Posted Jan 21, 2014 8:21 AM
Sam Presti may be the last person on Earth in his line of work that still uses a Blackberry.
"Maybe I'm loyal," he said Sunday. "And, the keyboard, the fact you can type on it and not have to use the touchscreen. I'm not really interested in the bells and whistles. I'm interested in communicating effectively, and efficiently."
Which could explain a lot about his organization.
The Oklahoma City Thunder do not change.
The team didn't fire coach Scott Brooks and bring in a "closer" after Oklahoma City didn't get back to The Finals last season.
Brooks won't change the starting lineup in the wake of Russell Westbrook's knee injury, rolling center Kendrick Perkins and shooting guard Thabo Sefolosha out there game after game rather than even consider more offense to compensate for the loss of the 21.3 points per game Westbrook scores.
Kevin Durant won't change, insisting it's he that has to do more with Westbrook out, not the teammates who aren't All-Stars and/or MVP candidates.
The crowds at Chesapeake Energy Arena don't change -- 135 straight sellouts and counting after Sunday's victory over the Kings. OKC is 31-10 at the season's midpoint. Last season, it was 32-9 -- the same record the Thunder had after 41 games of the lockout-shortened 2011-12 season.
One person's consistency, of course, is another's stubbornness. The Thunder still have many nights when they get stagnant on offense, depending on Durant and Westbrook to bail them out. The franchise's insistence that it will never be a luxury-tax payer led to the trade of James Harden last season, depriving the team of that crucial third great player.
But OKC, from the top down, believes staying the course remains the best course of action and will have the longest shelf life.
"I think all the good organizations, whether you're in sports or the business world, consistency and doing your job is paramount," Brooks said last week. "If you have inconsistency in your work, in your efforts, you're not going to have a result that you want to live with. It's not just our philosophy; it's all the championship-level teams.
"You have to have consistency, from an ownership which we have, a management that we have, a coaching staff -- I hope we have that -- and the players, I know we have that. I think it's important. We get poked at every now and then, that we're a little boring at times. We just believe in what we do."
Six years into their stay in Oklahoma City, the Thunder have the same GM, same coach and same superstars that they've had for all but a handful of games there. In an era in which fans and media demand instant gratification, OKC does not provide it.
It didn't panic when Westbrook got injured. Even though the team has barely been above .500 since he went down late last month, needing a third operation on his right knee, there was no thought given to making a short-term trade that could help the Thunder immediately.
This should come as no surprise, given that Presti cut his eyeteeth with the San Antonio Spurs, another stubborn team that would never even think about change. Gregg Popovich is the longest-tenured coach in the NBA. Tim Duncan will finish his career with the same team that drafted him No. 1 overall in 1997.
The Spurs looked like they were finished after losing the 2013 Finals in excruciating fashion in seven games. They added one free agent of significance, Marco Bellinelli, to last year's rotation. Otherwise, it's business as usual ... same as in OKC. (The Thunder's significant offseason addition? It might have been rookie center Steven Adams.)
Presti says the Thunder would be "crazy" not to look at the Spurs' model. On the other hand, every team has to row its own boat.
"The way we've approached things over the last seven years really has been focused on what gives us the best opportunity to achieve our vision, not only for our team but for the franchise as a whole," Presti said. "That focus starts internally, and is really based on a collective mentality from the people that have been here."
Presti has only made one significant in-season deal since becoming the executive vice president and GM in 2007 -- sending Jeff Green and Nenad Krstic to Boston for Kendrick Perkins and Nate Robinson at the trade deadline in 2011. (The Harden deal, which netted Kevin Martin, came just before the start of last season.)
At the time, OKC was 36-20. But the Thunder thought Ibaka was undersized at center and had to move to power forward, and they wanted to clear more playing time for Harden.
Generally, though, the Thunder insist on developing from within. They are among the league's most active teams in using their NBA Development League team, the Tulsa 66ers, to give their young players seasoning. Last season it was Jeremy Lamb and Perry Jones III; this season it's rookie Andre Roberson. (Of course, it also saves money to play Lamb, Jones and now-starting point guard Reggie Jackson, all still on their rookie contracts, rather than go after a higher-priced free agent.)
So that puts more pressure on Durant and Westbrook, and with his fellow All-Star expected to remain out another month, until after this year's All-Star game, it's all on Durant.
"I'm always a person who thinks I can be better at everything," Durant said last week, "no matter if I have a great game, I always feel like I can be better. I ignite my teammates with my play. My stance on defense, my cutting, my confidence in myself no matter what's going on on the court. I think I inspire my teammates when I do that. So I have to do a better job of doing that. It's not about missed shots or anything like that, 'cause they're going to start to fall. But we've got to learn to play through that and play hard every minute we're on the floor, and it starts with me."
Teams around the league are hoping against hope that Durant is growing weary of the load, weary of living in one of the NBA's smallest cities and that he yearns to play with other superstars in bigger towns. They're convincing themselves that he'll be ready to walk in the summer of 2016, when he's a free agent.
But Durant is never going to publicly express any reservations, if any, that he has. He is like Duncan in that regard. The Spurs always knew what the Big Fundamental wanted, and got it for him. In exchange, Duncan never made his own free agency a public spectacle. Neither will Durant -- if he ever becomes a free agent.
That could well depend on whether players like Jackson make an impact in the postseason.
The Thunder's first-round pick in 2011, Jackson has been brought along slowly, going the D-League route as a rookie, getting thrown in during the playoffs last season after Westbrook's initial injury and, now, again given the starting job while Westbrook rehabs.
