Winds shift in Chicago with Bulls' decision to deal Deng
POSTED: Jan 13, 2014 10:36 AM ET
UPDATED: Jan 15, 2014 6:32 PM ET
The Luol Deng trade left a somewhat bitter taste in the mouth of Joakim Noah and the Bulls.
Dear Mr. Aldridge,
I don't see any consideration for Bulls' fans, either in what the Bulls Corporation did or in what you wrote. I have been a Bulls fan for a long time. My two favorite players have always been Joakim Noah and Luol Deng because they are the heart and soul of that team. This is a black day for me and I suspect also for Joakim. The NBA is so dominated by corporate money concerns that it seems more appropriate to call the teams a corporation rather than a team. The Chicago Bulls Corporation will regret this move. I want Lu back and (GM) Gar (Forman)/(Vice president John Paxson) Pax out!
Thank you for reading this.
Mary Ann Tenuto-Sánchez
A team makes a decision, and the ripple effects go on for months.
The Bulls say they're retooling, not rebuilding, and that trading Luol Deng to Cleveland last Monday night would only detour their ability to compete for a title. Only it doesn't feel that way to the people on the ground, or the players in the locker room. Especially not in Chicago, where the coach asks his players for so much, and the players have given so much for the past three seasons.
Deng was one of those players, the embodiment of what Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau demanded, night after night. The Bulls kept him rather than trade for Kobe Bryant, and he gave them his body for nine seasons. Through injuries to his wrists, Achilles and shoulders, through suffering migraines and spinal taps, he kept coming back and being Chicago's Swiss Army knife.
He was paid extremely well for his labor, coming off of a $71 million contract. And he was offered $30 million to do it for three more years in Chicago, but declined, opting to explore free agency this summer. And once he made his decision, the Bulls made theirs in trading him for Andrew Bynum and future Draft picks.
As a business decision, it made perfect sense. The Bulls didn't feel they were a championship contender now, not with Derrick Rose out for the season again. They had to do what they could to set themselves up for the future, so they could add a significant player or two around Rose this summer, either via free agency or trade.
The two sides had talked about a new deal for months but couldn't bridge the gap that existed between them. The Bulls weren't going to pay luxury tax for this team, and also feared Deng would walk next summer, in what they perceive will be a player's market, and they'd get nothing in return. So they pulled the trigger.
GameTime: Deng's Impact
The problem is this: Their players and coach still treat every game like a street fight. They don't move on as easily. It should surprise no one that the Bulls have won five straight since the Deng trade, and are once again close to .500 and well within eyesight of claiming a top-four spot in the East.
Our man Steve Aschburner was there when Noah finally talked on Saturday, five days after Deng's trade. Think about that: It took Noah five days (and three games) to talk about a trade. That's how much he was locked in to competing with Deng, Rose, Carlos Boozer, Kirk Hinrich and his present and past teammates.
The Bulls say they've received "few calls" from season ticket holders regarding the trade, that fans have largely been very supportive and understand the team's long-term thinking. Team officials say they were "proactive" in communicating with their fans, and that team president John Paxson and General Manager Gar Forman sent an e-mail to season-ticket holders Tuesday explaining the rationale behind the deal. (They did have to cancel a planned "Shirt off Our Back" promotion that was to feature Deng.)
But fans are one thing. Players are another.
Teams that have contended at a high level for an extended period like Chicago develop a chemistry that is not the norm for most NBA teams. For most, a team is not a family -- a horrible, misguided cliché -- but a place to play for money, and a lot of it. You don't get paid millions to have turkey at Thanksgiving with your siblings (though that would make the collard greens go down a little easier, come to think of it). And you alter that chemistry at some peril.
Some teams have gambled, and won. The Pistons traded Adrian Dantley, known as the "teacher" in Detroit's locker room, to Dallas for Mark Aguirre. The Bulls dealt Michael Jordan's close friend and on-court bodyguard, Charles Oakley, to the Knicks for the center they thought they needed to get over the hump, Bill Cartwright.
As it turned out, both the Pistons and Bulls wound up winning multiple titles.
A generation later, the Bulls hope they're right again. Many teams aren't.
They believe they had a roster that was top-heavy with big-salaried players -- Rose, Boozer, Noah and Deng -- and that prevented them from being able to withstand injuries to the remaining roster. Going forward, they believe they need to be able to build a full roster, which will almost certainly mean a few rookies on their rookie deals.
Chicago already has Jimmy Butler and rookie Tony Snell in its rotation at low prices, and the likelihood is it will add a couple more with its own picks and the picks coming from Cleveland. But will that fly with the remaining players, who will be expecting to eventually replace Deng with a productive veteran star?
Of course, the Bulls say -- despite rumors to the contrary -- that Rose is all aboard and understood why they made the deal. (What would you expect them to say -- Rose is irate and disappointed in us for trading Deng? They've denied the oft-repeated scuttlebutt that Thibodeau and the front office have been at odds for a while, up to and including this past offseason, when Thibodeau's top assistant, Ron Adams, wasn't brought back. At least Paxson was honest last week when he said that Thibodeau wasn't thrilled by the idea of losing Deng, his leading scorer this season, for Draft picks.)
But the Bulls are running low on opportunities.
The Starters: Bynum and Deng Trade
They've been a very good team during Rose's tenure, but they aren't better than the Heat, and they're not better than the Pacers. Plus, there are teams who have younger talent bases coming up from behind. They don't know what Rose is going to look like after missing another season to a knee injury.
They haven't been very successful in the past recruiting free agents, though they've been close (Tracy McGrady in the early 2000s, Dwyane Wade a few offseasons ago). If they go for a star, they'll have to use their amnesty provision, as everyone anticipates they will, on Boozer this summer to start to clear enough cap room.
