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David Aldridge

Kevin Durant
The NBA's best player? It's still LeBron James. The MVP? Well, that's a different story.

As season winds down to a close, one man's NBA award picks


Posted Apr 14, 2014 10:24 AM

This year, the Pro Basketball Writers of America have announced that the votes of the 121 writers and broadcasters in the U.S. and Canada who pick the year-end NBA awards will be made public, in conjunction with the association's meeting with The Commish during All-Star weekend. This is a very good thing.

One thing I've always liked about the baseball writers is that they are transparent about their Hall of Fame ballots -- here's who I voted for, and why. It's something that the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame should think strongly about doing with its HOF voters.

Here at the Tip, I've always disclosed my annual awards votes. It's only fair that you know why I made the choices I did, and I'm quite comfortable with the yearly "whaddya talkin' about/you're an idiot" responses that inevitably come in. You're entitled to disagree, as long as the disagreement comes from a fact-based place and not the lunatic ravings of a fan.

So, it's business as usual here. The choices this season are easier and harder at the same time. The quality of play has been uneven, to say the least, with a combination of injuries to key players (like Derrick Rose and Russell Westbrook) forcing changes on the fly, along with the obvious tanking/rebuilding strategy of certain teams (like Philadelphia and Milwaukee) reducing the competition for some awards -- including Rookie of the Year.

I'm sorry, but I can't give anyone an award from a team that lost 26 games in a row and is as bad as Philly's been this season. It's not Michael Carter-Williams' fault, of course, but winning does have to factor in when you're saying someone is the best at whatever the award is. And I can't honor someone from Philly, no matter who it is, this season. I understand what the Sixers are doing and it's their fans that have to decide whether it's worth it, not me. But there has to be a cost for putting a product like that out on the floor. This is part of that cost.

Anyway, as ever, my annual caveat: this is my ballot. When and if you're fortunate enough to get a ballot, you will vote the way you believe is right. My ballot only has to make sense to me. Therefore, it's pointless to write me after reading this with some kind of MIT-based theorem that "proves" Rudy Gobert is better than Blake Griffin.

Please, save those bits of cyberspace.

MOST VALUABLE PLAYER

The Winner: Kevin Durant, Oklahoma City

The Runner-Up: LeBron James, Miami

The Others: Blake Griffin, L.A. Clippers, Tim Duncan, San Antonio, James Harden, Houston

Let's get this out of the way: LeBron James is, and remains, the best basketball player in the NBA.

But the MVP award is not for the best basketball player. It's for the basketball player who's had the best season. There is no doubt in my mind that Durant has had the best season of any player in the league, and is worthy of his first MVP.

I am least impressed by his scoring average (32.0 points a game) or his streak of 41 consecutive games scoring at least 25 points. That is one of those statistical streaks that, upon examination, doesn't mean much. It's interesting, like being able to juggle. But it's not demonstrative of anything in particular, other than Durant can score better than anyone in the game, which we already knew.

Durant gets my vote this year because he's had an outstanding, two-way season for the Thunder. He's been better at both ends, more consistently, than James has been. Like James, he carried his team through long stretches of the season when key players were injured. But unlike James, he did so in the minefield that is the Western Conference. There are very few Milwaukees, Bostons and Phillys to beat up on in the West, but OKC nonetheless finished a hair behind San Antonio for the NBA's best record.

The numbers: Through Saturday, Durant led the league in NBA.com's Player Impact Estimate, which estimates a player's impact or contributions on a game, at 20.7 percent. Durant led in John Hollinger's Player Efficiency Rating at 30.22, ahead of James. Durant leads the NBA in Win Shares (18.6) this season, well ahead of James (15.7), according to Basketball-Reference.com, leading the league in Offensive Win Shares (14.3). And, he's 10th in the league in Defensive Win Shares (4.3). Only Griffin has an offense-defense split anywhere near that good (10th offensively, 14th defensively).

His turnovers are still high -- 3.5 per game -- but coach Scott Brooks has given up the ghost on that one, giving Durant the kind of freedom to try to make passes that all elite point guards -- who often wind up with high turnover numbers as well -- get from their coaches.

Durant incorporated teammates seamlessly when Westbrook went down this season, finding a rhythm with Serge Ibaka on screen-rolls and other sets that kept the Thunder's offense rolling.

He's coachable. Like all players, he has injuries; like all great players, he plays through them almost every night. Unless Durant is held out of the last couple of regular season games, he will have missed one game this season and 16 in seven seasons -- eight of which came in his second season.

He has become so much more efficient. Look at how lethal he's become from just about everywhere on the court in just the last three seasons (compare his 2010-11 shot chart with his 2013-14 shot chart). He will likely finish just short of again joining the 180 Club: 50 percent from the floor, 40 percent on 3-point range, 90 percent from the line (through Saturday, his aggregate score was 177.8).