Even when Jackson has terrible nights, such as a seven-turnover miasma of a performance last week against Memphis, the job is his.
"I hate turnovers," Jackson said. "I pride myself on being a low turnover point guard. But [OKC's coaches] have preached to me that there's going to be nights where you have high turnovers. And the way we play, up tempo, I just can't let it affect me, even if I may have double digits. I've got to just go out there and continue to compete, and trust that all the work I've put in over the years will eventually show."
Even bringing back a veteran player like guard Royal Ivey, signed last week for a second tour of duty, was not a decision made lightly. Ivey was a major influence on Jackson in Jackson's rookie season, along with Nazr Mohammed. Both veterans told Jackson his time was coming, which made the future seem not so far away.
Jackson had been putting more and more pressure on himself after Westbrook went down again. When Jackson's shot left him, so did a lot of confidence. Seeing Ivey on the team's bus brought a smile back to Jackson that hadn't been seen around the Thunder's locker room lately.
"It's good to have his presence," Jackson said. "Good to be around another one of my vets. Perk, Fish [Derek Fisher], they always stay on me about just being positive and staying aggressive. Having that extra familiar face just made me feel more comfortable today."
And after going 12-of-34 his previous three games, Jackson went 11-of-19 against Houston, including six steals, in the Thunder's improbable come-from-behind victory Thursday. He was all over the floor, driving time and again into the teeth of the Rockets' defense, and scored as many points -- nine -- in the fourth quarter as Houston did.
Jackson is well aware of what's at stake. He believes greatness is within him -- and, by extension, the team -- when he's on the court. But while some shake off a bad game or two, Jackson broods.
"You want to step up in the absence of an All-Star," he said. "You have a great opportunity, I feel, for myself. But I always put pressure on myself -- maybe too much, to play perfect. Everybody's been telling me, especially my [Thunder assistant] coach, Brian Keefe, and Scotty even told me, you can't play perfect. You have to just go out and play hard and trust that your talent will take over."
In such ways, the Thunder argues, they are changing, but from within. They get better with rookies like the first-round pick Adams, who has shown an unusual proclivity to get opposing players tossed out of games. It's only a matter of time before Adams is the everyday starter, but OKC insists that time isn't now, that Perkins, no matter what the advanced stats say, helps win games. Perkins, in the Thunder's nomenclature, works for their franchise.
"What doesn't work?," Presti asks, repeating the question asked of him.
"We're certainly not judge and jury on people or individuals by any stretch," he continues, "but certainly you want people that can commit to a philosophy of people who are willing to make the necessary sacrifices to win collectively. Outside of that, you're always trying to maximize the present opportunities that we have, but maintain a position where we feel, year in and year out, that we can have a competitive team.
"We never want to feel we're making an emotional decision that can start a downward trend to the franchise. We have to show discipline in times of adversity and restraint when times are good. The balance of those two is important to maintaining a franchise year in and year out."
So the Thunder didn't make any major additions after making The Finals -- going all in on a big free agent, or making a trade that could have put them over the top. Ibaka's $49 million extension kicked in this year, but the Thunder's philosophy didn't change. No tax. Improve from within.
So Durant, the diehard Washington Redskins fan, will continue arguing with Westbrook, the diehard Dallas Cowboys fan. Durant will still be able to explode when the shot feels good, as he did in putting a career-high 54 points on Golden State on Friday. And when the Thunder lock in defensively, as they did in the second half of Thursday's win at Houston, OKC can think serious thoughts about breaking through in the West in the spring.
"There's no question that we take pride in winning the game tonight," Brooks said. "But we also have to understand, if you work on getting better every day, and if you just focused on this game, it can affect the next day's effort. So I try, as a coach, not to make it more valuable -- this game is so much more important than tomorrow's practice. It's all important."
And, ultimately, the Thunder believe they're doing the right thing because of where the franchise resides.
Basketball will never be the most important thing in a city where 168 people died at the hands of a domestic terrorist in 1995, when a truck bomb was detonated outside the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building. The city was knocked down, but rose again. It continues, in Oklahoma City, to be about more than just basketball.
"Resilience is about bending, twisting, recovering and bouncing back with a belief that better days are ahead," Presti said. "The resilience of our city and the people we represent is an inspiration to our organization and the people that represent the Thunder. It's part of the reason we share a very special relationship with the community and the state as a whole."
The ball is still up in the air between Billy Hunter and his former employer, the National Basketball Players Association.
Last week's ruling by Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Huey Cotton allowed Hunter to proceed with his lawsuit against the NBPA for breach of contract, though Cotton dismissed most of Hunter's claims against the union and former president Derek Fisher, and all of them against Fisher's former assistant, Jamie Wior.
But the big issue remains the $10.5 million Hunter says he's still owed by the union, claiming he was unfairly terminated last year.
Cotton will hold a hearing this week pertaining to legal fees that Hunter will now have to pay Fisher and Wior. But the main issue, the likely trial to determine whether the union has to pay Hunter, remains months away from being resolved, with both sides just beginning the process of assembling evidence.
"Discovery hasn't started in a serious way," said one source with knowledge of the proceedings. "California's not very quick in these things."
Hunter still has the option of settling with the union before trial, or letting the matter be decided by a three-person arbitration panel in New York. If the two sides agreed to arbitration, the matter would almost certainly be settled much more quickly -- "this would be something that would probably cut the decision time in half, which would be a reason to do it, so we can move on," said another source.
But Hunter appears determined to proceed with a trial.