Even after that, if they want to bring 2011 Draft pick Nikola Mirotic over from Europe for next season, they'll likely have to deal someone else if they want a shot at a max player. And, lastly, Rose has been notoriously reluctant to do any recruiting.
It was already a shaky vessel in Chitown. Now the training wheels are about to come off. And fans like Mary Ann are weary of being tossed around.
No one is talking. No one. That's how desperate the NBA is for the Silna Brothers, Ozzie and Daniel, to just go away.
For almost 40 years, the Silnas have been the story the league never wants to really discuss. It's not because the brothers did anything wrong, but because they did something so right -- right for their bank account -- when Gerald Ford was president. Now, all these years later, it looks like they're finally giving up the best sports deal going.
The league announced last week that it had finally reached a tentative deal with the Silnas and their longtime attorney Donald Schupak to end the arrangement they've had with the Nets, Spurs, Nuggets and Pacers since 1976. Since then, the Silna group has received a share of the TV money those four former ABA teams have earned every year -- even though they don't own any part of an NBA team.
The Silnas, who owned the long-since-gone Spirits of St. Louis ABA team, have taken in an estimated $300 million under the terms of the agreement. In exchange for agreeing to let the four other ABA teams join the NBA as part of the merger of the two leagues and not fighting them in court, the Silnas received 1/7th of the yearly share of those four teams' TV income.
The beauty part was that the deal had no expiration date.
"The only nuance to the NBA's operating system is if you go to spellcheck, the words 'in perpetuity' are erased," a sports team executive said Friday. "It's the greatest sports deal in the world."
Through the years -- the decades -- owners came and went, players were drafted, and ultimately retired, franchises rose and fell. And the Silnas and Schupak kept raking in the dough from their ex-ABA partners. Now, the league finally got the Silnas to agree to end the deal. The money technically will come from the teams, but the league will give them significant assistance with financing the deal.
According to the New York Times, in exchange for agreeing to end the deal, the Silnas will get a $500 million payment from the four former ABA teams, financed through what is called a "private placement" -- the sale of securities to a limited number of partners, like insurance companies, banks or hedge funds, to raise money -- by JPMorgan Chase and Merrill Lynch.
It costs the four ex-ABA teams "a [bleep]load of money," said another team official. "But at least we know where [monetary] things are as opposed to the unknown into perpetuity."
The story of how the Silnas came to sit on a throne of free money is a long one. But it's a really good one.
The Silnas bought the ABA's Carolina Cougars in 1974 with the express purpose of trying to merge into the NBA. As merger talks continued, the Silnas moved the team to St. Louis for the 1974-75 season. The Spirits featured players like Marvin "Bad News" Barnes, the late Maurice Lucas, future NBA referee Bernie Fryer and a young point guard out of Marshall named Mike D'Antoni.
"The season was nuts," D'Antoni, now coach of the Lakers, recalled Saturday. "I was just trying to stay afloat in pro ball."
The ABA's nine-year struggle with the NBA was nearing its end. The league of the red, white and blue basketball, the 3-pointer and other innovations had developed its own superstars like Julius Erving and George "Iceman" Gervin, but couldn't sustain itself financially. The 1975 season started with just nine teams; a 10th, the relocated Memphis Sounds franchise, which was moved to Baltimore and renamed the Claws, lasted only three exhibition games before folding.
The ABA had been in merger talks with the NBA for years. The NBA's owners voted as early as 1970 to merge the two leagues, just three years after the ABA began play. But that process was delayed by the Oscar Robertson lawsuit, filed by Robertson and the National Basketball Players Association in April of 1970.
The antitrust lawsuit sought to serve dual purposes: delaying the merger, which would mean the end of a sudden financial windfall for players who were being signed by the rival ABA (including stars like Rick Barry), and forcing the NBA to modify its existing player contract to provide true free agency to its players. The case languished in the courts until 1976, by which time the ABA was out on its feet.
On the eve of the trial, the NBA settled, eliminating the one-year "reserve clause" which had bound players to their teams for a year after their contracts expired. Eliminating the reserve clause allowed NBA players, for the first time, to truly be able to become free agents when their contracts expired.
Players who graduated from high school were made eligible for the Draft, and teams' Draft rights to a player were limited to two years instead of forever. And the NBA had to pay $4.3 million to its players as part of the settlement, the amounts varying depending on how long a player had been in the league.
After the Robertson suit was settled, the merger between the leagues could proceed. The process was accelerated when the Denver Nuggets and New York Nets formally applied for NBA membership in September of 1975, making it every team for itself. Franchises in San Diego and Utah started the '75-'76 season, but folded early during the year, leaving only seven active ABA teams at the end of the final season.
The weakest of those, the Virginia Squires, ceased operations a month after the New York Nets won the league's last championship, leaving six franchises seeking to merge with the NBA. But since Virginia was still technically in existence at the end of the ABA season, it was decided to treat the league for purposes of a potential merger as a seven-team entity.
The Squires' demise left six active teams: Denver, New York, the San Antonio Spurs, the Indiana Pacers, the Kentucky Colonels and the Spirits. New York, which had bought Erving's rights from Virginia in 1973, was a shoo-in to be merged into the NBA.
But the Nets, like the other teams coming in, had to pay the NBA $3.2 million up front. In addition, the Nets had to pay the Knicks $4.8 million to enter the New York market. Nets owner Roy Boe, desperate for cash, was forced to sell his one great asset, Erving, in exchange for entrée into the league, sending Erving to the 76ers for $3 million.
