of 53 (52.8 percent) from the floor.

5) Indiana [1] (2-2): For all of Indy's success so far this season, and its delight at getting Danny Granger back in the lineup, those last six minutes Wednesday in Miami brought back some old demons that the Pacers will have to face down if they're going to go further this year.

6) San Antonio [4] (2-2): Marco Belinelli said he came to Texas to hunt for a championship. He's helping.

7) Houston [7] (2-1): Tough job again thrown in Kevin McHale's lap: get Omer Asik back into the fold, and fast. Rockets are running out of bodies.

8) Golden State [10] (2-1): Area 51: Warriors have sold out 51 consecutive games at Oracle Arena.

9) Dallas [9] (1-2): Two more ugly losses for the Mavs, blowing a 19-point first half lead to lowly Toronto Friday and then allowing a ghastly 123 Saturday in Phoenix, including 15 threes.

10) Atlanta [12] (3-0): Yes, the Hawks do resemble a Spurs team that moves the ball. Yes, their head coach is familiar with San Antonio's system.

11) Phoenix [11] (2-1): If you can figure out how that roster that Jeff Hornacek throws out there every night is doing what it's doing, you're a better man than I am, Gunga Din.

12) Denver [8] (0-3): Nuggets' offense has suddenly gone south: less than 100 points in seven of their last nine, during which they're 3-6.

13) Minnesota [13] (1-3): Kevin Love done gone insane the last seven games, averaging 32 points, 14.1 boards, including a 45 and 19 party in Sunday night's overtime loss to the Clippers.

14) L.A. Lakers [14] (2-2): Lakers down to either Norm Nixon or Nick Van Exel option at the point.

15) Washington [NR] (3-0): No, I can't believe I'm putting the Wizards into the top 15, either.

Dropped out: New Orleans [15].

TEAM OF THE WEEK

Washington (3-0): Road wins at New York, Brooklyn and Boston, with almost a week off until the Wizards play at Minnesota. They haven't won four straight road games since 2008.

TEAM OF THE WEAK

New Orleans (0-3): Pelicans get Anthony Davis back in the lineup but go oh-fer on road swing in Denver, Cali and Portland, with a final game tonight at Sacramento.

NOBODY ASKED ME, BUT...

Don't it always seem to go...

That you don't know what you've got 'till it's gone?

Dave Joerger saw the potential for disaster before anyone else.

In a cramped hallway of the visitor's locker room at Madison Square Garden Saturday morning, Tony Allen walked past his head coach, and in squeezing by him, Allen's leg clipped the metal edge of a latch of a metal suitcase that had been placed on the floor.

"Hey, we need to move this," Joerger said to one of the team's equipment guys.

That is all the first-year head coach needed; to have one of his remaining good players DNPed after gashing open his leg on a piece of equipment that belonged to the Grizzlies. Given how things have gone the first two months in Memphis, you can forgive Joerger for being a little paranoid.

Any hopes for a seamless transition from former coach Lionel Hollins to Joerger are long gone in Memphis, for reasons that aren't the fault of any one person in particular. The Grizzlies, Western Conference finalists six months ago, have been hit hard by injuries, most notably to Defensive Player of the Year Marc Gasol. They've had to adjust to the changes their front office and new coach wanted. And they've had to do so with players who became stars, and well-paid, playing for Hollins, the winningest coach in franchise history, who wasn't re-signed after leading Memphis to 56 regular season wins.

It was a gamble to break up something that had taken so long to put together, including a fan base that was rightly skeptical the team could ever be successful after a brief renaissance under Hubie Brown a few years ago. But the Grizzlies' new front office, led by owner Robert Pera, believes the changes were necessary for long-term success -- even as the team has struggled to an 11-15 start in the west after Saturday's matinee win in New York over the struggling-worse Knicks.

Rarely has a successful team been so quickly deconstructed, starting with the trade of Rudy Gay to Toronto last year that became a referendum on the analytics community, which viewed Gay's numbers skeptically, while the old NBA guard valued Gay's ability to score despite being a high-volume shooter.