"We're pleased that the judge's decision supports Mr. Hunter's position that his contract was valid and allows his suit against the NBPA to continue," Hunter's attorney, David Anderson of the law firm Sidley Austin said after the ruling.
For its part, the union is prepared to go forward with what it knew would ultimately be a case about Hunter's contract, and whether the union had the right to fire him.
In court documents, Cotton said Hunter has to further explain where he thinks the breach of his contract occurred. "The biggest hurdle for the plaintiff," Cotton wrote, "is the fact that plaintiff does not describe the breach. Defendants were entitled to terminate his contract. Plaintiff has explained that does not excuse payment but as noted does not plead this."
But Cotton also seems to argue that Hunter has a point when he argues that the contract extension he received from the union in 2010 didn't have to be approved by the union's entire board of player representatives, and would be legal if approved by its executive committee. The union cited a provision in its bylaws saying the executive director's contract must be approved by 2/3 of the combined player reps and executive board members present.
However, Cotton wrote, "The court does not find this provision crystal clear as to whether the last sentence applies to contract extensions which extend a contract already ratified on virtually the same terms ...
"The evidence also shows that the course of business between these parties never required board ratification for extensions. A NBPA president had signed extensions on the Hunter contract on two previous occasions without the need for Board ratification. The Union was clearly aware of this and did not take any steps to prevent its officers from proceeding in this manner."
The union, however, also relies on the report from the law firm Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison that was commissioned in April, 2012, to examine Hunter's conduct as executive director. The report cleared Hunter of embezzlement or theft of union funds, but strongly criticized him for employing family members in union and union-affiliated jobs, and said his actions were, at times, "inconsistent with his fiduciary obligations to put the interests of the Union above his personal interests."
The union, according to a source, continues to believe that the Paul, Weiss report gave it sufficient reasoning to terminate Hunter with cause, and to claim that Hunter wouldn't be entitled to any renumeration. The report also backed the union's position that because the board of player reps didn't ratify Hunter's deal, it wasn't legal. The specific language was put into the union's bylaws because of similar issues concerning the contract of Simon Gourdine, the former and late executive director who was fired by the union in 1995, after a coalition of prominent players and agents pushed for his ouster.
"Billy's saying 'I don't know, I'm not sure,'" the source said. "I mean, come on."
Given far less notice than the dismissal of most of the complaints against Fisher and Wior was the likelihood that we'll never know the names of "John Does 1-10," players Hunter alleged helped Fisher in his quest to get Hunter fired. When he originally filed the suit Hunter acknowledged he didn't know precisely which players had been involved (hence the John Does designation), but would amend the complaint "to allege their true names and capacities" when he discovered them.
In November, Hunter filed additional papers that named Kobe Bryant and Bryant's agent, Rob Pelinka, as key players in what Hunter claimed was backdoor dealings to settle the lockout. Hunter claimed that Bryant called him at a key moment during the lockout and, with Pelinka on the line, told him that Bryant would back Hunter if he accepted a 50-50 split of Basketball Related Income with owners. At the time, Hunter was still holding out for a 52-48 split in favor of the players.
Hunter took the call as evidence that Fisher was working behind his back and negotiating with the owners, who were adamant about a 50-50 split. (In the end, the players agreed to a 50-50 split of BRI, but won concessions from owners that preserved some salary cap exceptions for veteran free agents.)
Bryant denied playing a role in the negotiations last week, telling Bleacher Report that he thought Hunter was "full of (bleep)" in making the allegations.
In the meantime, the union is pushing ahead with interviews for a new executive director. The website Lobshots.com reported earlier this month that the union was down to four finalists: former NFL player and current NFL Players Association President Dominique Foxworth; attorneys Bruce Meyer and Riche McKnight and former NBA executive Stu Jackson.
However, several sources maintained last week that no list of finalists has been drawn up, and that it will be several more months before the union gets down to a list of finalists. It continues to conduct interviews with prospective candidates through the Chicago search firm Reilly Partners.
(last week's ranking in brackets; last week's record in parentheses)
1) Indiana  (3-0): You will know, if the Pacers sign Andrew Bynum, that they have no real concerns about their chemistry, about whether Danny Granger will fit in the second half of the season, whether the moment's too big for them. Go all in and sign Bynum, and the message will be clear: We got this. Don't worry.
2) Portland  (3-0): Is there, in the NBA, a better one-two, inside-outside punch right now than LaMarcus Aldridge and Damian Lillard?
3) Miami  (2-1): Ray Allen in a hellacious shooting slump, making just 18 of his last 70 (25.7 percent) shots -- though he did go 5-of-11 Saturday in the Heat's overtime win at Charlotte.
4) San Antonio  (3-1): Spurs miss four players Sunday, and Manu Ginobili has an off night, but still ride Jeff Ayers, Nando de Colo and Patty Mills to an easy win over Milwaukee.
5) Oklahoma City  (3-1): Russell Westbrook traveling with the team, but only shooting stationary free throws and shots from slightly further out, not yet able to leave his feet.
6) L.A. Clippers  (2-1): Five-game winning streak broken Saturday at Indy, but Blake Griffin is straight beasting on people right now. Raised his game to another level in CP3's absence.
7) Golden State  (1-2): You get the feeling the Warriors may not be done dealing before the deadline, that they're not going to just settle for Jordan Crawford and MarShon Brooks.
8) Houston  (3-1): The Rockets still don't know who they are and what they should do when opposing defenses really get into them: should they speed up and try to play fast, or slow down and pound the ball into Dwight Howard?
9) Dallas  (2-2): Cubes gets his wish -- fined one last time by the Commish, $100K for going after the refs and cursing at them after the Mavs' come-from-ahead loss to the Clippers Wednesday.