The Spurs, a strong draw as San Antonio's only pro team in town, would easily make the cut. The same was true for the Pacers, which had been the ABA's strongest team, winning three titles and making the ABA Finals two other times. Denver, which had just put on a successful ABA All-Star Game (which included the legendary Slam Dunk contest featuring Erving, Darnell Hillman and other high flyers), had electrifying rookie David "Skywalker" Thompson and drew well, was favored, too.
That left two teams out in the cold: Kentucky and St. Louis.
The Colonels' problem was simple: Artis Gilmore. Even though it was a strong franchise, won the 1975 title (while making two other ABA Finals) and drew extremely well, the Chicago Bulls wanted Gilmore, whose NBA rights belonged to Chicago (which drafted him 117th overall in the 1971 Draft). The Bulls would never agree to let Kentucky into the NBA. But the ABA teams that were admitted to the NBA had to get approval from Kentucky and St. Louis before they could be admitted to the NBA.
So Kentucky owner John Y. Brown cut a deal with his fellow ABA owners. They paid him $3.3 million to vote yes on the merger. Brown agreed -- and then promptly bought his way into the NBA anyway, acquiring the Buffalo Braves for $1.5 million. (Two years later, Brown famously swapped NBA franchises, "trading" the Braves for the Boston Celtics. The Braves' new owner, Irv Levin, then moved the team to San Diego, where it became the Clippers; that franchise moved from San Diego to Los Angeles in 1984.)
But St. Louis still wanted to be in the NBA.
At the ABA merger meetings in Hyannis, Mass., the Silna Brothers argued their case, to no avail. According to a 2011 Forbes Magazine article, Ozzie Silna then offered the following compromise: the Silnas would abandon attempts to get in on the merger in exchange for a cut of future TV revenues of the surviving ABA teams. Since Virginia was still technically in the league, there were seven teams. Therefore, the Silnas would get 1/7th of the TV revenue the four ABA teams would get once they entered the NBA. And the deal would be based on a 28-team NBA -- if the NBA eventually expanded (which it did, of course), the Silnas would still get a 1/7th share of 28, with no further dilution.
The other ABA owners agreed. The Silnas not only got $2.2 million to fold, they got the TV deal -- which included this clause: "The right to receive such revenues shall continue for as long as the NBA or its successors continues in its existence."
In other words, forever.
As part of the merger, the four ABA teams didn't even get a cut of national television revenue until 1980 -- though they were cut in when the NBA renegotiated its national network TV deal with CBS in 1978. The four teams only got $116,000 apiece in the first two years of the new TV deal, which went for four years and $74 million.
But we all know what happened next.
The NBA exploded in popularity in the 1980s, fueled by the Lakers and Celtics (with Magic Johnson and Larry Bird), a still-potent Dr. J, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and a parade of young, transcendent players like Charles Barkley, Isiah Thomas, John Stockton, Karl Malone, Patrick Ewing, Dominique Wilkins and others.
And that Michael Jordan fellow came along, too, for an extra turbo-boost.
The league's TV deals kept growing: four years and $173 million with CBS in 1986, $600 million over four years when NBC took the network package in 1990. The rights rose to $892 million in 1994, $1.6 billion in 1998, $2.4 billion in 2002 (when ABC and ESPN got the rights)
Cable television entered the picture, with USA Network reaching a three-year, $1.5 million deal in 1979, and USA and ESPN splitting a two-year, $11 million deal in 1982. In 1986, Turner (my company) got the cable package for two years and $25 million; TBS and TNT re-upped in 1988 for $50 million. And the numbers only went up: $275 million, $397 million, $840 million, $2.2 billion.
The last combined broadcast/cable deals: seven years, $7.44 billion, through the 2015-16 season.
And the Silnas kept collecting their 1/7th, year after year after year.
"As you know, pro sports can be a struggle," a longtime pro sports league official who was familiar with the deal said over the weekend. "A lot of these teams really were struggling. And here you have the Silnas. It was a cash machine."
The ex-ABA teams obviously didn't like the arrangement. On the other hand, subsequent owners of those teams likely didn't pay quite as much when they bought their teams than they would have if they were getting their full share of television revenue. And, after all, that deal, as much as it cost them, allowed them to get into the NBA, where their franchises have risen astronomically in value over the past three-plus decades.
The NBA tried, on a few occasions, to work out a deal with the Silnas. There were a few times when the league believed it was close to resolving the issue. At one point, the Silnas were part of a group trying to buy the then-New Jersey Nets, and would have had to obviously give up the Spirits deal as a condition of ownership. In 2007, there were "very serious negotiations," according to a source, between the league and the brothers, and a proposed deal was basically done and ready. And then, the worldwide recession kicked in full, and the deal's proposed financing fell apart.
The NBA was sympathetic to its teams' plight, but in the end, it was a deal between the Nets, Spurs, Pacers, Nuggets and the Silnas, not with the NBA. None of the NBA teams had any interest in helping them out financially, and could you really blame them?
"The good news was, no one who was there [at the league], including Stern, had anything to do with signing it," a sports executive said. "It wasn't anybody's fault. There was an intellectual curiosity about it more than anything else. What could you do to make these guys tear up a deal that goes on forever?"
In the end, though, the Silnas finally agreed to a deal. Who knows if estate taxes or other such issues played a role -- Ozzie Silna just turned 81 years old, and Daniel is 68 -- and changed the brothers' minds. But the gravy train is finally pulling into the station, with one final big bag of cash.
"The point is, it's not in perpetuity," the longtime pro sports league official said. "You have a finite amount of time that you're going to pay a set amount of money. Basically, what you're getting here is you've got a finality to it."
