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David Aldridge

Greg Monroe and Kenneth Faried
Young, talented big men like Greg Monroe (center) and Kenneth Faried could be shopped come Feb. 20.

Eight talented players that may feel trade deadline rumblings


Posted Feb 10, 2014 2:52 PM

After all these years, two questions still come up when it comes to defense in the NBA:

1. If you win with defense, why is it so hard to get people to play defense, and

2. If you win with defense, why don't teams pay top dollar for quality defenders?

Trevor Ariza is not in a position to answer the latter. He has eight years' worth of experience dealing with the former.

"It's just tiring," the Wizards' forward said last week. "And when things get hard, and when you get tired, you tend to want to give up. If you fight through that, and you fight through it consistently, I feel like that gives you a chance to win every night. That helps your team build confidence. Because even if your shots aren't falling offensively, you still give yourself a chance to win, because you sit down defensively."

The Wizards have been so bad for so long, getting to and staying above .500 is a bigger achievement in Washington than it would be in most other NBA cities. But it's a sign of progress that the Wizards are back to .500 after beating Sacramento Sunday. They have a decent chance of finishing as high as fourth in the Eastern Conference, which would mean home court advantage in the first round. Ariza's play is a big reason why they've grown so much defensively.

"I wish I could say I taught him everything he knows," Wizards coach Randy Wittman said last week. "I can't. He's got that quality of reading eyes, is really what it looks like to me. He can tell you in his own words."

Trevor?

"I just try to see what the point guard sees," Ariza said. "I feel like if the point guard goes one way, he's always looking back. If he floats the ball just a little bit, I feel like I can get there. That's just the approach I take to the game."

Yet that second question hangs in the air, not just in Washington, but throughout the league. What is a really good defensive player -- or, for that matter, a great rebounder, a glue guy or a young guy who hasn't reached his potential -- worth on the open market?

Everyone knows what teams are willing to spend on great scorers or passers, but there are so many other people who play on teams, and make major contributions. And deciding what to do about those kinds of guys is a dilemma as the Feb. 20 trade deadline approaches.

Every team has its own factors that matter, which is what makes the last two weeks before the deadline so intense. Some teams are looking for that last piece to get them over the top; others have mandates just to make the playoffs; the bottom feeders are looking for Draft picks and youngsters.

Unrestricted free-agents-to-be have a certain amount of leverage, as any team that trades for them will have to know what it will take to re-sign them in the summer. On the other hand, they can't price themselves out of the market; as one GM put it over the weekend, "the bi-annual exception is the new mid-level exception."

There are several players with unmistakable value who could be in play before the deadline. But whether to keep them, trade them or wait to try and re-sign them another day will create angst on both sides of the table.

Here are some tough calls for teams in the next two weeks, and beyond:

1. Toronto: G Kyle Lowry (unrestricted free agent after 2013-14)

The Raptors knew Lowry was capable of putting up numbers, but they did not expect this from their 27-year-old point guard, even in a contract year: career highs in scoring (16.6 ppg) and assists (7.4 apg), an offensive rating through the roof (the Raps are averaging 120 points per 100 possessions with Lowry this season) and a PER that is 10th among point guards in the league. Lowry could have easily been an All-Star this season for leading the unlikely Raptors to first place in the Atlantic.

Which makes GM Masai Ujiri's job all the tougher. The Raptors do not want to give Lowry a big-money contract this summer along the lines of what other point guards who've signed extensions recently: Denver's Ty Lawson (four years, $48 million), Golden State's Stephen Curry (four years, $44 million) or New Orleans' Jrue Holiday (four years, $41 million from Philadelphia).

(It should not need to be said that there's no chance of Lowry getting anything approaching John Wall's max deal in Washington.)

For weeks, Lowry was on the trading block. A deal was in the works with the Knicks for Raymond Felton, Metta World Peace and another young player, until Knicks chairman James Dolan reportedly scotched the trade, unwilling to also add a future first-rounder.

But, now, Toronto's in a bit of a bind: The Raptors are playing well, they have a team that fits better since the Rudy Gay trade and Lowry has been sensational. Per Basketball-Reference.com, Lowry's Win Shares -- an estimate of the wins contributed by a single player to his team -- is 7.6, trailing only trailing Kevin Durant (13 wins), LeBron James (9.7), Kevin Love (9.5), Curry and Blake Griffin (8.2 apiece).

Now it appears the Raptors are less likely than more likely to trade Lowry by the deadline. If a team overwhelmed them with an offer, they'd most assuredly listen, but the likelihood is growing that Lowry will finish the season in Toronto. The chance of a division championship is too enticing.

That doesn't mean the Raptors are going to pay him in the summer.

The fear of investing heavily, only to find that this season is fool's gold, a contract drive by a player with a history of injuries, is likely too great. The best guess is that Lowry plays it out, and, depending on how he and the Raptors do down the stretch, he'll be in the driver's seat in the summer. With so many teams having young point guards, though, how much will he get on the open market? (Agents matter; Lowry has Andy Miller, well-respected around the league by general managers, who has the reputation of making fair deals for his clients.)

2. Greg Monroe, Pistons (restricted free agent after 2013-14)

The Pistons, one of the league's bigger disappointments this season, fired coach Maurice Cheeks on Sunday off orders from owner Tom Gores. What that means for their immediate plans with Monroe are up in the air. For the moment, the Pistons remain adamant that the 23-year-old Monroe is a key part of their future, alongside second-year center Andre Drummond.

But they opted not to give Monroe an extension before last October's deadline, though they can match any other team's offer he'll receive next summer. The problem, as the Pistons knew last fall, is that Monroe's agent is David Falk. He has gotten the price he said he'd get for his clients for two decades -- and he says the price for Monroe will be a max contract.