10) Phoenix  (2-2): Leandro Barbosa likely back for the rest of the season, according to the Arizona Republic.
11) Memphis  (3-0): Grizzlies finally get back above .500 on the strength of their five-game win streak, and are getting healthy and whole. Only two out in the loss column for the eighth playoff spot in the west.
12) Atlanta  (0-1): That's a long way to go to get smoked as badly as the Hawks were Thursday in London by the Nets.
13) Denver  (1-3): Team Roller Coaster goes the other way again, allowing a ghastly 117.3 points per game in losses to lowly Utah and Cleveland, and to the Suns. The Nuggets didn't exactly stop Golden State, either, in their 123-116 win Wednesday.
14) Toronto  (2-2): Raptors suffer two bad losses to Boston and the depleted Lakers, and their lead over suddenly resurgent Brooklyn in the Atlantic Division is down to 3.5 games.
15) Washington [NR] (3-1): Wizards go as Nene goes, and he was pretty good Wednesday (+18, nine assists) in Washington's big win over the Heat.
Dropped out: Chicago 
Memphis (3-0): That was a good trade Memphis made under the radar, getting Courtney Lee from the Celtics. When Lee was on a really good Orlando team as a rookie in 2009, he helped the Magic get to the Finals. He can help the Grizzlies get to the playoffs, and if they get there, Marc Gasol, who's back, can take them places.
Milwaukee (0-4): Caron Butler's not happy, O.J. Mayo's not happy. Nobody on a 7-32 team is happy.
Did I have it exactly backwards? (Wouldn't be the first time.)
I could not imagine, after the way the Spurs lost The Finals last June, losing Game 6 in such excruciating fashion and Game 7 in the last minute, how they could get off the deck in time for this season.
How could they gear themselves up again emotionally for another run at the summit, knowing they were a year older, and a year more vulnerable to injuries -- and injuries have been the Spurs' greatest foe for the last five years?
But the morning brings news that San Antonio, far from curled in the fetal position, starts play today at 32-9. They're comfortably in first place in the Southwest Division, chugging right along, looking for home-court advantage throughout the playoffs. (Now, it's true that most of those nine losses have come to the league's elite).
It's the team that won the 2013 Finals, the Miami Heat, which looks like it's mentally spent.
The SuperFriends have gone to The Finals three straight seasons, winning the last two. They've had to deal with an unceasing media light ("the noise," as coach Erik Spoelstra says) where every utterance both by them and about them is dissected within an inch of its life. They've had to push through brutal playoff series against the Celtics and Pacers to get to The Finals. Miami was going uphill the entire series against San Antonio, with Kawhi Leonard battling LeBron James and Danny Green raining 3-pointers at an historic rate.
James has played in 67 postseason games the last three years -- almost another full season's worth of pounding. Dwyane Wade has played in 66 playoff games since 2010; Chris Bosh, 54. James and Wade have also logged major minutes in leading the United States to back-to-back Olympic Games gold medals.
"Long, long season," James said recently, a long way from June.
At 29-11, with only Indiana to challenge it in the East, Miami is hardly reeling. There's only one player -- Kevin Durant -- that has a real shot of keeping James from getting a fifth league Most Valuable Player award. Getting No. 5 would tie him with Bill Russell and Michael Jordan, one short of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar's record of six.
But Miami's recent three-game losing streak exposed all of the issues that plague a team trying to three-peat: boredom, injuries and opponent adjustments.
The Heat's average margin of victory, 5.74 points, is the lowest it's been during the current team's run; last season, Miami won by an average of 7.87 points. That means closer games, nightly grinds, few laughers. Ray Allen and Shane Battier have been mostly awful from the floor; Mario Chalmers has been injured; Wade is only occasionally allowed to play in back-to-back games, to rest his balky left knee.
"Every year, you're always trying to find your identity," Bosh said. "I think we're still in the process of doing that. We have an idea, a theory, but it still has to come together. And it takes time. We have to be more consistent on defense. I think that's a step we can take to help ourselves out. I mean, for the most part, we're still trying to figure it out right now. The coaching staff is trying to figure it out now. We're going through this process. You always have to see it. If you don't have the vision, you probably won't be able to attain it. It'll come. We'll play some good ball when it's time, and we'll be right where we want to be."
But Miami is battling history.
"To do it one time, the odds are against you," said the Thunder's Derek Fisher, who twice had chances for a threepeat with the Lakers: one successful (in 2002) and one not (in 2011).
"To be back at it, more than anything, it's mentally and emotionally tough to do. But when you have championship DNA, it gives you a better chance. They've obviously stacked their team, not just on the court, but with Pat Riley managing the team, and a guy like Alonzo Mourning in the front office. They have the championship DNA to still figure out how to do it."
Which brings us to Caveat No. 1: It's January. Not June.
You'll lose money projecting how a team that's playing now will be playing in five months. After winning in overtime Saturday in Charlotte, Miami is 29-11. At this time last season, Miami was 28-12. A week later, on Feb. 1, 2013, the Heat were routed in Indy by the Pacers.
"We have to get better against them," Spoelstra said after that game. "We'll have to bring more. That is our hope, and that is what will happen."
Miami wouldn't lose again for 52 days, winning 27 straight games and threatening the Lakers' all-time win streak of 33 in a row. And the Heat went on to win the title.
The Heat's confidence that they will hit their stride in the playoffs is borne from experience. Chris Andersen didn't even make his debut with the Heat last season until Jan. 25. Now he's a vital part of the rotation.