(last week's ranking in brackets; last week's record in parenthesis)
1) Indiana  (2-1): Since losing at home to Detroit Dec. 12 -- their first home loss of the season -- the Pacers have gone 7-0 at Bankers' Life Fieldhouse, winning by an average of 20 per game.
2) Portland  (2-1): After playing Cleveland Monday, the Blazers start a monster road swing beginning Friday, going through the Texas Triangle -- San Antonio, Dallas, Houston -- before a final game at OKC.
3) Miami  (1-2): Heat come to D.C. Monday night, audience with the President Tuesday afternoon. Forrest Gump not expected to attend this time.
Timberwolves vs. Spurs
4) San Antonio  (3-0): Spurs suddenly back in warp drive on offense, even though Manu Ginobili has missed the last couple of games.
5) Golden State  (2-1): Warriors making huge runs during games an everyday occurrence.
6) Oklahoma City  (1-2): Obviously, Kevin Durant is going to say he needs to "do more" to help his team while Russell Westbrook is out. But they have to do more to help him.
7) L.A. Clippers  (3-0): In his four starts since replacing Chris Paul, Darren Collison averaged 17.5 points, 6.5 assists, and shot 65.9 percent, 6 of 10 on threes.
8) Houston  (2-1): Rockets need to get Chandler Parsons back on the floor ASAP. The ball seems to stick more when he's not playing.
9) Dallas  (3-1): Monta Ellis got away with one Saturday night against the Pelicans.
10) Atlanta  (2-2): Kyle Korver just keeps going and going. His 3-point streak really is something to be admired.
11) Denver  (3-0): Averaging 119.6 per game during five-game win streak, which has the Nuggets back over .500 and back in the playoff hunt in the West.
Rockets vs. Hawks
12) Toronto  (2-1): Drake coming aboard as Raptors look to turn the corner toward respectability.
13) Phoenix  (1-3): Defense without Eric Bledsoe (knee surgery) is going to be challenged severely. And, if Bledsoe's going to be back by All-Star, that suggests the meniscus cartilage that was scoped was removed rather than repaired -- generally good in the short term, not so good long term.
14) Memphis [NR] (2-1): Mike Conley has really picked it up for the Grizzlies, who are showing signs of getting it together with Marc Gasol closing in on a return date.
Dropped out: Minnesota , New Orleans .
Denver (3-0): The NBA's Strangest Team continues its roller coaster ride: three routs this week and a five-game overall win streak immediately after an eight-game losing streak in which the Nuggets couldn't have appeared worse.
Orlando (0-4): Losses by 20, 16, 20 and 26 points in the Magic's four games this week. That's seven straight losses overall, nine losses in last 12 games and 16 losses in the last 21 games. Tough times in the Land of the Mouse.
Weren't the Nets dead in the water, like, a minute ago?
Heat vs. Nets
Wasn't Brooklyn just getting throttled by any team with a pulse and young legs? Weren't they 10 games under .500 at Christmas, and sinking fast, even in the East? Wasn't coach Jason Kidd under siege after demoting assistant coach Lawrence Frank, putting in a new defense and taking greater charge of things overall?
Weren't there anonymous (of course) scouts and other personnel types giving blind quotes all over the country that Kidd was overwhelmed? Wasn't it obvious that there was no way Brooklyn could win without its All-Star center, Brook Lopez -- not to mention oft-gimpy guard Deron Williams, who has the worst ankles in North America?
And yet there they were Friday, without Williams or Lopez, now out for the season following surgery on his foot. There was their point guard playing 51 minutes (on a knee that had blown apart like a piñata almost seven years ago), who was still quick enough to foul LeBron James out for the first time in five years. There was Mirza Teletovic playing tough guy, getting a rise out of James.
There was Joe Johnson going for 22 in the first quarter, four in the second, third and most of the fourth, but bringing it home when no one else could put the ball in the basket. And there was Kevin Garnett playing center, and the Nets beating the Heat (admittedly without Dwyane Wade, Mario Chalmers and Shane Battier), the way they had beaten the Thunder in Oklahoma City and ended the Warriors' 10-game win streak.
Garnett hates playing center. The way Lou Grant hated spunk.
GameTime: Jason Kidd Postgame
"Should've had that [bleep] put in my contract," he said with a mordant chuckle late Friday. "That's what I should have done. Tell Jason I said that."
Garnett played so well Friday that Kidd felt compelled to rest him Saturday in Toronto, where the Raptors promptly ended Brooklyn's five-game win streak. It may be that age and injuries and all the other things conspire to keep the Nets from being able to keep this up. But Brooklyn's ability to get off the deck and compete again may at least keep this season from becoming a complete disaster.
"I thought guys were trying to fit in," guard Jason Terry said Friday. "Instead of doing, primarily, what got you here. Once we got out of our own way, we started to understand J's philosophy, his plan, and we bought in. And we understand who we are, and that's just a team that plays with [guts] and grit. You've got as many years as we've got on this team, that's what it's all about at this age."
The short answer is that the Nets' depth is finally starting to show. Even though their best player is the 7-foot Lopez, they have a lot of really good players when they're healthy. They're betting/hoping that their smalls can beat most other teams' smalls.
So they've got Garnett in the middle and Paul Pierce at power forward, and they play Williams with Shaun Livingston so that Kidd has two point guards on the floor and the ball moves better. They've finally gotten Andrei Kirilenko (back) and Terry (knee) into the rotation, after they'd missed almost all of the first five weeks of the season.