Two years ago, when a big deal for Indiana's Roy Hibbert, a Falk client, seemed doubtful, Falk created a one-team market. Portland dropped a four-year, $58 million sheet on Indiana for Hibbert. The Pacers matched, and are no doubt happy they did, but Falk proved he can still find suitors when he has to for his guys.

Monroe is a very good offensive player, but he hasn't been dominant this season. He ranks 22nd among power forwards in PER, down from 10th last season. Part of that may well be due to Josh Smith's presence this season, but offense is Monroe's strength. Plus, as many have noted, he has struggled mightily at the defensive end. His individual defensive rating of 107 (107 points allowed per 100 possessions) is awful.

Detroit's best five-man defensive lineup actually comes with Monroe at center and Smith at power forward. Playing with Brandon Jennings, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Kyle Singler, that quintet allows just 93 points per 100 possessions, and Detroit's record with that fivesome is a decent 10-9, per NBA.com/Stats.

That lineup is not the Pistons' future. Drummond in the hole is the Pistons' future. And with Smith, Singler, Rodney Stuckey and Jennings playing alongside Drummond, Detroit gives up 102.8 points per 100 -- not great, but not as bad as the ghastly 112.5 per 100 they allow with Monroe at the four and Smith at the three.

Yet the Pistons aren't going to move Monroe unless it's a blockbuster deal. Offering just expiring contracts won't get it done. The hope in Detroit is that Monroe's situation is resolved in similar fashion to how Oklahoma City eventually worked out a four-year, $49 million contract with Serge Ibaka before he hit free agency. (The Thunder had the obvious advantage of having Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook as lures to play with through the meat of Ibaka's career.)

If Falk finds a team ready to give Monroe the max or something close to it, expect Detroit to match the offer sheet and worry about the money later. At worst, you'd have a 24-year-old, 6-foot-10 power forward under contract that you'd then be able to shop. The Pistons had to lose a lot to wind up with top-10 picks in three straight Drafts. Those assets mean more to them than they probably do to others.

3. Kenneth Faried, Nuggets (fourth-year team option after 2013-14)

There's been a lot of smoke around the league that Denver's made Faried available in trade talk. The Nuggets, of course, deny it, which means it's likely true.

"The Manimal" has seen his rebound numbers decline from last season, and, per basketball-reference.com, his defensive wins shares have dropped from 3.4 last season to 1.4 this season. That doesn't mean Faried still isn't a ferocious rebounder who can change a game with his energy and effort. The question is, what do the Nuggets pay for that 17 months from now, when he could become a restricted free agent.

The Nuggets have been unhappy with Faried's defense this season, and aren't inclined at the moment to give him a huge deal. They've already got $79 million committed the next two seasons to Lawson, JaVale McGee and Danilo Gallinari.

Denver has until the end of October to decide whether to give Faried an extension. The universe of similar, high-energy players with recent extensions includes Chicago's Taj Gibson (four years, $33 million in 2012), Milwaukee's Larry Sanders (four years, $44 million in 2013) and Ibaka. Faried isn't as good as Ibaka, but is he better than Gibson or Sanders? Good question.

The Nuggets could let Faried become restricted after the 2014-15 season, when they'll have team options on Wilson Chandler, Timofey Mozgov and Randy Foye, and Nate Robinson's and Darrel Arthur's contracts come off.

4. Ariza, Wizards (unrestricted free agent after 2013-14)

The 28-year-old is having one of his best seasons, with career highs in 3-point percentage (38.8) and rebounds (6.1 rpg). But he's been a godsend for the Wizards on defense, one of the keys to Washington's defensive emergence over the last two seasons.

Washington's shift in defensive emphasis came only after Ariza and Emeka Okafor came from New Orleans in 2012 for Rashard Lewis. At the end of the 2010-11 season, the Wizards were 24th in points allowed; that number fell slightly to 20th the following season. But in the last two seasons, Washington's defense has improved to eighth and is currently 12th in that category, with Ariza, Nene and John Wall leading the way this season.

Ariza's instincts on the perimeter are almost always spot-on.

"One thing that Trevor has brought to me, and helped me out as much is, that extra effort," Wall said. "If you gamble [defensively] and don't get it, the extra effort to get back into the play. I think Coach lets us get by once or twice in a game if we're willing to come back and contest [shots], and that's something I learned from Trevor."

With misdirection now en vogue league-wide, having someone with length and smarts is crucial. Ariza's anticipation is worth its weight in gold. He and Wall are tops on the team in deflections, many of which come when teams try to hide a shooter on the weak side. If the pass isn't right on the money, Ariza's there to get a hand on it.

"Whenever we do any drills, I know, when I go against him in practice, it's like throwing to Richard Sherman's side -- I don't go that way," Wall said. "We try to bait guys to throw skip passes, especially when he's on the weak side. He's a long, athletic guy, and he reads it very well, and if he misses it, he knows how to recover. It's something he's good at. He's great defensively. But he'll also knock down corner threes and does a lot of things for our team, and he's probably the catalyst for our defense being as good as it is."

Wittman is an old-school man-to-man coach who played for Bobby Knight. But he nonetheless gives Ariza the freedom to improvise within the Wizards' defensive schemes.

"I've got to," Wittman said. "Like I give certain guys freedom to take shots, and certain guys aren't allowed to take them. That's the way it works. Absolutely. I do a lot with him, 'How do you want it? How do you want to play this?' I give him my idea of what I think is the best way for us as a team, but I also trust in him that I can ask him, 'What do you feel? How do want to play this particular play?' And more often than not, I let him do it, until it backfires a little bit, and then we go back."