"It's a weird situation to be a part of," guard Mike Conley said Saturday. "You know that there's stuff floating around, around your head and around management, around the team, that we have no control over. We just try to go out and win the games and try to play as hard as we can every night. It just sucks that we're caught up in the middle of it."

Pera's braintrust -- CEO Jason Levien, director of player personnel Stu Lash and former ESPN.com writer John Hollinger, now Memphis's Vice President of Basketball Operations -- thought Joerger, Hollins's defensive coordinator the last two seasons, would be more receptive to using the advanced numbers in developing and coaching both the current roster and new players that they valued highly.

Management wanted to be able to make suggestions, sit in on coaches' meetings, have a true collaborative effort. They viewed it as similar to the arrangements between the front office and coaching staffs in Miami and San Antonio, which was true -- discussion and argument amongst the staff are a major part of those organizations.

On the other hand, those teams have won rings. Multiple rings. The Grizzlies haven't won anything yet.

Hollins viewed such collaboration as interference. He didn't mind listening or looking at the numbers, but wanted to be able to close the door after looking at them and make up his own mind.

But that battle's over. There is no remorse in the front office about the decision. Hollins, who still lives in Memphis, will certainly coach again next season, if not sooner; the Grizzlies hope they have a higher ceiling that will allow them, in the next few years, to compete for championships.

We'll find out who was right in due time.

On its own, Joerger's ascension would have been a major adjustment. Combined with the trades and injuries, the Grizzlies had a perfect storm to deal with at the beginning of the season.

"I think a lot of people were shellshocked," Allen said. "A lot of people won't say it, but a lot of people were shellshocked—new coach, new offense. Everything was new. I think a lot of guys were afraid of (their) being an up and down, up and down team. Coach, he honestly wants to be an up and down team in this league. But when we've got the big fellas, they work the paint. I don't think they were able to be up and down and be effective."

Memphis has had to deal with short-term and long-term injuries that have tested the team's depth. Conley missed two games with a bad thigh; Tayshaun Prince, who was ill during camp and lost 12 pounds, is still gimpy with a sore knee; Randolph has been slowed by an ingrown toenail that has robbed him of his already limited hops.

The Grizzlies also lost swingman Quincy Pondexter, who'd played so well for them in the playoffs last year, to surgery last Friday, after he'd already been out since Dec. 7 with a stress fracture in that right foot. No one knows when he'll be back, though there's hope if the team rallies to make the postseason, he could be back.

Memphis signed former first-round pick James Johnson last Monday; by Saturday, he was in the starting lineup, trying to guard Carmelo Anthony. Sunday, desperate for some outside shooting (the Grizzlies are last in the league in both 3-point attempts and makes), Memphis signed guard Seth Curry -- Stephen's younger brother -- out of Santa Cruz in the D-League.

"It is difficult," Joeger said. "At the same time, you have to keep banging away and you've got to get (wins) wherever and whenever you can get them. For us, it's never a matter of who we're playing or where we're playing. We just need to go play well and play with a lot of energy and get off to a good start."

The Grizzlies actually got off to a decent start, including a 4-0 road trip in early November, with wins over the Clippers and Warriors. But Memphis' 7-5 beginning was lost after Gasol suffered the Grade 2 medial collateral sprain on Nov. 22. Initially, he was projected to be out up to 10 weeks, but Gasol got off his crutches last week, and now may be back weeks sooner than expected.

And, how Memphis needs Gasol back. His skill set is irreplaceable.

He is the Grizzlies' catalyst at both ends of the floor, the guy they go through on offense, their secondary point guard after Conley, and the anchor of their defense. He is hyper and occasionally moody; always physical, and productive. And without his presence, Randolph has a guy in his lap on almost every play.