But it starts with Garnett -- who, again, is the last guy to quit or give in. He's fading fast on offense, but his team-altering DNA was always there on defense.
Just as happened in Boston, when coach Doc Rivers moved him to the middle out of desperation late in their joint stay there, and Boston's defense went through the roof, Garnett's ability to see plays as they happen, communicate and use his remaining quickness to clog the paint has helped Brooklyn.
Arena Link: Howard Beck
That doesn't mean he likes the job. Think of him as the world's best sewer cleaner.
"It's not my preference, but it's what it is," he said. "Whatever we have to do to win, that's what it is."
Garnett, 37, remains uniquely qualified in this era of non-pivot play to be a presence at the five.
"He's our anchor," Livingston said. "He's not necessarily up front as much. He's our anchor, he's vocal. I think Boston made a run in 2010 when he was there. It was almost like he had a resurgence. And it could also be Paul at the four. It's a little bit of a mismatch, and we're able to switch a little bit."
The Starters: New York Winners
Like Rivers, Kidd didn't have much choice. Without Lopez, Garnett was his last, best option in the middle. He's leaned on Livingston all season; he was never supposed to play this many minutes behind Williams, even though he's been back from his gruesome knee injury for years. And Kidd's adopted Spoelstra-Speak to try and sell it to his reluctant center.
"There are no positions," Kidd said. "Just guard the guy in front of you. We don't call him a five. We call them basketball players."
The notion bandied about by Kidd and the players that he's "simplified" the Nets' schemes may be, well, simplistic in explaining why Brooklyn's playing better. But it doesn't matter whether that's true or not as long as things are working.
Or, maybe: In the five games that Garnett has primarily played center since Lopez's injury, the Nets have allowed 90.8 points per game and held their five opponents to 42.7 percent shooting.
"I think Jason has simplified some things," Garnett said, "through the help of communicating with one another, understanding those schemes and understanding what he wants in there, I think is helping us. And then going over it, repetition, repetition. As easy as people may think it is to just have one system and then change it and have another system, it's not that easy. Especially when you're trying to create chemistry, create a flow. But for the most part, the effort has been there, on both sides of the ball."
Garnett, Terry said, was the main guy trying to be too nice. KG acknowledged last month that he was having trouble finding his offense in the new system. But after the Nets got smacked around at home by a depleted Chicago team on Christmas Day, and after Kidd let them have it verbally, Garnett said his piece.
"He kind of let it be known, like -- 'Look, I'm out here on one leg,'" Terry recalled. "'If I can do this, we all can do it.' But it's not going to be individually; it's going to be together. And we all kind of made a pact going into the new year, after the San Antonio game, that, hey, we were just going to lay it on the line, and whatever the outcome is, let that be."
It has helped that Kirilenko finally has been able to get on the court. He was more than a very cheap veteran signing; the Nets got Kirilenko for games like Friday, when he impacted the game in ways great and small, far more than his four points and five rebounds suggested. He still gets deflections, still puts a body on people and still irritates foes with his defense and the Nets hope they'll be around to irritate important forwards in the playoffs.
With Lopez lost, the Nets no longer had the luxury of bringing Pierce off the bench. While he's not shooting a great percentage (his current .401 would be the lowest of his career), he can still get to the foul line. (They will still live with the ball in Pierce's hands with the clock running down, as was the case Friday against the Heat. Pierce rimmed out a jumper at the buzzer in regulation -- going left instead of right, as he has about 7,301,438 times.)
And Johnson continues to display his proclivity for game-winning shots, making his fifth such career shot against OKC.
Whether Kidd has become a better coach in a month's time, only other coaches would be able to detect with anything approaching certainty; he remains impassive as ever. But it certainly follows that experience helps. (Kidd certainly has a friend in Warriors coach Mark Jackson, who defender Kidd's decision to demote Frank with the memorable line: "Everybody has to know who's in charge, and that's the head coach. He's the guy calling the shots. I've never seen any one of the Pips try to lead. That's Gladys [Knight's] role. Let Gladys be Gladys."
Williams is not likely to play this week when the Nets play the Hawks in London on Thursday. His long-term health is clearly the x-factor in any chance Brooklyn has of keeping this upturn going. That, and keeping some very old fellows upright.
"Our attitude is a lot different," Terry said. "Our disposition. We understand, every night, we have to go out and compete. Once we figured that part out, it's more about attitude. You've got guys that have been in this league a long time, guys who are the core veterans of this group. But you still have to play with an edge. Sometimes you have a bigger target, the longer, the more years you've got in this league, and teams were coming at us. We reversed that and changed that around."
Chicken or egg; terrestrial or advanced? From Luke Duffy:
DeMar DeRozan Hits 26
I really enjoyed your piece on the Toronto Raptors, I'm not sure their current roster is the future, but they have put themselves in a good position.
I'm writing though, about what was said about Rudy Gay, and how that relates to other players in the league. Stats people don't like him because he is a volume shooter, but you can't discredit somebody who gets you twenty points a night as your piece pointed out. This to me sounds an awful lot like Carmelo Anthony, somebody who for years I have said is potentially the most overrated player in the league. The Denver Nuggets are a better team without him, and I think if the Knicks dealt him before he probably walks in the summer, they would be too. His brand of basketball, and Gay's, to a lesser extent, are counter-productive and not team orientated -- things you need to win a championship.
So I guess what I'm trying to say is: when it comes to players like Anthony or Gay, what side do you come down on? Do you think the stats don't lie, or should volume scorers who have no real interest in defense get the credit that they do?