And yet the Wizards, for all their improvements -- and they are legitimate ones -- are what their record says they are. They've beaten Miami and Oklahoma City and Portland ... and they've lost to Detroit, Boston and Cleveland (twice). They beat the Warriors on the road ... and they lost to the Bucks at home.

They've already committed $80 million to Wall in a new extension, and Beal will be in line for his in a couple of years. And they can't let unrestricted free-agent center Marcin Gortat walk. Gortat, acquired from Phoenix after Okafor suffered a season-ending neck injury, has infused the locker room with his goofiness and tough play inside.

But they can't pay Ariza, who also pines to return to the West coast, what he'll likely ask for as a free agent. Ariza recently hired Rob Pelinka as his agent, a man not known for taking 70 cents on the dollar. It's a tough, tough call for a team that desperately needed a perimeter defender like Ariza. Yet if the Wizards let both Ariza and Gortat walk in July, they'd have enough cap room to go after a major free agent to pair with Wall, Beal, Nene and first-rounder Otto Porter, Jr., for at least two years.

5. Arron Afflalo, Magic (two years, $15.3 million remaining after 2013-14; has 2015-16 player option)

Afflalo has been a solid two throughout his seven-year career, and remains such for Orlando, leading the team in scoring (19.8 per game) and averaging career highs in rebounding and assists. Given the two-guard market, he's both affordable and productive, a double-double that would be enticing to most contending teams. The question for Orlando is whether it's worth sending the 28-year-old on his way for still more Draft picks and young players.

At some point, you have to find a core group and stick with it. The Magic have a promising piece in rookie Victor Oladipo, but is he really a point guard? Jameer Nelson could certainly be dealt, but given his age (32), the market is softer for him than it would be for Afflalo -- though he does have an enticing contract ($8.6 million with a team option for 2014-15) that will become more valuable for Orlando as the Draft nears.

Rebuilding teams need solid citizens in their locker room to lead young guys, and Afflalo meets that standard. Ex-Nuggets coach George Karl swore by him in Denver, but the Magic insisted on him being part of the Dwight Howard mega-deal that ended up sending Andre Iguodala to the Nuggets and Howard to the L.A. Lakers.

Come to think of it: with Iggy long gone to Golden State and Nate Robinson out for the season, the Nuggets could do worse than bringing Afflalo back; they certainly have enough pieces to make a deal with Orlando work. (Maybe Denver could get back the 2014 first it sent to the Magic in that Iguodala deal. Just sayin'.)

Right now, the Magic are inclined to hang on to Afflalo -- unless, again, they get a significant talent in return. They don't see the need to deal Afflalo just because he's a young veteran and don't need any more picks. They need to start showing some signs of real improvement next season, and make some kind of playoff push, and trading one's leading scorer tends to impede that kind of progress. Next season will be the third since the Dwight Howard trade; fans are patient, but only to a point.

6. Pau Gasol, Lakers (unrestricted free agent after 2013-14)

This is a tough call only because of Gasol's relationship with Kobe Bryant. Gasol clearly doesn't fit in coach Mike D'Antoni's system, and neither man seems interested at his point in his respective career to make accommodations for the other. The Lakers and Suns have had on-again, off-again talks recently, with the holdup reportedly Phoenix's willingness to give the Lakers a first-round pick in a potential deal.

But with Bryant coming back from the broken bone in his leg before the end of the season, and beginning that $48 million extension next season, the Lakers have to pay heed to their franchise player's desires. And he desires to continue playing with Gasol, who helped Bryant win rings in 2009 and '10.

When Bryant's extension was announced, Bryant made it crystal clear he'd been told by Lakers management that not only would the team be able to re-sign Gasol this summer despite Bryant's huge numbers, but also be able to add an impact free agent. The Suns don't have anyone that would be considered impact on their roster (unless the Lakers are somehow able to pry Eric Bledsoe or Goran Dragic from Phoenix -- highly unlikely).

7. Zach Randolph, Grizzlies (player option for 2014-15)

With the Grizz having started to turn things around after a slow start, the chances of Memphis moving Randolph are probably not that great. The fact remains, though, that forward Ed Davis is a favorite of management, and the Grizzlies don't have a lot else they can package if they want to upgrade at small forward for the stretch drive if Davis is a non-starter.

There's no way Randolph is walking away from the $16.5 million he's owed next season, so any team curious about him could count on at least one season from him -- making him a potential rent-a-player target for teams that have short windows (Dallas comes to mind, though maybe not until the summer, if the Mavs can't flip Shawn Marion's expiring deal into something else by the deadline.)

The Suns were reportedly the latest team to ask the Grizz about Randolph. He would be a perfect fit in Phoenix, a 270-pound docking station for all those satellites firing threes around him. The Suns certainly have a number of three prospects to offer as well. So does Washington (see above), with Trevor Ariza, Martell Webster and Porter, Jr. -- though the Wizards wouldn't want Randolph. They'd likely be more interested in Davis.

8. Eric Gordon, Pelicans (two years, $30.3 million remaining through 2015-16)

The Pelicans need a big man to play alongside Anthony Davis. They've got Tyreke Evans to play the two alongside Jrue Holiday. They've denied it, but they've been shopping Gordon for a while. So, what gives?

"The reason they can't move Eric Gordon now," a general manager said Sunday, "is because he's not the same player he was before the injuries."

And that's why moving Gordon could come back to bite New Orleans.