"I think we'll be a markedly different team every month, starting now," Battier said. "We're a different team than we were in December. We're a different team than we were in November. And I think that's what the team is about -- gaining steam, reinventing ourselves, and finding our game, a game that can win big. We don't have that game right now. We're not close to having that game."
Caveat No. 2: The Dwyane Wade Program.
Miami is making sure that Wade, who underwent OssaTron shockwave therapy on his knees in the summer to help with his chronic tendinitis, will be as healthy as possible going into the playoffs. That means he's been all but banned from playing in back-to-backs during the regular season. He's done so only twice this season, and he's played as much as 39 minutes only once.
"I want to play every night," Wade said. "I know that's our best chance of winning, when we've got our whole team. It's not nothing that I like, but I understand that. I decided to start the season on time this year, so this is the plan. I didn't come into the year and say I'm going to wait until December. I knew this was part of the plan."
Wade already has missed 10 games this season, and given that Miami has nine more sets of back to backs before the end of the regular season, he's probably going to play in fewer games in a full season than he has since the 2007-08.
No one on South Beach cares about the regular season. There are no back-to-backs in the playoffs.
"Well, we want to build," Spoelstra said. "It's a day-by-day process where we evaluate him. Our criteria is a lot different than people probably think out there. If he feels fine, and he passes the process of his tests each day, and he feels fine, like last week, he can go. If he doesn't, then we don't. Sometimes we have to take the decision out of his hands."
Wade may not be "Flash" every game any more. But the Heat need him to occasionally flash.
"Our conversation was totally about approaching this year different," Wade said. "Last year I came in off of knee surgery. Once I started feeling better from December through early March, it was great again. And then I got hurt again. It was a tough April, May, June, tough mentally and also physically. So this year there's a different approach to the season, and this is what we're going with, for sure."
Caveat No. 3: New Blood, New Hope.
Miami brought in three new faces it's used in its rotation so far this season -- Michael Beasley, guard Roger Mason Jr. and center Greg Oden, the former No. 1 overall pick. The star-crossed Oden, who's been working out since the summer with the team, returned to the court last week in Washington for the first time since 2009, and didn't break or tear anything important.
With Oden looking like he can be a contributor, the Heat sent veteran center Joel Anthony to Boston last week as part of a three-team deal that brought guard Toney Douglas to Miami. But people around the league think the Heat are still looking to make another deal, for a wing, before the trade deadline.
"Every day, there's purpose," Mason Jr. said. "Every practice, there's purpose. Every shootaround, there's a purpose; every game, there's a purpose. So, for us, this team doesn't get bored with the process. I think that's been the most impressive thing to me, that they don't get bored with the process, no matter who's in or out, no matter what the game is, what the circumstances are. The end goal is on our minds 24-7."
Fisher shows you his hands. After the Lakers' second championship -- a five-game win over the 76ers -- he had a dislocated left thumb, assorted sprained fingers, and thought he'd broken his right pinky. If a fifth game had been necessary, he doesn't know if he'd have been able to go. Though he probably would have.
So it helped that the Lakers' roster in their threepeat season featured players who hadn't yet won a championship, like Lindsey Hunter, Samaki Walker and Mitch Richmond. It got them through practices and bad shooting nights, keeping the locker room a happier place.
"Each year, there were a few new faces," Fisher said of the Lakers. "And I think that fresh blood helps over the long run of a season. You've got a number of guys that's been there for a while, and you've got a few guys who haven't tasted it before."
Of course, it will ultimately come down to the Big Three finding their groove, and Allen and Battier finding their shot. The Pacers have put everything into having home court, and they may well get it, but they're still going to have to beat Miami four times in seven games, no matter the venue.
"You have to go through adversity, and go through bad losses, and go through screaming matches with each other," Battier said. "And you have to go through winning streaks, and you have to be able to handle the good and the bad. The last two years, we've been able to come out of those situations with a game that's able to compete for championships. You don't know [if it's good enough] until the final buzzer sounds."
In the meantime, the Heat are left with the grind.
"You can't live with it, you can't live without it," Bosh said. "It's never a dull moment."
There's work at the Post Office. And, in Santa Cruz. From Harraj Kahlon:
My friends and I were discussing the recent news of Rajon Rondo being sent to the D-League for a workout and being called up after the workout. This got us thinking. What if players coming off long layoffs, (for example, Derrick Rose, Russell Westbrook, Kobe Bryant) played 2-3 games in the D-League to get their legs under them? It could be considered a rehab tool and it might help players come back in better shape then without that D-League experience because they will have already played in game situations in game speed as close as they possibly could to NBA standards.
It's a great idea, Harraj -- as long as the player says it's OK. Under the old Collective Bargaining Agreement, players with more than two year's NBA experience couldn't be sent to the Development League -- the players' union feared that teams would use D League assignments to punish or discipline players for whatever reason. But in the last CBA, the union agreed that veteran players could be sent to the D-League on assignments if they give their consent. Obviously, Rondo gave the OK for his now-memorable stint with Maine, which shifted the balance of power in the D-League's East Division, perhaps for all time.
It never hurts to listen to new ideas. From Sajjad Bashir:
How does the NBA address tank-a-palooza? I think I found the solution. If you're the lowest-ranked team, will you tank games knowing that some other team has your pick? No. So if no team gets to keep their draft pick, how are they allocated? It's unfair for Milwaukee to have Miami's pick, and vice versa. Perhaps draft picks can be randomly distributed between non-playoff teams.