"People are putting the bigger of their two bigs on Zach," Joerger said. "They're locking it up in the paint and playing off of some other guys. It's difficult. Certainly without Mike Conley the last couple of nights. We've asked more and more from him this season. We asked more of him at the beginning of the season when we had a fully loaded roster. And for him to have a big year and be aggressive, and be a leading scorer for us. We thought if he would put a lot of pressure on defenses as a threat to score, we could play a little bit quicker and get earlier post-ups, where teams couldn't double-team as much."

It was part of Joerger's charge as he moved over those 12 inches from the assistant's chair. No move of such a short distance is more difficult to make. He has a lot to learn, and everyone at FedEx Forum knows it.

Is he the guy? Who knows? Seriously, no one knows.

"Having a relationship with your assistant coach, and then him becoming head coach after four or five seasons, it's a little bit different," Conley said. "The role changes for him. He has to be more of an uglier type of person, as opposed to a guy who's always helping you up. A head coach has to get on you. It's been a transition for all of us. He's a great coach. It's just a tough situation we're in right now."

Joerger insists he's loving every minute of his new job, after winning championships throughout basketball's minor leagues before coming to Memphis as an assistant under former coach Marc Iavaroni.

"It's been great," he said. "We're playing our hearts out, but we're not starting games with enough force."

Why?

"I know why," he says with a smile. "But I'm not going to tell you."

What he does want is to play at a quicker tempo. That doesn't mean running and gunning; it means getting into their set offenses earlier in the shot clock, to make the defense guard them longer. (Memphis was dead last in the NBA last season in pace; 17th in offensive rating.)

"I think we can have a better pace," Conley said. "I don't think our team likes to play fast, and the make the decisions in a fast-paced game. We're more of a tempo, controlled game. But we can definitely speed up our pace a little bit, get into our sets quicker, cut a little bit harder. Those things can make the game simpler."

Ultimately, though, the ball is going to be in Randolph's and Gasol's hands.

"It's always going to go there (into Gasol and/or Randolph)," Joerger said. "The idea is to make it better, so they have more space to work with."

While Gasol is rehabbing, the burden's on Randolph, who pounded the Knicks early and often Saturday.

"He's got to be the man, where you say, 'you know what? Jump on my shoulders for five or six weeks, or whatever it may be,'" Joerger said. "'I'll bring it every single night, every single minute.' It's tough sledding for him. It seems he's seeing two or three bodies in front of him all the time. Just have the spirit of I'm going to keep going and going, and you can count on me."

Randolph has averaged a double-double in Gasol's absence (16.3 points, 10.3 rebounds), and he's gotten to the foul line almost six times a game. But he's shooting just 38 percent from the floor with all the defensive activity around him.

"You try to be aggressive," Randolph said, "but it's different now. Very different. When I went out two years ago, we had a lot of players -- O.J. (Mayo), Rudy, Mo Speights. And now, it's a chance for guys who really don't get a chance to play to get an opportunity to play and get some experience -- Jon Leuer, Nick Calathes -- and get a chance to play."

Leuer's made the most of his chance. Injuries or no, he's earned his way into the rotation, averaging 14 points a game over the last 10 games, shooting 53.7 percent from the floor.

"We weren't the same team early on in the season," Conley said. "I thought we played better for about a week and a half there, started playing back to where we were, when we went out west. We went back to what we were doing. And then injuries started hitting us, and we had to kind of change up the way were playing a little bit. It's just like we're kind of searching for an identity early on in the season."

But the Grizzlies had one.

It's hard -- really hard -- to win 56 games in a season and make the conference finals. Memphis wasn't sexy, but the Grizz were a legit tough team, whose "Grit and Grind" slogan fit perfectly. They pounded the ball inside to Gasol and Randolph on offense, and they suffocated you on defense. They had a no-nonsense coach who wasn't always popular, but who got a lot out of his players.

Now, they hope to become something better. And they hope Joni Mitchell isn't right.

"He's a man that's stuck in his ways, and that's what you have to respect," Allen said of his former boss. "I honor him. I don't have nothing bad to say about him, and I salute him. But right now, we're riding Coach Joerger's way. We have to get used to it."