Everybody's better with better players. LeBron wasn't good enough to win a title in Cleveland; he's a two-time Finals MVP with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh. Weren't people talking up Anthony as a potential MVP candidate last season, when the Knicks were winning 54 games? Kevin Durant is a great, great player, but what he does best is put the ball in the basket. And he gets to do that more freely when Russell Westbrook is on the court with him. You put Durant in New York with this season's Knicks team, and I don't think his stats would be much different from Carmelo's. If Carmelo was playing next to Chris Paul and Blake Griffin in L.A., I think we'd have a different view of him. Players like Anthony and Gay have had to score most years for their teams to have any chance to win.
The Injury Bug currently weighs 5,492 metric tons. And it's still hungry. From Michael Skitsas:
I am curious about your take on the whole injury situation throughout the league. Yes, on a case-to-case level, no one can argue that genetics, bad luck and things like that are the No. 1 factor for players going down. But in my eyes, something has to be done on a broader scale.
Never before do I remember such a devastating 2-3 year run injury-wise. Somehow, the game has evolved to a direction that is endangering the athletes much more. Sure, "the 1990s were tougher" as we all like to say, but even without looking at advanced analytics about speed, miles covered, possessions played etc., some observations are clear to make.
For example, the game cannot tolerate heavy, bulky bigs. Even huge guys like Lopez need to be slim and agile. (Fun quiz -- name a starting center who's had two healthy seasons in a row ...) It also requires a lot of "penetrating" and "slashing" from guards, who are seemingly shrinking in size every season. Is the fact that four of the top PGs are currently out pure coincidence?
Perhaps we need to reconsider the NBA money-making model, that requires 80 games/team per season (in half empty arenas more often than not), a model that's a bit too close to the MLB, and move slightly towards the NFL model. After all, in contrast with baseball, basketball is a high-intensity, high- strain and risk-contact sport.
It's not as destructive as football by any means, but clearly dangerous enough that half way through the season we have more or less 10 All-Star-level players out, with more going down every day. Is it really worth it? And I also mean financially worth it, because the NBA is losing big money with so many teams not competing (and thus, attracting fans) because of "bad luck."
Worst of the Week: Inuries
Is it coincidence that CP3, Rose, Westbrook, Williams, Jrue Holiday and Eric Bledsoe have all gone down this season? Yes, Michael, it is. There just isn't any conclusive evidence to point to any single reason for all these injuries.
Rose and Westbrook did the same offseason workouts that Durant and Kevin Love did. Rose and Westbrook went down; Durant and Love haven't. Westbrook had never missed a game in five years entering the playoffs last season. Not one. Then Houston's Patrick Beverley ran into his knee in the first round. Did offseason training cause that? Or the schedule? Or playing in the Olympics? Andrew Bogut is a "heavy, bulky big" with a history of injuries; he's stayed healthy this season. Lopez didn't.
The schedule hasn't changed since 1967. I know in our era of advanced stats, an answer to everything is expected. But sometimes, there are no answers.
What is the sound of a phone that doesn't ring? From Alexandre Gualino:
You certainly have to be given a lot of credit for picking Jason Collins' coming out when you had to choose only 10 "storylines" to illustrate a whole year in the NBA. Let me first of all warn you that I am not a big NBA follower and neither am I a U.S. resident. And, to be honest, I was very casually reading your blog the other day.
To be honest, Mr. Collins is, and always will be, a very obscure player to me. But your relation of his story got me interested and since there was no other information about him in your short article (the shortest of the 10), I wanted to know more about what happened to that brave man.
Wikipedia then told me that the man found no team even though he still had the intention to play. There can be a lot of reasons for that. Is he that bad a player? Did he finally change his mind and decide to quit, considering himself too old? Or is he paying for his statement? Call me a twisted mind if you want, but I tend to think that the latter is likely to be the reason.
Your relation of the issue, very unfortunately, doesn't mention anything of this, but does affirm that Mr. Collins "shattered the notion" that there could be some "resistance" to the matter of someone coming out of the closet in the league, which by the way is said to be "progressive" on that respect ("relatively progressive" to be accurate, I give you that).
Please don't get me wrong: I am not, by no means AFFIRMING that Mr. Collins is the victim of his courageous choice, but isn't likely enough to be questioned, from a journalist's point of view?
I do understand, as much as I deplore, the so many reasons why the situation may make everybody in the business (other players, management, sponsors, fans, media) feel uncomfortable to have an openly gay player on the roster.
I know it is not as easy as it should be. And I understand, too, that even though you, Mr. Aldridge, might actually share my suspicions about the whole story, it must not be easy for you to say, insinuate or only question the fact that the league (your employer) MIGHT consist, to put it raw, of a bunch of homophobic (people).
But still remains the fact that your article did appear incomplete to me, and most definitely to a lot of other people, gay or not, since it had no proper conclusion on the matter. Because a coming out, per se, should by no means be the conclusion of a career or anything at all, whereas your article and the events that it relates sadly suggest that it is.
I can't prove a negative, Alexandre. I can't tell you why people don't do something. As I've said over and over where Jason is concerned, I have no doubts that there are certainly front office people in the NBA who are homophobic and who would not sign Collins under any circumstances.
But I think more teams are making a simple cost-benefit analysis where he's concerned: is signing someone of limited talent, who really isn't going to impact our team very much on the court, worth it? Every player and every coach would have to answer question after question about Collins, and what it was like playing with him, and what their family members think about their playing with him, and what opponents of theirs are saying, and on and on. (I tried not to type the word "distraction" here. I really tried.) Is that homophobia? Or just not wanting to deal with something that can never be answered completely? (What if a player says he welcomes Collins as a teammate, but believes as a Christian that Collins is a sinner?) Is that prejudice? Is that fair? I am not near wise enough to say certainly not. But I also don't think it's fair to say that the NBA is full of bigots because Jason Collins isn't currently on a roster.