What about a team that is legitimately bad? What if a team that just misses the playoffs gets the top draft pick via a lower-ranked team? It's called a lottery for a reason, not: "worst team gets first prize." That's why Cleveland received three number one picks in the last eleven years. San Antonio hasn't received a top pick in years because they're good, but they still manage to find talent. lt's no more unfair for the worst team to have another non-playoff team's pick than to go into the lottery with their own; it's still chance, on getting a high pick and that pick working out.
Let's eliminate the weighted system for a moment. If every non-playoff team has a 7.1% chance at the number one pick, more teams might forgo the playoffs for that chance. One solution is penalizing teams for missing the playoffs, giving one or two of their home games to teams that make the playoffs, which means more revenue for playoff teams that can be split between owners and players.
Perhaps the lottery should be partitioned into two groups the way playoff teams are partitioned from the lottery. One group in contention for a top pick, the other eliminated, drawing from the remaining lottery picks. The latter group consists of good teams that just missed the playoffs. This also means, draft picks can't be reallocated between groups. In other words, the two worst teams can have each other's pick, because they're in the same group, but not one from a good, higher ranked team.
Draft order should still be weighted, within each group, preventing teams from assuming they can just drop to the lower group for an equal chance at the top pick. Maybe the lower group can lose an additional home game, discourage teams from dropping down. This is my solution: two groups, weigh odds, then reallocate.
I am not entirely convinced the lottery is the massive problem many seem to believe. But it seems to me you could make a couple of quick fixes, like further weighing to increase the odds that the teams with the worst records get the highest picks. But if you get a top-three pick, you wouldn't be eligible to get another one for two years -- like how coaches who coach the All-Star Game aren't eligible to coach it again the following season. (Hadn't heard the proposal for taking away home games before. Interesting idea, but will obviously be next to impossible to put into practice.)
OK, now we have to fight. From Mindaugas Jancis:
Just wanted to say that your otherwise utterly astonishing Morning Tip might have a misquote in TOP O' THE WORLD, MA! heading. According to this source, the line from White Heat (1949) should be "Made it, Ma. Top of the world!".
I hope you will continue your brilliant writing till the world ends.
Sadly, I will not be on deadline when the meteor/plague/Martians/dinosaur rebirth and revenge does in our little rock, Mindaugas. As for Mr. Cagney's character's utterance at the end of his time on the orb, we made the decision when we started the Tip all those years ago that the actual quote was just way too long for the Top Fifteen (and we didn't want to call it the Top Fifteen; how boring!). Make your judgments of us as you see fit.
Send your questions, comments, criticisms and bags of ice for our friends Down Under to firstname.lastname@example.org. If your e-mail is sufficiently funny, thought-provoking, well-written or snarky, we just might publish it!
(weekly averages in parentheses)
1) Kevin Durant (39.3 ppg, 4.8 rpg, 6.5 apg, .565 FG, .843 FT): Durant takes the lead in the MVP race here for the first time, and not because of his career-high 54 points Friday against the Warriors. Durantula is averaging career highs in points, assists and steals, and is within an eyelash of matching his career best in rebounds. Yes, part of that increased production is because Russell Westbrook is out, but not all of it.
2) LeBron James (26.7 ppg, 8 rpg, 7.7 apg, .500 FG, .857 FT): Jealous of Kevin Durant's field goal attempts? Don't buy it. I don't think LeBron cares in the least how many times Kevin Durant shoots. A little gamesmanship for the only guy that has a realistic shot of beating him out for MVP? That makes a lot more sense.
3) LaMarcus Aldridge (29.3 ppg, 11 rpg, 2.3 apg, .447 FG, .950 FT): Scored at least 20 points in 20 of the Blazers' last 24 games.
4) Paul George (30.7 ppg, 5.3 rpg, 2.3 apg, .577 FG, .950 FT): Broke out of his shooting slump in a major way, including, well, this, but can expect more double teams and singular attention from opposing teams the rest of the way.
5) Stephen Curry (29.7 ppg, 4.7 rpg, 8.7 apg, .475 FG, .875 FT): Should get the good news this week that he's finally been voted in as a starter for the All-Star Game for the first time.
22 -- Consecutive games the Heat had won against their Southeast Division teams dating to December, 2012 before losing at Washington on Wednesday. The Wizards were the last Southeast team to beat Miami as well.
32 -- Days before the All-Star Game that Indiana Coach Frank Vogel clinched his appearance as the Eastern Conference's coach. Because Miami's Erik Spoelstra coached the East team last year, he's not eligible to do so this year, and the Heat are the only Eastern Conference team that has a chance to surpass the Pacers for the best record in the conference before the All-Star break.
189 -- Consecutive games the Bobcats' Kemba Walker has played in for Charlotte since being taken in the first round of the 2011 Draft. Walker badly sprained his ankle in Saturday's overtime loss to the Heat, however, and that streak is in jeopardy of ending.
1) We celebrate Martin Luther King, Jr.'s birthday today. The number of African-American coaches in the NBA continues to be the most of any pro sports league in the United States -- as does, most importantly, the number of black coaches who get fired if their teams don't do well. There were no protests when Alvin Gentry got fired last year in Phoenix, or when his interim replacement, Lindsey Hunter, wasn't retained -- because it wasn't a big deal when they were hired. Among David Stern's many legacies as commissioner, his insistence that NBA teams hire qualified people of color at all levels of their organizations is one about which he should be most proud.
2) Hey -- it's Rondo. Welcome back.
2b) Hey -- it's Oden. Welcome back.
2c) Hey -- it's Marc Gasol. Welcome back.