...AND NOBODY ASKED YOU, EITHER

You have to be in the post to posterize. From Jim Murray:

David, thanks for the cool background on my beloved Blazers. The last few years with the heartache of injuries to BRoy, Pryzbilla, Greg etc. (P.S. I'm pulling for him to get some health—he is a cool young man and so talented), the meltdown two years ago with Nate taking the fall was a lot to take. Then this unexpected beginning to the season—Wow!

I understand everyone questioning the emphasis on the 3's--but if you look beyond Duncan, (Hakeem) and Shaq - none of the other Champions over the last 20 or so years had big time post-up guys. The Bulls did not - which makes me smile when Big Chief Triangle talks about balance. They rebound, and as they showed against Indiana when LA went down low four straight possessions against Indiana in the 4th—they can grind. Don't forget Matthews either—he has very quietly added that element to his game. Miami's best post up guy is LeBron—to me it's an open question whether he is a superior post-up guy to your cousin. The question for me is depth and staying relatively healthy. They are so finely tuned with their current game rotation they cannot endure a long-term injury to any of their starters or Mo Williams. But maybe the good Lord will give us a compensatory year (As he did in 1977 with the Big Red Head) for all the trauma we've been through the last few years (I know, I know fans are ever overly optimistic about "their" team! :-)

Hard to "look beyond" teams (Spurs, Rockets, Lakers, Heat) that won half of those 20 championships you speak of, Jim! But it's true that the Bulls won six rings without a significant post player (though they did, occasionally, go inside to Bill Cartwright or Luc Longley), as did Dallas in 2011. They remain, to me, the exception that proves the rule. The current Heat team does not have a center it goes to inside, but, as you point out, Miami uses LeBron—and I believe he is a better post player than Cousin L.A. because he has such a physical advantage in strength and speed over just about anyone who tries to guard him down there—and, he's a better passer. Health, as you mentioned, is the key to Portland's chances this season.

American Idol finalists don't have to do shell drills, as far as I know. From Rick Fay:

Great set of points about All-Star game. A popularity contest should be a "fan team" not an All-Star team. All-Star selections at end of year are about the best players but the All-Star Game is not? What gives? A Stern double standard that gets fans involved but sends the wrong message.

There is a difference between the all-pro selections (what I assume you are referring to as "All-Star selections at end of the year") and the All-Star teams, Rick: fans don't vote for the former. If they did, I assure you, Kobe Bryant would be working on a 17-year first team all-NBA streak. But, again, I don't have a problem with fans voting for the All-Star teams. It's their game. I don't think the league should be blamed for that, though I continue to maintain the rosters should be expanded so that egregious errors can be fixed. After the fan vote and coaches' votes, there should be three other spots available for the Commish to be able to name players to the team.

Send your questions, comments, criticisms and a detailed explanation of why we had to turn the air conditioning on Saturday night, less than a week before Christmas 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 (24 ppg, 8 rpg, 8 apg, .690 FG, .857 FT): You forget, sometimes, that this is a 6-8, 270-pound man who can get where he wants in a hurry. Which is why Mario Chalmers should be very grateful Udonis Haslem is quick to react.

2) Kevin Durant (25.8 ppg, 7 rpg, 3.8 apg, .479 FG, .938 FT): KD doing everything more efficiently this season—and, in the last couple of weeks, the turnovers had come down significantly—until he coughed it up six times in the Thunder's home loss Sunday to the Raptors.

3) LaMarcus Aldridge (19.7 ppg, 12.3 rpg, 3.7 apg, .382 FG, .778 FT): Already won three Western Conference Player of the Week Awards, including last week's.

4) Paul George (22.5 ppg, 7.8 rpg, 4 apg, .475 FG, .897 FT): Might've been a little contact on that last-second three attempt in Miami Wednesday by LeBron. Otherwise, George was pretty special in the second half.