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(weekly averages in parentheses)
1) LeBron James (33.3 ppg, 5 rpg, 5.3 apg, .617 FG, .769 FT): Remains top overall vote-getter for the Feb. 16 All-Star Game in New Orleans with 1,076,063 votes, ahead of Kevin Durant (1,054,209), Indy's Paul George (899,671) and the Lakers' Kobe Bryant (844,538).
GameTime: Kevin Durant With Craig Sager
2) Kevin Durant (37 ppg, 6.7 rpg, 5.3 apg, .414 FG .904 FT): Dude is living at the foul line: in three games this week, KD got up 52 free throws.
3) LaMarcus Aldridge (27 ppg, 10 rpg, 1.7 bpg, .533 FT, .850 FT): Sea change in the 503: Cousin L.A. now talking about signing an extension in Portland and finishing his career with the Blazers. Winning matters.
4) Paul George (15.7 ppg, 9.3 rpg, 3.7 apg, .333 FG, .833 FT): Shooting slump continues, though he continues to get on the glass and defend.
5) Stephen Curry (22.7 ppg, 4 rpg, 5.7 apg, .377 FG, .882 FT): Now second in the league in assists behind Chris Paul, Curry's floor general game is growing by leaps and bounds -- though there's still too many turnovers for my tastes, and they're not because of anything the defense is doing.
Lakers vs. Clippers
0 -- NBA teams that had gone 7-0 on a road trip, a feat the Warriors came close to doing by winning their first six games before Wednesday's loss at Brooklyn to end their journey. Golden State was also denied an 11th straight win overall, which would have been a franchise record.
3 Hours 18 Minutes -- Time of Saturday's Wizards-Rockets game in Washington, which was delayed twice for extended periods because of a leaky roof at Verizon Center that let water drip on the court.
36 -- Margin of defeat for the Lakers in Friday's 123-87 loss to the Clippers, the largest for the Forum Blue and Gold against the Clips since that franchise entered the league in 1970 as the Buffalo Braves.
1) The Hawks continue to amaze without Al Horford. Jeff Teague is playing the best basketball of his career, and scouts who watch the Hawks marvel at their player development under Danny Ferry and Mike Budenholzer.
2) Jeff Green is a good dude.
Nightly Notable - Isaiah Thomas
3) Isaiah Thomas is second among NBA point guards in PER, behind only Chris Paul. Isaiah Thomas is 16th in the league overall in PER -- ahead of Paul George, Steph Curry, Russell Westbrook, Tim Duncan and Kyrie Irving. I have to reassess Isaiah Thomas.
4) I know University of Memphis Coach Josh Pastner has a season to worry about and all, but he has to hire someone to go through his grandfather's things, pronto.
5) There are some very creative people in the world with too much time on their hands.
6) I love good writing. This is really good writing from a Packers fan who braved the -15 degree temperatures last Sunday to go to Lambeau Field to watch his beloved team play the 49ers in a playoff game. Why would a presumably sane person do this? This is why: "They're all we have. When they lose, it becomes winter. Three months of bitter cold and nothingness. Tomorrow they're predicting minus-50 to minus-60 degree wind chill. Schools in the Green Bay area are already cancelled. Grocery stores are closed. So that's what we have to look forward to...until the draft in May." Simple, declarative sentences. And, wonderful ones.
GameTime: Discussion On J.R. Smith
1) Can't remember, in almost three decades of covering the orange leather, a season where so many star players have gone down with significant injuries. Every day, your teeth are clenched, waiting to hear who's next. This is just brutal.
2) I don't dislike J.R. Smith. I just don't understand J.R. Smith. At all.
3) Milwaukee can't give up on Larry Sanders. He's shown what he's capable of doing in this league, and assuming the Bucks bring in better players around him in the coming years, he'll be able to focus on his strengths. But he's making it hard for the Bucks to see that day when he keeps messing up like he did Saturday.
4) This is where we have to part company, because, as everyone knows, the greatest movie ever set in the state of Pennsylvania is "The Fish Who Saved Pittsburgh."
5) You can't read into every utterance by a star player as to his future decisions. Kevin Love can occasionally call out his teammates without it being a referendum on whether he's staying in Minnesota after 2015.
6) When you hear the words "Polar Vortex" in the forecast in the future, try to be somewhere else when it comes.
For Sam Cassell, the target was about an inch wide.
When Hakeem Olajuwon got post position, holding off the likes of Shaquille O'Neal, David Robinson or Patrick Ewing with his left arm, he wanted -- he demanded -- the post entry pass be thrown exactly at a piece of tape that was on one the fingers on his right hand. That's where he wanted the ball.
Rockets vs. Wizards
Throw to the tape, Olajuwon told Cassel, and all the Rockets' guards, over and over. And if you can't throw to the tape, throw it right at my face, hard. I'll catch it.
What Olajuwon didn't want was a lollypop, lob pass. By the time it floated to him, Shaq or Robinson or Ewing would have time to adjust their angle -- in basketball parlance, quarter him -- and the brief second he had good position on them would be gone.
Big men want the ball right away, so they can get to their moves before help arrives.
That's part of the puzzle of watching the Rockets play this season, with Dwight Howard. Is Houston going to be a team that feeds its big-money free agent in the paint until he drops, allowing him to utilize the moves he's developed over 10 NBA seasons -- and that he's polished the last couple of years in the offseason working with the Dream? Or will the Rockets be a slightly different version of the spread-the-floor group that rained threes on the NBA and bowed out in the first round of the playoffs last season, with James Harden leading the way?