Gordon's had a bunch of injuries the last three seasons, no question -- a chipped bone in his wrist cost him 18 games in 2010-11, and right knee injuries in 2011-12 and 2012-13 kept him out a total of 86 games over those two seasons -- or, a full season-plus. The Clippers couldn't wait on him any longer, and ultimately pulled the trigger to send Gordon to N'awlins (keeping Eric Bledsoe) in order to facilitate the Chris Paul deal in 2011.

But most injuries -- most, not all -- heal. And Gordon showed when he was healthy that he was one of the most explosive and talented two guards in the league -- 22 a night for the Clippers in his last full season there. The Suns gave him that $56 million offer sheet just two summers ago, after all, a deal that New Orleans matched in order to hold onto its asset.

Pelicans owner Tom Benson wants the team to make a playoff run right quick, though, so the pressure is on to surround Davis with as many quality pieces as possible. So Gordon may well be gone in a week and a half, though that $30 mil is a big nut these days.

TOP O' THE WORLD, MA!

(Last week's record in parenthesis)

1) Oklahoma City [1] (3-1): Speaking for myself: How the heck is Serge Ibaka not an All-Star?

2) Indiana [2] (3-1): George Hill, slowly, is wearing down my belief that the Pacers need point-guard help if they're going to beat Miami in a seven-game series.

3) Miami [5] (2-1): Heat have another tough time in Utah, losing to the Jazz Saturday at Energy Solutions Arena -- the third time in four years the SuperFriends have lost in Salt Lake City.

4) Portland [3] (2-2): Bench issues creeping up again after reserves' production drops significantly.

5) L.A. Clippers [4] (2-2): CP3 returns to the lineup Sunday night against the 76ers, and thus makes himself eligible to play in next Sunday's All-Star Game in his beloved New Orleans.

6) Houston [6] (2-0): Rockets finally get Omer Asik (thigh) back on the court Saturday, with trade gab about the unhappy center sure to start kicking up again this week. Still think he would make the most sense either in New Orleans, which needs a cop to protect Anthony Davis with Jason Smith out for the season, or Milwaukee, where the rebuilding Bucks need size desperately.

7) San Antonio [8] (3-1): After winning three of their first four games on this year's Rodeo Trip, Spurs now 68-27 in last 11 years on the Trip, with five games left in their current one going into their game tonight in Detroit

8) Dallas [11] (4-0): Five straight wins overall for the Mavs, the first time they've done that in two years, since they won six in a row from Feb. 8-17, 2012.

9) Golden State [7] (1-2): Bad times for the Warriors right now, and while they'll likely right themselves before too much longer, it's hard to see them as a legit contender out west at the moment.

10) Phoenix [9] (1-2): Won eight of last 11 without Eric Bledsoe, with Goran Dragic playing out of his mind: 26.9 points, 6.1 assists 4.4 boards in his last seven games, shooting a ridiculous 62.7 percent, 63.3 percent (19 of 30) on threes.

11) Memphis [10] (1-3): Look, we all love the Grizzlies' rediscovered defensive chops, but you do have to score a little in this league. Memphis' last five games: 86.8 per game, with two games in the 70s and an OT loss Sunday with just 83 points! (Yes, no Conley factors in.)

12) Toronto [12] (1-2): Raptors' defense dropped off significantly during their five-game west trip, allowing 105 per game.

13) Washington [14] (2-2): Bradley Beal struggling from the floor lately, though he did have a solid night Sunday (16 points, 4 of 5 on threes) against Sacramento.

14) Atlanta [13] (0-3): Over last 15 games dating to Jan. 3, Jeff Teague is shooting just 70 of 186 (37.6 percent).

15) Chicago [15] (2-2): It's hard not to think about the Bulls' future at power forward when you see how well Taj Gibson has played this week in place of Carlos Boozer (out with a calf injury), and when you hear about how Nikola Mirotic has dominated play over in Europe this season.

TEAM OF THE WEEK

Dallas (4-0): Mavs finally started playing some defense as the week went on, allowing 107, 96, 81 and 91 points in four victories. It was the first time since New Year's that the Mavs have held three straight opponents under 100 points.

TEAM OF THE WEAK

Philadelphia (0-4): Lost Weekend in L.A.: fell by 14 to the Lakers Friday night, got drilled by the Clippers in the Staples Center on Sunday night, falling behind 13-0 en route to the defeat. Now lost six straight overall and 17 of their last 20.

NOBODY ASKED ME, BUT ...

Are the Spurs really for real?

Here is coach Gregg Popovich, trying not to call you a moron to your face when you ask if Marco Belinelli has displayed better quickness than Popovich believed he'd show in picking up the Spurs' defensive system. (With a smile, it must be said.)

"It's like an oxymoron, to even ask a question with 'quickness' and 'Belinelli' in the same sentence," Popovich said. "I don't even know how to answer that."

It has been part of the Spurs' mystique all these years that they keep plugging players in who somehow become productive, regardless of who's out with injuries. They have kept that tradition up this season, and especially in the last couple of weeks.

Last Wednesday, with Manu Ginobili (hamstring) and Kawhi Leonard (broken hand) out, and with Tony Parker having to leave at the half with back spasms, the Spurs came from 17 down to beat the Wizards in Washington. It was a win Popovich called one of the best he's seen in his 18 seasons as San Antonio's coach.

The Spurs had a similar performance last month at Golden State, when Tim Duncan, Ginobili and Parker all sat out, yet the Spurs rode Belinelli's career-high 28 points to an unexpected win over the Warriors. As the sun rises today, the Spurs are 37-14, have a .725 win percentage and lead the Southwest Division.

But, there's a big caveat following San Antonio around.