5) Chris Paul (16 ppg, 5.5 rpg, 10.5 apg, .396 FG, .800 FT): Teammate Jamal Crawford says CP3 is "the best leader in sports" after Sunday's OT win over Minnesota.

BY THE NUMBERS

$13,000,000 -- Asking price for Michael Jordan's mansion in suburban Chicago. Note "asking," because no one made such a bid when the property was auctioned last week http://www.suntimes.com/sports/basketball/bulls/24413462-418/jordans-mansion-fails-to-sell-at-auction.html. That price is a reduction from the reported $29 million the Bobcats' owner, who now lives in Palm Beach, Florida http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/02/01/michael-jordan-house-home-palm-beach-florida_n_2598660.html, was originally asking for the property.

18 -- Consecutive games, according to the team, in which the Suns have hit at least seven 3-pointers.

20 -- Percentage of NBA players that the Players' Association estimates either breaks even financially or loses money when playing in Memphis because of the so-called "jock tax" on NBA and NHL players, according to a New York Times story. I can tell you that this issue, as much as a potential HGH test or anything else not having to do with collective bargaining, has more players up in arms than anything else.

I'M FEELIN'...

1) You watch the Spurs, year after year. You understand that they're not the sexiest, splashiest team, but that's okay; that's not your thing. You appreciate San Antonio precisely because it's not a flashy group, just a team that gives its best almost every night and plays the game correctly. Every day since June 18 -- every day -- they've been reminded about how close they were to beating the Heat, and how it must have devastated them, and every person (including me) thinks he or her is the first person to bring it up. And yet, they get out of the gate incredibly strong, again, and then they play last Thursday at Golden State, without Tony Parker (by accident; he had a knee contusion) and without Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili (on purpose, because Gregg Popovich, as ever, isn't going to play them a bunch of back-to-backs). And it's the second half of a back-to-back, their seventh game in 10 days, with assorted Millses and Greens and Belinellis and Splitters. But they compete. They don't play great, but they compete. They pass the ball and contest shots and they take charges, and they beat the Warriors (who, honestly, played terribly). Just another night for a team that had every excuse for mailing it in, and instead did the hard, tough work that professional basketball players do. You want to know why the Spurs are always around in the playoffs? Nights like last Thursday. The young guys don't want to let the old guys down, and Popovich wouldn't let them play if they did. It is an amazing organization, and it is time to make it plain -- it's the best organization in pro sports.

1A) Speaking of which, this is a great deconstruction of those fateful 29 seconds last June 18.

2) Submitted for your approval. It already has mine.

3) This week, on A&E: "Leroy: the Forgotten Jetson."

4) And so, a new era begins: not with a bang, or thunderous applause, but quietly, with orange leather in a ball rack.

5) Yet another reason to think Michigan State's Tom Izzo is everything that's good about the coaching profession. Pure class to honor Ed Hightower—and, more importantly, to understand that it was desirable to do so.

6) Goodness, I buried the lead again. Merry Christmas to everyone. I hope you can spend that day with people that you love, and that love you.

NOT FEELIN'...

1) The Nets are in big trouble—short term and long term. That's another season lost for Brook Lopez, with the same broken bone in the same foot that cost him almost all of the 2011-12 season and has been a pain for him ever since. Forget ACL and MCL tears -- feet wind up dooming more NBA players than anything. Brooklyn cannot be confident this morning that Lopez can be a full-time starter in the middle going forward, which is a devastating blow, as he's been their best player for most of the last two seasons. (The Nets looked into Omer Asik a while back, but Houston wouldn't relent on its demand for a Draft pick for Asik, and Brooklyn is officially out of the pick dealing business after leasing its Draft for most of the next six years to Boston for Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett. Doesn't mean a Brooklyn trade for Asik is impossible, but the Nets would have to find a third team willing to deal a pick to Houston. And even if they could find a third team, it almost certainly would mean dealing either Pierce, who has an expiring contract, or Garnett -- who still has a full no-trade clause in his contract.)