Coach Kevin McHale seems to think the Rockets are better the latter way, with Howard getting his points by running the floor, running the occasional screen-roll with Harden and by his teammates getting him the ball early in the post. That's a continuing issue for Houston, which is 10 games above .500 but hardly in a dominant position in the west -- which is why you consistently hear the Rockets aren't yet done making moves before the trade deadline.
Howard's numbers this season are roughly in line with what they've been throughout his career -- averaging a double-double, shooting 58 percent from the floor, still a box of chocolates at the foul line -- but he's expected to lead the Rockets somewhere special during the four years (and $88 million) of his new contract.
For Howard, it's a balancing act, as he tries to lead while also getting back the smile and goofiness that is at the heart of who he is (Saturday, during the "rain delay" at Verizon Center, he blocked a ballboy's shot and stuffed the Wizards' mascot -- what is it with Howard and mascots?).
Pelicans vs. Rockets
Me: This is the oddest .600 team that I've ever seen.
Dwight Howard: Oh, yeah. We've got to get better. There are a couple of things that we're going to continue to work on, and we'll continue to get better with time. This is our first 35 games together. So we're just trying to get better. The only way we'll do that is to continue to work on our game, and get good wins like [Saturday].
Me: Is this a classic, feed the post 40 times team, or is it a push-it-up, get points on early threes in transition team?
DH: Well, we've got to be able to do both if we want to be successful in the playoffs. When we play inside out, we're also hitting threes, we're also doing other things, it makes it tough for teams to guard. We've got guys who get out and can play downhill, and we can also slow the game down and post up. That's something that we're working on. Once we get that down and we can play inside out, and we can run, I think we'll be unstoppable.
Me: Where's the balance point between those two styles?
DH: We have to get a balance. Sometimes, it takes a lot of games to get there. We're learning. We just have to learn and feed off of each other.
Me: Kevin McHale mentioned your frustration when you bust it and run right to the nail, turn and seal, and the ball doesn't get to you.
Howard Hits the Glass
DH: I get upset sometimes. But I understand, I think it's different for these guys. Last year, they didn't have a big post-up target. That's not knocking [Omer] Asik's game, but they used him more in pick and rolls, stuff like that. So it's a little bit different for the guys. They just have to learn to play that way. So, I'm fine. I'm just being patient and doing whatever I can to help this team win.
Me: He also said the team can play at least two levels higher than it is now.
DH: I think we can get three. Two or three more levels. I think we've got three levels we can get to. It's going to take some time, but at the rate we're going, we should get there.
Me: What's the best way for you and Harden to play off of each other?
DH: Well, me and him in the pick and roll. Me and him in post up situations where he's feeding and cutting off, and I'm running the floor and getting easy buckets in transition. That's what he's best at. But also me and him in pick and rolls. We've gotten a couple where he caught it in the post, and I threw it to him, downscreen. That kind of messes the defense up, because he's curling to the basket, and he's got Terrence [Jones] on one side, and me on the other side, and he's got two shooters. So we're doing a good job of that. We just have to continue to do that.
Me: His playmaking is really the X-factor on your team, isn't it?
DH: When they brought him from OKC, they brought him to be that playmaker. And he's very good at making plays like that. So hopefully he can continue to do that.
Me: What is your voice on this team, as opposed to the other places you've been?
DH: Kind of the vet. It's a situation where I've been around for a while. I understand the situations that I've been in. They listen to me. Because they know how tough the last two years was. I've had to overcome a lot. So these guys always listen, always try to find ways to get better. We just all want to grow together.
Me: Are you a talk to the team guy, or are you a pull a guy to the side guy?
DH: Ah, both. I can talk to the team. I also understand that some guys, you have to pull to the side. It's something that I've learned over the years. It takes time. Coming out of high school at 18, trying to lead a team is very difficult. I've learned a lot the last 10 years. I'm in a better place to lead than I have been.
Me: Did you learn from anyone you've played with before in terms of being a good leader?
DH: Basically, I had to learn through trial and error. Now, being in a different situation than L.A., a different situation in Orlando, I've learned what it's going to take to lead a team.
Me: How are you physically?
DH: I'm a lot better.
Me: But still not 100 percent?
DH: The doc says it will take a lot to get there. But I'm a lot better than I was. I'm a lot better than at the start of the season. Everything is flowing.
"Our players know all they have to do is check in, phone home, and we'll work with them extensively. They've traveled all over the world...this one, I believe, was blinded by a flash of North Korean money. And I'm worried, for their sake, that they might get paid in counterfeit U.S. money."
--NBA Commissioner David Stern, to CNN, denouncing the ill-fated former NBA players' trip to North Korea, led by Dennis Rodman -- who turned things up to 11 in his infamous CNN interview (the littles and those who keep it clean should not be in the room). Rodman later apologized for putting his former NBA guys in a bad spot by making the visit some sort of homage to North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un, and for implying that American Kenneth Bae, who's been held by the North Koreans for more than a year, was responsible for his plight.
"Quite frankly, I thought having three points guards going into the season would be plenty deep. What did I know?"
--Lakers General Manager Mitch Kupchak, discussing the rash of injuries to his team at that position, laying low Steve Nash, Steve Blake and Jordan Farmar, forcing L.A. to sign and start former Suns first-round pick Kendall Marshall off the street.
"I might go to some YMCAs and play."
-- Celtics guard Rajon Rondo, who decided against rehabbing at the Celtics' NBA Development League affiliate in Maine last week. But Rondo did say that he expects to return to the NBA before the All-Star break in February.
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