The Spurs have had just one win this season over any of the league's top six teams, beating the Clippers by 24 right after New Year's in San Antonio. That's their only win this season against Oklahoma City, Indiana, Miami, the Clippers, Portland or Houston. They've gone 0-11 in the other matchups with the Big Six, losing by an average of 10.5 ppg.

And they're 36-3 against everyone else, after beating the Bobcats Saturday, their third win in four games to start the nine-game Rodeo Trip.

It leaves San Antonio facing a quandary that it normally doesn't have to face this late in the season: just how good are the Spurs? Are they title contender or pretender?

"It's a great question," Parker said. "I don't know. It's just that we've had a lot of injuries, like everybody else. Just a weird season. We ain't won a big game yet. I think we just have to stay positive and look at the big picture, and make sure we're healthy when the playoffs start. But I agree with you that we haven't played our best basketball yet, that's for sure."

The Spurs have run one new lineup after another this season. Ginobili, who injured the hamstring Jan. 28, is out until the end of the month. Leonard's been out since Jan. 22 after breaking his right hand (a non-displaced fracture of his fourth metacarpal). Danny Green just back after missing 10 games (broken left hand) and Parker's been in and out of the lineup with back and shin injuries.

For the moment, though, the Spurs' inability to beat the league's elite draws shrugs on the team more than anything else.

"We need a consistent lineup and consistent minutes more than anything," Popovich said. "This guy's ready now, and this guy's not, and it's back and forth. And we're resting these guys, and we're resting Tony 'cause of the summer. And then we're resting Timmy because it's three in four nights or whatever, and then that guy's injured, and this one isn't. It's been a piecemeal deal back and forth. They haven't really been on sort of a consistent run at all ... we've got to just keep plugging here and there and try to stay above water until everybody comes back, and you can have three weeks where everybody's playing, and we can have the guys we want out on the court."

But the wins against the others still count. The Spurs, as Brooklyn Nets coach Jason Kidd said last week, continue to play for the front of the jersey.

"It's been engrained for years," said backup guard Patty Mills, who scored 23 in Washington to spur (sorry) the victory there. Mills also came back on Saturday to post 32 in Charlotte, with 18 coming in the fourth quarter, in the Spurs' win over the Bobcats -- leaving Parker comfortable on the bench through the fourth quarter.

Last June, as the Spurs battled the Heat in The Finals, Mills was laid low by an infection he developed following foot surgery. But he stayed connected with the team, found ways to contribute by "basically being a cheerleader," he said.

(His self-ribbing "Art of Towel Waving" video last season gained some viral steam during San Antonio's playoff run.)

He never gives a thought to the idea of going somewhere else where he might play more, score more or be more of a household name in the States. The concept of team is too strong to leave.

"It's the organization, it's the people involved, it's the people at the top, in Timmy [Duncan], Tony and Manu, who trickle down to us," Mills said. "They're great leaders. And I think the rest of the team are great followers as well. There's an understanding of why you're playing the game, and who you're playing for. I think the underlying thing on this team is we play for each other. We care about each other as teammates, and we know that people are going to have our backs on the court."

It, once again, starts at the top, with the Spurs' front office, with Popovich and R.C. Buford. Even after all these years, no one reads his team's collective pulse and challenges its collective will better than Popovich.

Many teams come to Washington and have their team check out the various monuments on the National Mall. Popovich did them one better. Before the Spurs toured the new Martin Luther King, Jr., Memorial, Popovich showed them a film featuring one of King's civil rights struggles -- not in Selma, or Montgomery, Alabama, about which many people already know. He picked St. Augustine, Fla., which suffered through race riots in 1964 as King and other activists led sit-ins and other demonstrations to bring national attention to the continued brutality blacks faced in the deep South.

Blacks won judicial victories in court, but many businesses remained segregated. Nonetheless, the attention paid to St. Augustine in the summer of '64 may have been a tipping point in the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which desegregated almost all public facilities and created the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

It's hardly a wonder, then, that Popovich's players continue to buy what he's selling -- even as he stays on them consistently. Newcomers like Belinelli have an especially tough time. In Chicago, coach Tom Thibodeau would rather cough up a lung than play zone. Popovich doesn't like the zone, either, but with the injuries, he's had to throw it in on occasion.

"For me, it's a new system," Belinelli said. "Offense, defense, especially like now, when we try to play zone defense, some 1-3-1. I'm a little bit confused about that, because it's new for me. But at the same time, I just try to, I've got great teammates who try to help me out a lot, like Manu and the other guys."

But Belinelli has had no second thoughts about going to the Spurs.

"I think Pop is a great guy, great coach," Belinelli said. "He's got a special relationship with the players. I think that's different between him and Thibs. But like I've said a lot of times, my stay with Thibs was very important for me. He gave me a lot of confidence, he helped me on defense, tried to understand better the situations on offense."

Despite all the injuries, the Spurs are still an elite defensive team this season. They're fifth in the league in defensive rating, allowing 102.6 points per 100 possessions, and are sixth in points allowed per game (97.3), opponent's effective field-goal percentage and defensive rebound percentage.

Popovich's theory as to why?

"I'm an [expletive]," he said. "I'm on them daily about defense. It's not as good as you want to be, but they know. They know you have to be able to make a stop in the fourth quarter if you want to be the last team standing. And we don't make enough stops in the fourth quarter right now, so we're on their butts all the time now about getting better and better at it."

They'll get two more cracks at Top Six teams this month after the All-Star break, with back-to-backs coming out of the break at the Clippers and Blazers. And, for seemingly the 47th straight season, the clock is ticking on Duncan, Ginobili and Parker's chances at a last championship together.