None of this means James has had a bad season. He's been unbelievable as always, his numbers solid if dipping slightly because of reduced playing time. In more than one area -- such as assists, True Shooting Percentage and Effective Field Goal percentage -- his numbers are better than Durant's.

And, like Durant, James has had to play much of the season without a key teammate, with Dwyane Wade's knees forcing Miami into a maintenance program that kept Wade out many nights and almost all back-to-back games. James has also had his own physical issues.

Griffin will also have critics, but he's put most of them on blast this season. His perimeter game became more dependable as the Clippers were able to run their offense through him for long stretches. He can put the ball on the floor and make scoring passes.

He carried the team while Chris Paul was out. He's become a more vocal leader. And with all the pressure on him from minute one to be a franchise savior, he's had to turn the other cheek when he's been hammered by foes.

We take what Duncan does, year after year, for granted -- because he does it year after year. But he'll be 38 in less than two weeks. Guys about to turn 38 don't do what Duncan's done this season. No, he's not the unstoppable offensive force he was earlier in his career, but he's still pretty doggone good. He's still the catalyst and prideful leader of a Spurs team that has somehow gotten off the deck after their 2013 Finals loss to post the NBA's best record this year.

Harden's season-long excellence came as he had to find a comfort zone with Dwight Howard, while still being a blunt object of an offensive weapon. He took criticism of his defense to heart and has become, if not a stopper, a much more consistent performer there. No one can take the ball from him and almost no one can defend him without fouling, given his array of Eurosteps, left-handed drives and savvy vet lean-in moves that always draw whistles.

ROOKIE OF THE YEAR

The Winner: Victor Oladipo, Orlando

The Runner-Up: Michael Carter-Williams, Philadelphia

The Others: Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee; Trey Burke, Utah; Mason Plumlee, Brooklyn

This may speak to a failing of mine, and I'm willing to listen on it. But I couldn't pull the trigger and reward someone whose team not only lost 26 games in a row, but the same team that so obviously didn't care how many games it lost this season in order to improve its potential standing in the Draft.

And that is, absolutely, the 76ers' right as an organization. I mean, if you think about it, if you're going to tank, does it make any sense to tank "a little?" You might as well go all in.

But that doesn't mean I have to reward it.

An organization that isn't doing everything it can to win games makes it impossible to take the numbers produced in those games seriously. How do you separate the numbers in the games Phillly made a great effort in from the numbers in which the 76ers made little or no effort? It's like trying to separate the homers someone hit while on steroids from the ones they hit while clean. Everything's tainted.

So, while Carter-Williams has been named Eastern Conference Rookie of the Month four times, and leads all rookies this season in scoring (16.6 points a game), rebounds (6.1) and assists (6.3), I've got to go with Oladipo, who was second to MCW among rookies in points, third among rookies in assists, tied for sixth among rookies in boards and who is fourth among rookies in 3-pointers.

And please don't tell me how this is a "snub" that could hurt MCW's career. The following is a brief list of players who didn't win Rookie of the Year: Bill Russell (who started the 1956-57 season later than other rookies -- including Tom Heinsohn, who got the award -- because of his Olympic commitment), Jerry West, Magic Johnson, Hakeem Olajuwon, John Stockton, Karl Malone, Scottie Pippen, Reggie Miller, Kobe Bryant and Dwight Howard. He's going to be fine.

If anyone has a case for a snub, it's actually Plumlee, whose PER is higher than MCW's or Oladipo's, and who has been a major contributor for the Nets during their second-half run, taking over at center for Kevin Garnett and helping stabilize the paint. Antetokounmpo, the Bucks' "Greek Freak," has amazing potential, but come on: Milwaukee's record is worse than Philly's! After Philly lost 26 straight! Burke got a late start and has some growing to do, but he's well on his way to affirmatively answering the important question of whether he could play the point in the pros.

COACH OF THE YEAR

The Winner: Gregg Popovich, San Antonio

The Runner-Up: Doc Rivers, L.A. Clippers

The Others: Tom Thibodeau, Chicago, Dwane Casey, Toronto, Steve Clifford, Charlotte

If you were in Miami for Game 7 of The 2013 Finals, you know why Popovich gets this award. He had to put back together a shattered team, one that had expended every ounce of energy and will it had to get to the brink of a championship, only to lose it in the most brutally emotional way possible. And yet, Popovich got them back on focus almost within days of the start of training camp, and the Spurs haven't looked back.

They are on pace for the best regular season in franchise history, and while that has next to nothing to do with the playoffs that will follow, it's nonetheless impressive, given the core group's fragility and Popovich's insistence that he'll rest them when needed -- and maybe when it isn't -- to keep them fresh for the playoffs.

Kawhi Leonard missed a month of play with a broken hand. And during that time, Popovich shut Tony Parker down for almost three weeks because Parker was banged up. Plus, Manu Ginobili's hamstring injury dovetailed much of Leonard's and Parker's missed playing time. Yet the Spurs, again, rolled through the Rodeo Trip, this time with the likes of Patty Mills and Marco Belinelli leading the way. Popovich's demands for excellence -- no matter who's on the floor -- never has anything to do with a given game. Rather, it is about the elusive, unattainable goal of beating the game of basketball itself.