2d) This was, hopefully, the week players started coming back instead of going out.
3) Utah's not having a great season, but Trey Burke is really coming on, with double-doubles last week against the Spurs and Pistons. The Jazz are 13-17 in the games Burke's played this season, 1-11 without him.
4) If Luol Deng rallies Cleveland to a playoff spot in the East, he's going to assure himself a pretty strong payday this summer -- either from the Cavs or elsewhere. (I suspect a call from Dallas would be forthcoming on or around July 1, for example.)
5a) Congrats to Peyton Manning and his Denver Broncos. He's been the best player in the NFL this season, and he deserved a chance to play in the Super Bowl.
5b) That was one great NFC championship game Sunday, and I didn't have any problem with Seahawks corner Richard Sherman popping off afterward to Fox's Erin Andrews. How you could expect someone -- especially a talker like Sherman -- to be all sweetness and light 30 seconds after a brutal three-hour battle to get to the Super Bowl is beyond my comprehension. Yet some of you did.
1) On the other hand, when you use Dr. King's likeness for the most trifling, crass commercial purposes possible, to say you don't get what he marched and died for is an understatement of Biblical proportion.
2) The Wolves are at a crossroads. Ricky Rubio is having a miserable season, Kevin Love is stewing. Flip Saunders and Milt Newton aren't going to panic with Love's free agency approaching in 2015, but the clock is running, and there's no free agent cavalry coming; the Wolves already have $66 million committed for the 2014-15 season. The only good news: if Minny, four out of the last playoff spot and fading, doesn't rally and make the postseason, it keeps the first-round pick it owes Phoenix.
3) The Rockets need to figure out whether they're going to run and gun, or get the ball to Dwight Howard. It's hard to see how they can do both, but there's still time for Houston to figure it out.
4) Here's hoping Dennis Rodman is serious about being in rehab for his alcohol issues, and can get some real results that will help him cope when he gets back into the world.
5) Is there anyone else who hasn't had the time to see a single one of the 10 movies nominated for a Best Picture Oscar? Not one?
It's like there's a force field around them. Or, maybe it's just that the Washington Wizards, though much improved, are not anywhere close to being a finished product. Something has to explain why the Wizards can look so dominant one night, and so vulnerable the next, and why, in John Wall's three-plus seasons in Washington since being the first overall pick in the 2010 Draft, the Wizards have never -- ever -- been a game above .500.
They get close, and they even get to even, but each time this season they've had a chance to see what plus territory looks like, they've come up snake eyes -- including Saturday, when they lost to Detroit. That's a bummer in D.C., but given how horrid the Wizards have been through most of what is now three generations of Washingtonians dating back to the Nixon Administration, getting close to mediocre is a major step forward.
Certainly, it's not Wall's doing. At 23, Wall has become one of the league's best point guards, showing that Washington was right to give him a five year, $80 million max deal -- when many (present company included) thought that an unnecessary step. Wall's a shoo-in to make his first All-Star Game this season as a coaches' pick, behind Cleveland's Kyrie Irving. Wall is on pace for career highs in scoring, assists and rebounds, and after shooting .071 on 3-pointers two years ago, hard work in the offseason has him up to an almost-decent 31 percent behind the arc this season.
"As I'm watching him play," says Pistons coach Maurice Cheeks, who knows a thing or two about point guardin', "he's slowed the game down. He attacks when he has space, and his jump shot, I think he's a little smoother in everything he does. You can see the time he's put into his game. He runs his team well. He runs the break as well as anyone. I think he just has taken his time, picked up the little nuances of the game, and coupled with his ability to get to the rim, he's learned how to shoot the ball. When you have a guy with the quickness that he has, with the ability to get to the rim, and then he picks up a jump shot, I think it's pretty dangerous. But he doesn't play the game fast, getting charges. He plays the game at a nice little speed now."
But Wall needs to get his team into the black and into the playoffs before he can say he's accomplished anything real.
Me: Did you actually get to work with Gary Payton this summer? I know he was hoping to get with you and with Damian Lillard.
John Wall: Nah, I didn't get the opportunity. I was in L.A. with Rob [McClanaghan] and by the time I was going to try to go, I came back early to make sure that everything was healthy with my body, because I had gotten injured [last year] right before the season started. I talked to him a little bit. I definitely want to make sure I get some opportunity to keep talking to him. I haven't talked to him this season yet, but I'm gonna get with him to pick his brain to see how he improved, and everything he did to get better, and finally get some time in the gym with him and see what I can learn form him, from a guy like that.
Me: Did I see you've added a floater to the arsenal?
JW: Yeah. Tried to shoot that sometimes, instead of taking all those hits in there. But also, just take what the defense gives you, especially when you play against a guy like [Detroit's Andre] Drummond or an athletic big man that blocks shots and takes charges. You've got to be able to do something to get a shot off, and I don't want to go in there and keep giving them opportunities to get a fast break.
Me: That Parker floater is a career-saver.
JW: Oh, man, Tony Parker, Chris Paul, even Derrick Rose has a great floater when he's in there. It's something that you can add, and it's something that's hard for defenders to stop you. When they know you're going all the way, you can switch it up on them, and that's something Tony Parker does a great job with.
Me: What are you seeing on the floor now that things have slowed down for you?
JW: I see everything. Just reading the defense, knowing when I can attack, learning how certain teams are guarding me. Especially in the pick and roll situation, reading the help side guy. And just reading my big men. Really, it took me a lot of time, probably more than it took a lot of people. But I think just switching my pace of the game up is really helping me improve, and like you said, just reading and seeing what the defenses are doing against me, and picking it apart, and giving my team an opportunity to make shots and make plays for themselves.