"I think everybody maybe knows that," Belinelli said. "We want to do like everything 100 percent. We want to be aggressive. We want fight until the last second of the game or whatever."

... AND NOBODY ASKED YOU, EITHER

Perhaps the stockade would be in order. From Marko Mladjen:

The NBA has done a great job acknowledging bad calls (and no calls) by the referees lately, but do you think it will ever be taken one step further? Most of the calls are for late-game situations of close games, which could have decided the game in question, but past acknowledging that the call was blown, nothing gets done.

I'll give an example: I write this on the morning of Thursday, February 6th. On the night of February 5th, the Raptors' Kyle Lowry was called for an offensive foul while he was taking a 3-point shot (which he made) against the Sacramento Kings. The Raptors were down by 6, the shot would have put them back by 3 (it also seems that he got fouled, so in reality a made free throw could have brought them within 2). Instead of being down by 2 with 26 seconds to go, Lowry fouled out of the game, the Raptors were left without their best player and down by 6 with the opponent having the ball. The game was more or less over. With 3.5 games between the 3rd place Raptors and 7th place Nets, every game could be the difference in playoff seeding.

My question is this: do you think that referees should be made accountable for these situations through some kind of monetary penalization? It would have to be in situations that were without question blown calls, and I'm sure the NBRA would have something to say about it, but I think something should be done. Players get fined and assessed technical fouls for visibly disagreeing with referees, and while I overall agree with that I also think that some of the time the disagreement is warranted (Lowry got a second tech for running to the other side of the court after his foul call.) Bad performance at any other job does not simply go unpunished, I don't see why this would be an exception.

I said and wrote last week that I think the league should name names when it comes to referee errors. It's not enough to hide behind the passive voice, "mistakes were made" kind of release the NBA has issued this season after determining game officials have made mistakes. But to your question: the league does on occasion fine officials it believes make especially egregious errors in judgment, as it did in 2009 to official Bill Kennedy for his role in a run-in with then-Celtics coach Doc Rivers. The league, of course, denies playoff assignments to its lowest-graded officials, and officials who consistently receive the lowest grades from the department are not retained.

They do work in Hollywood, I guess. From Bahij Yamout:

I'm a die-hard Lakers fan. Do you think it's possible that they are "faking" injuries to have a viable excuse to "tank" and slip down to a chance for a great pick in a great draft? Does the league monitor injuries, i.e. is there any official committee that confirms a player is indeed injured and cannot/should not play? Because otherwise, it seems pretty easy to fake injury reports and "tank" sneakily.

They're not faking anything, Bajij. Kobe Bryant, Steve Blake and Jordan Farmar are really hurt and Steve Nash was really hurt, too. There's no committee, but if the league has questions about a team, the team's athletic trainers and team doctors are a phone call away -- and the league doesn't like athletic trainers and team doctors who lie to them about injuries. As the league can fine said athletic trainers, doctors and teams that lie about injuries, it's not a regular practice.

Send your questions, comments, criticisms and continuing education plans for Jay Leno, who is looking for work to daldridgetnt@gmail.com. If your e-mail is sufficiently funny, thought-provoking, well-written or snarky, we just might publish it!

MVP WATCH

(weekly averages in parentheses)

1) Kevin Durant (31.8 ppg, 8 rpg, 9 apg, .518 FG, .778 FT): Seventh game with 40+ points this season on Sunday, going for 41 against the Knicks. KD also has another 24 games this season with 30 or more points.

2) LeBron James (22.7 ppg, 7.7 rpg, 9.3 apg, .462 FG, .727 FT): Picked it up last week, especially his facilitating, after he called himself out on Twitter to do better.

3) LaMarcus Aldridge (20.8 ppg, 10 rpg, 3.8 apg, .480 FG, .786 FT): Third All-Star appearance beckons for Cousin LaMarcus; Portland hasn't had a big man make three straight All Star Games since the late Maurice Lucas did it from 1977-79.

4) Paul George (19.3 ppg, 6 rpg, 3.5 apg, .371 FG, 1.000 FT): Pacers keep saying not to worry about George's shooting. I'm starting to worry about George's shooting.

5) Tim Duncan (22.7 ppg, 10.3 rpg, 3.7 bpg, .547 FG, .625 FT): Breaks into the MVP talk again as San Antonio overcomes injury after injury to remain on top in the Southwest Division.

Dropped out: Stephen Curry.

BY THE NUMBERS

7 -- Owners and executives named to a new committee by new Commissioner Adam Silver, according to the Sports Business Journal, that will assist him during negotiations with the broadcast and cable television networks on a new rights deal. The committee will consist of owners Wyc Grousbeck (Boston), James Dolan (New York), Clay Bennett (Oklahoma City), Peter Holt (San Antonio), Greg Miller (Utah) and Ted Leonsis (Washington), along with Bulls President and Chief Operating Officer Michael Reinsdorf.

16 -- Consecutive victories by the Spurs over the Wizards after San Antonio rallied from a double-digit deficit in the first half to defeat Washington Wednesday. The Wizards haven't beaten the Spurs since Nov. 12, 2005.

1 -- Free throws the Grizzlies attempted Saturday in their victory over Atlanta. It was the first time in league history that a team that attempted just one free throw in a game won the game.

I'M FEELIN'...

1) A correct, if not especially difficult, decision by Adam Silver to name Anthony Davis as the replacement for the injured Kobe Bryant for the All-Star Game. The 'Brow should have been put on the team by the Western Conference coaches in the first place.