1A) Worse yet for Brooklyn (and, conversely, great for Atlanta): the Hawks can swap first-round picks with the Nets in 2014 as part of the Joe Johnson sign and trade, meaning the worse the Nets finish, the greater the likelihood that Atlanta gets an impact player in the '14 Draft.

2) Agree with Kendrick Perkins on this one. Whether or not I think the locker room is a "sacred place," many players believe it is. So, while neither OKC's Thabo Sefolosha or Chicago's Joakim Noah were doing anything malicious by meeting in the Thunder's locker room after Thursday's game, Noah could have met Sefolosha outside, or at the bus, so the two former teammates could talk. Perk is an easy target: he's not a big talker, he doesn't put up numbers the statistical chipmunks care about and he occasionally makes plays that wind up on Shaqtin' a Fool. But he's a good dude with a good heart who tries to do things the right way.

3) The Knicks were outrebounded 56-29 by the Grizzlies on Saturday, and outscored in the paint 60-28. That's like a high school differential. That is one dispirited bunch in Gotham right now.

4) That's Wizards Coach Randy Wittman, being introduced to a basketball entirely too up close and personal.

5) The "Duck Dynasty" guy thinks gays are sinners for, you know, being gay, and that black people had it great during the Jim Crow days? What a shock...said no gay or black person. This would matter to me more, I suppose, if I'd ever watched "Duck Dynasty," whatever it is, before. Having said that, it seems the height of cynicism to me for A & E to suspend this guy for stating what he believes (and, in fairness, it seems his major argument was we're all sinners, in one way or another). Let viewers make a decision with their ratings whether they support him or not.

6) Was on a train going back home Saturday. The train was delayed a couple of hours because of a fatality on the tracks. Let's just say that, in the face of some heat, a very slow moving train and a less than fully functioning PA system, people displayed the exact kind of behavior you see from people in your standard cheesy disaster movie. Talk about first world problems! I've never heard so much whining and complaining about something no one on Amtrak could do anything about in my life. It was an inconvenience. It wasn't a catastrophe.

TWEET OF THE WEEK

They are called a free throws for a reason..... They are FREE.... I'm about to be up all night thinking about this.

-- Celtics forward Jared Sullinger (@Jared_Sully0), Wednesday, 11:27 p.m., after missing a free throw with 41 seconds left in Boston's game with Detroit on Wednesday that would have tied the game. The Celtics went on to lose to the Pistons, 107-106.

THEY SAID IT

"He doesn't work hard enough (in the offseason). He's not a guy who'll push himself to the brink like a lot of our guys do. He works hard but he doesn't push himself. That's why he starts slow every year and he just works his way back. Now this year, he's been hurt, so it's a different deal."

-- Pacers President Larry Bird, to the Indianapolis Star, on why he thinks Danny Granger, who returned to the lineup last week, has gotten off to slow starts throughout his career.

"I probably should have called the timeout at the end. But the ball was in Melo's hands before I could even react. That is on me."

-- Knicks Coach Mike Woodson, taking the blame for not stopping the clock Monday night against Washington after the Wizards' Bradley Beal scored the go-ahead basket with 6.9 seconds left. Instead, the Knicks inbounded the ball to Carmelo Anthony, who tore upcourt before missing an off-balance prayer at the buzzer.

"Having played three teams that run—the Clippers, Phoenix last night and Golden State tonight, a back-to-back, Tony (Parker)'s not there, and the Warriors are not on a back-to-back, we're going to get home at 4:30 (a.m.), let's see—how smart to you have to be to rest a couple of guys that are older than dirt?"

-- Spurs Coach Gregg Popovich, on his decision not to play Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili Thursday against Golden State, along with the injured Parker. The league didn't fine San Antonio for sitting non-injured players, as it did last year when Popovich sent his big three and Danny Green home before a game at Miami, because the Spurs informed the league and everyone else well in advance of Thursday's game that Duncan and Ginobili weren't playing. The team's failure to do that last year was a major factor in Commissioner David Stern's decision to fine the team $250,000.

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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