Me: Are you seeing the loadups before they get set?
JW: Oh, yeah, I know where the loadups are coming. You see [Friday] I had two easy turnovers where Jimmy Butler stole it. You kind of see what teams fully rotate. And sometimes I read, and [against] certain teams I might not get the skip pass assist. I might get the hockey assist. Throwing it to the big man and letting him make the pass. It's something you have to read, and it took me some time, watching a lot of film this summer.
Me: So what does Indiana do that other teams don't, or can't, that has made them so tough for your team to crack?
JW: For one, their whole team plays as a team. Everything they do is as a team. They don't care who scores. Everybody talks about Paul George, and he's an MVP candidate and everything like that. But it's a whole team concept with them. It's very hard to penetrate that basket when you've got Roy Hibbert, who does a great job, probably the best in the league at jumping straight up to block shots. They just play team defense. They make you take tough shots. And if you're not making easy shots against them, it's going to have to be a tough night for them.
Me: Do you see any flaws in them?
JW: I see the way we've been playing against them. Like, the last time we played them, even though we didn't shoot the ball well, we were still down just 10 with six minutes to go, in Indiana, and then they just went to another gear. You can tell the teams that have been in the Eastern Conference finals, that have been to the playoffs. They had another gear that we couldn't withstand. Against teams like that, and teams like Miami, you've got to be able to make shots and not turn the ball over, and that's something we did against Miami but couldn't do against Indiana.
Me: What else worked against the Heat?
JW: We know they're a team that's great at trapping the ball. So we just tried to [go] one pass, quick decision, and just get the ball out of our hands and let somebody else make the play. That's what we did. In the first quarter and the fourth quarter, we only had two turnovers. Second and third quarters, that's when they get in the open court and do what they want. So you've got to be able to not turn the ball over and shoot it well against them?
Me: Do you feel comfortable now shooting the ball corner to corner on the floor?
JW: Oh, yeah, definitely. Just having the confidence in what I worked on, and my teammates having the trust issue in me to give me the ball in those situations, and telling me to shoot the ball. So I have a lot of confidence now.
Me: You're scoring at a career best right now and it looks like you're making a conscious decision to shoot more. Where are the extra points coming from now?
JW: Just not settling for all jump shots. I think I did at the beginning of the season. But also letting my defense determine things -- getting into the passing lanes, getting to the open court, and just trying to do a better job of getting to the free-throw line this year. And let those be the reasons that I get 3-point shots, and easy plays down the road, and not taking 20 or 30 shots. I feel like, as a point guard, if I'm going to score more, I don't want to do it by shooting 20 or 30 times. That's not the kind of player I am. If I'm scoring, I'm scoring. If I'm not, I feel like I have to get my teammates involved.
Me: I asked you a few months ago to name the point guards that are better than you, and we came up with a few names, maybe six or eight. How much smaller is that list now?
JW: I don't think it's too many now. Just the way I'm playing, it's confidence and believing in myself. I feel like, it's kind of tough now, because a lot of young guys are doing better. Damian [Lillard] is having a great year. Chris Paul's having a great year. But there's not too many more other than that. That's where my confidence is right now, and that's how I believe in myself.
Me: What will getting to New Orleans mean to you?
JW: A dream come true. It's the biggest goal for what you set for yourself, of being an All-Star. It would be a big accomplishment for me, for the city of D.C., for my teammates, and the Wizards' organization. 'Cause I know without those guys, I wouldn't have the opportunity to be in that situation.
Me: I know you're weary of the talk about not ever being above .500. So, what do you have to do to get there and then stay above it the rest of the year?
JW: Just don't think about it. Just go out there and play basketball. The way we've been playing the last couple of days, and the week and a half, just play basketball the right way. And let our defense do the talking, and if we're not making shots, we've got to just keep playing defense. I think we think about it too much, and it hurts us.
54 piece nugget with a side large fries .with extra salt ..lol .. STAY HOTT @KDTrey5 #MVP.... And I want a shake too lol
-- OKC's Russell Westbrook (@russwest44), Saturday, 12:38 a.m., on Kevin Durant's career high 54 points in the Thunder's win Friday over Golden State.
"Frankly speaking, there's a lot of criticism that I am not in Brooklyn. But I just have a question for you: Do you really think you need me sitting in the arena to see a game? My friends, we are living in the 21st century. And in spite of the fact I have no computer, I still have a subscription for NBA games and, for me, it's like enough to even have a look on the stats so you can understand what is going on."
-- Nets owner Mikhail Prokhorov, during the Nets' trip to London last week to play the Hawks, on whether he's been able to pay attention to his team's up and down play this season with all of his other endeavors taking up his time and attention.
"I'm going to be honest. I'm not feeling comfortable out there. I'm not being myself and the team is noticing. I just have to be back where I was, be myself. I'm working on that. It's something that's missing. It's tough for me, too."
-- Timberwolves guard Ricky Rubio, to the Associated Press in Minneapolis. Rubio is having a dreadful season for the Wolves; despite averaging 8.1 assists, he's shooting just 34.6 percent and averaging just 8.6 points per game.
"What I was mad about is it was one-on-five. If somebody had gotten in the middle, it wouldn't have escalated that much."
-- Lakers guard Nick Young, angry that his teammates on the court didn't come to his aid after he reacted to a hard foul to the face from Phoenix center Alex Len Wednesday. Young was ejected from the game for throwing a punch at the Suns' Goran Dragic and was suspended for Friday's game against the Celtics.
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