2) So happy that Shaun Livingston isn't just playing again, and starting again, but that he's been a significant part of the Nets' resurgence. Nobody -- nobody -- has had to overcome more than Livingston has in returning from that gruesome knee injury, so he gets all praise for not merely surviving, but playing at a level similar to how he was playing before he was so horribly injured.

3) It's time for someone to make this happen, without blinking or stammering, and not because of the social significance of it, but because Nancy Lieberman is a damn good communicator, and she could make any basketball player better, regardless of his or her chromosome breakdown.

4) The pictures from Sochi and the Winter Olympics are great on the TV. I can't think of many events I'm terribly interested in watching, however.

5) Good for CVS. It appears you can forgo some profits for the public good.

6) Good luck to Michael Sam, who displayed more courage by uttering two words to his coaches -- "I'm gay" -- than he ever did on a football field. Now, we will really find out where America is when it comes to homosexuality in its sports. It will be a big deal for a while. Whether it continues to be will provide our answer.

7) Really cool story on former NFL lineman Alan Faneca, who has dropped 70 pounds since retiring and feels healthier and better than he did when he was playing. I am now going to get on the elliptical for an hour in tribute. Seriously. No, really.

NOT FEELIN'...

1) Chris Grant took the fall in Cleveland, no surprise given that the Cavs have been the league's most disappointing team this season, and that coach Mike Brown just started a $20 million deal that owner Dan Gilbert was not going to eat this soon (especially as he's still paying off Byron Scott ). What's worse for the Cavaliers is that all the dysfunction is harming their chances of re-signing free-agent-to-be Luol Deng. Deng will never admit it publicly, but he was indeed dismayed by the attitude and disposition of some teammates in Cleveland after leaving the cocoon of camaraderie that he'd grown used to in Chicago.

2) Pistons GM Joe Dumars would not fire Mo Cheeks midway through the season. This was owner Tom Gores' call, all the way. Yet don't automatically assume that Dumars' days in Detroit are coming to an end as well, though I'm sure Gores will again kick Phil Jackson's tires to see if he'd coach. It's still hard, though, to see Big Chief Triangle going to Detroit for anything less than full control of the front office and a piece of the team -- and no coaching.

3) With the NFL off the air until next fall, the Association gets a chance to showcase its best teams on Sunday afternoon for the next two months. As such, ABC -- or whoever has the Sunday game after the next TV deal is done -- should have greater flexibility to get out of scheduled games that have lost their appeal -- such as Bulls-Lakers, the second game on Sunday. Maybe a Rose/Kobe-less game featuring two of the top four markets did a good number anyway, but wouldn't it be good for the game if ABC had at least the option to go to another game?

4) I would love to believe the working thesis of this study. It has been my experience, though, that people who are racist already know they are racist, and don't have any particular problem with that, and don't feel any compelling need to change their beliefs and behaviors.

5) No Tip next Monday. I will be hip-deep in All-Star goings on for TNT and NBA TV all weekend in New Orleans. I'm sure you'll manage. Back on Feb. 24!

Q AND A: DAMIAN LILLARD

Damian Lillard, evidently, is a young man in search of a challenge.

The Blazers' second-year guard, who already is one of the league's best end-of-game finishers, wasn't content with making his first All-Star team this season in Portland. Lillard is attempting to make All-Star weekend all his own, agreeing to take part in an unprecedented five events in New Orleans: the BBVA Compass Rising Stars Challenge on Friday, the Taco Bell Skills Challenge, the Foot Locker Three-Point Contest and the Sprite Slam Dunk contest on Saturday, and, lastly, the All-Star Game on Sunday.

Doing all of that is going to wear the 23-year-old out; Lillard has shown he's got more than enough stamina to finish games strong. With fellow All-Star LaMarcus Aldridge, Lillard has been the co-catalyst for the surprising Blazers, who'll hit the break with a top-four record in the west and still within striking distance of first-place Oklahoma City in the Northwest Division. He's become a more consistent three-point shooter (though, oddly, he's dropped off from his rookie numbers inside the 3-point line), and he's continued to show an amazing proclivity for taking over games down the stretch.

Per NBA.com's Player Clutch stats, Portland is a sublime 21-9 this season when Lillard scores in the final five minutes of a game in which the Blazers are within five points or are ahead. It figures that Lillard would have the mental toughness to do such things, having learned his craft in one of the great basketball cradles -- Oakland, the home of Bill Russell, Gary Payton, Jason Kidd and so many other pro legends -- along with, perhaps, the greatest of all the great playground legends, Demetrius (Hook) Mitchell.

Me: Walk me through end-of-game situations, whether you're in a 1-4 or high screen/roll set. What is your mental approach as you decide what you're going to do?

Damian Lillard: Make something happen. That's the only thing I'm thinking about. We have a chance to either tie or to win the game, and I want to make that decision -- if I'm going to attack and make the right play, whether it's somebody else making the shot or me making the shot. I want to make something happen, and make sure we get a great possession out of that opportunity. If it comes to be a turnover because I'm attacking, then that's what it is. But I want to make something happen.

Me: Are people jumping you early in those situations, get the ball out of your hands, and they'll rotate and live with what happens on the weak side?

DL: Yeah, I mean a couple of teams tried to deny me. Last game, it was at the end of the third quarter. We were going to flatten them out, and they ran a guy at me so I had to get rid of the ball. We still ended up scoring, but it was like 10 seconds left, and as soon as I told everybody to go flat, one of their guys ran straight at me. Just stuff like that.

Me: You remember the first time you hit a game winner?

DL: It was high school. I was in the ninth grade. We was getting blew out the whole game; it was a tournament. We came back, and I think we were down one with like 10 seconds left, and we drew up a play. I came down and I made a shot with, like, three seconds left. I made the shot. And we all started celebrating. And I took my jersey off, and I got a tech for taking my jersey off, and we lost the game.

Me: Obviously the chemistry and fit is good on this team this season. What has that done for your game?

DL: It makes everything easier. I think we all understand each other, and when you have that type of chemistry, it makes everything easier. And I know who I'm playing with, the type of people that they are, what they need from me to be their best as basketball players. And they understand that about me, too. When things are like that, and we don't have no guys being jealous of each other, people wanting to be in control of everything, it makes everything a lot easier.

Me: Do you know where everybody wants the ball now, what spots on the floor, and where, when in the shot clock, things like that?

DL: I mean, I don't even think it's that deep. I think it's just knowing what I can call to make sure that they are in an action that they can do something in. Whether it's them coming off of a pin down for a shot, or me letting them get in a pick and roll, and me spacing things out, just stuff like that. I know what to call to make sure they get an opportunity to do what they do.

Me: How does a young guy, especially a young point guard, find his voice in a room full of men?

DL: You've got to earn respect. Once you earn everybody's respect, they respect what you say. I think that's what I had to do. I just had to earn their respect by how I went about handling my business, and then backing it up and performing on the court. And once everybody respects you, then they see that you've been in a war with them and you've been through it with them a few times, they start to trust you. And everything you do from that point on is kind of more respected, when you speak up. I think that's what it was for me.

Me: What is (assistant David) Vanterpool in your ear about the most?

DL: When I'm doing something well, he tells me I'm doing it well. When it's something I need to get better at, he's constantly on me about 'You need to be better at this stuff.' If Earl [Watson] gets in the game, and he's doing something, coming off a pick and roll, and it's an easy play -- and I never make that easy play -- he'll say 'You see how Earl just did that? When you come off, you need to look at that.' Stuff like that. A lot of it is him showing me examples of stuff that I need to do better, and we work on it.

Me: He has said one of the things he likes about you is you're willing to work. How has that shown up at the defensive end this season?

DL: I don't know. I mean, you'd have to watch it to see, like look at last year and then this year to see what's different. Most of it was just watching film on myself, seeing a lot of the mistakes I made. I was running into screens. Even now, if I get tired, I might run into a screen. But I think that my overall, one on one, post defense, pick and roll defense, is night and day from last season.

Me: How long was -- is -- the process of figuring out angles defensively?

DL: Honestly, I don't even think it's angles. I think it's more of, last year people would say a lot of terms. I would hear a lot of NBA terms, what was coming, and I didn't know them. Now, if I hear 'weak' or 'wide' and stuff like that, I can kind of put together what's coming. Or '13' and stuff like that, I know it's a 1-3 pick and roll. Just terms, I think, for me, it's been a lot of that. People call stuff out and I can kind of get a step ahead, because I know what's coming. Whereas last year, I was just playing defense. I didn't know what was going on. I just think learning a lot of those terms helped me.

Me: Oakland question. Did you ever actually see Hook play in person?

DL: I saw, I been watching Hook play. He still played when I was in high school and college. He would be playing 'round Oakland. If I was playing in an open gym, he'd be playing in an open gym. I mean, you were waiting to see him dunk, honestly. He was always one of the players who could still play for a long time. Everybody respected him in the gym. Once Hook came in, he's automatically on the court, automatically going to pass him the ball. For me, it was always crazy to just be out there, and it's Hook Mitchell. Everybody knows Hook.

TWEET OF THE WEEK

You know it's bad when your mom text you "what was that!?" Lmao great team win tho ‪#ShaqtinAFool
-- Kings forward Derrick Williams (@RealDwill7), Tuesday, 1:54 a.m., after this unfortunate attempt at an off-the-backboard dunk during Sacramento's romp over Chicago Monday night.

THEY SAID IT

"He called me a clown? I would like to respond but clowns can't talk. So I'll mime or make him some animal balloons or something."
-- Bulls forward Mike Dunleavy, Jr., after being called a "clown" by Kings center DeMarcus Cousins on Monday. Cousins has had beef with Dunleavy since last season, when he accused Dunleavy, then in Milwaukee, of trying to undercut him deliberately as they fought for rebounding position in a March game. Cousins then threw an elbow at Dunleavy and was ejected from the game.

"I never knew when you fouled out, you could go back in. I never knew that was a rule. So, I had my shoes untied and I was like lying down on the bench because we had like a really long bench. There was like 30 feet of extra space."
-- Lakers center Chris Kaman, on the implementation of an obscure rule in Wednesday's game between the Lakers and Cavaliers. The Lakers had just five healthy and eligible players toward the end of the game, after Nick Young and Jordan Farmar suffered injuries and Kaman had fouled out earlier in the fourth quarter. When center Robert Sacre also picked up his sixth foul, the Lakers had no one who could replace him. So, under Rule No. 3, Section I, Part A, Sacre was allowed to stay in the game, though the Lakers were charged with a technical foul. Every subsequent foul Sacre committed would have also resulted in technicals against L.A.

"I think I should be out there, but it's (Thibodeau's) choice. He makes the decisions out there, so I play. I don't coach, he coaches. So he decides that. But honestly, he's been doing that a lot since I've been here, not putting me in the fourth quarter. Sometimes we win. More times than not, we don't. But that's his choice."
-- Carlos Boozer, speaking out on Tom Thibodeau's decision to bench him for the fourth quarter of each of the Bulls' first two games on their western road trip.

Longtime NBA reporter and columnist David Aldridge is an analyst for TNT. You can e-mail him here and follow him on Twitter.

The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Turner Broadcasting.

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