And, after all these years, his players still respond. He still, after almost 20 years of doing this, has the locker room. But this was not like any season, coming off of The Finals. This was Popovich's best coaching job, and that's saying something.

Rivers certainly had a lot to work with after coming from Boston, but he was brought to L.A. to do exactly what he did: take an already good team and make it even better. The Clippers were fourth in the league in offensive rating last season; they're first this season. But the real test, of course, will be in the playoffs.

Thibodeau continues to live by a simple mantra: "We've got enough." No matter that the Bulls were crushed emotionally with the loss of Rose for the second time in three seasons to another knee injury. No matter that the Bulls dealt the team's emotional center, Luol Deng, to Cleveland in midseason. Chicago's defense is even better this season than last year, and Thibodeau's gamble that Taj Gibson was ready to supplant Carlos Boozer down the stretch of games was correct.

Clifford took a defense that finished last in the league in each of the preceding two seasons and improved it to sixth in one season, without adding a major defensive piece (indeed, the thought among many was that the Bobcats couldn't possibly be better defensively after signing Al Jefferson in free agency).

MOST IMPROVED PLAYER

The Winner: Lance Stephenson, Indiana

The Runner-Up: Goran Dragic, Phoenix

The Others: DeMar DeRozan, Toronto, Gerald Green, Phoenix, Blake Griffin, Clippers

Stephenson, aka "Born Ready", may be playing for a contract, but he was the key to Indiana's fast start this season. If Indy has hopes of righting its ship for the playoffs, Stephenson has to be a big part of it, too.

He has dramatically improved across the board: career highs in points (13.8 points a game), rebounds (7.2), assists (4.6), field-goal percentage (49.1) and 3-point percentage (35.2). He has a NBA-best five triple-doubles this season, and has been crucial to Indy's still-stingy defense, taking on the opponents' best wing players many nights.

Stephenson had to be that good to hold off Dragic for this award. The Suns' guard has been outstanding all season -- with Eric Bledsoe, without Bledsoe while he was injured, as a facilitator, as a scorer. His offensive rating this season is an absurd 119. The only edge Stephenson had was at the defensive end, and that's his edge here.

DeRozan has a new ceiling as well as a player, making his first All-Star team and becoming a bona-fide go-to player for Toronto. We've seen Green have offensive bursts before, but he's never sustained it over a full season or in meaningful games until this season with the Suns. And regular readers know that normally, someone taken first overall in the Draft, like Griffin, would not get MIP consideration. (Again: They were taken first in the Draft. They're supposed to be really good during their career!) But Griffin truly has developed, significantly, this season (see above).

DEFENSIVE PLAYER OF THE YEAR

The Winner: Joakim Noah, Chicago

The Runner-Up: Roy Hibbert, Indiana

The Others: DeAndre Jordan, L.A. Clippers; Marc Gasol, Memphis; Andre Iguodala, Golden State

This is always a tough award, because defense, of course, is not played individually in the NBA. You defend as part of a team, which has strengths and weaknesses. So this should always be viewed through that prism. And in that diffused light, we go with Noah at the wire over Hibbert.

It took the trade of Luol Deng, an outstanding defender himself, for Noah's importance to Chicago's league-best defense to become obvious to all. And, it has. Noah is, simply, relentless, as the on-court extension of Coach Tom Thibodeau.

He leads the league in Defensive Win Shares, per Basketball-Reference.com (6.35). His activity guarding screen and rolls, while getting back to his man, his weakside help on defense, his relentless rebounding, all of it while he emerged on offense as a facilitator, makes Noah the clear choice this season.

Hibbert is obviously a candidate for this award every season, such is his impact in the paint altering shots with those long arms going straight up. When other teams refer to your move as "the Hibbert," you know you've impacted the league. And for more than half of the season, the award was his, as Indy's defense has been incredible.

But Indy's recent freefall brought costs more than just the won-loss record; the Pacers' defense was still very good, but no longer intimidating. More telling is how Hibbert has virtually disappeared in recent weeks on the glass. He was never a great rebounder, not having the lateral quickness and second jumps that glass eaters possess. But you could still pencil him in for six or seven boards a night. In March, he averaged 4.6 rebounds a game. Noah averaged 9.9 -- and 7.5 assists a game.

Jordan is third in DWS (5.78) this season, leading the league in both defensive rebounds and total boards, and is third in blocks behind Anthony Davis and Serge Ibaka -- each of whom got a serious look here at Award Headquarters for inclusion in this category. Gasol's impact on the Grizzlies was most felt during his absence; as soon as he returned from a knee injury Memphis went right back to stoning people as it usually does at the defensive end. And Iguodala was as good as advertised as a wing defender for the Warriors, whose defense rarely slipped even as uneven play at the offensive end put it under siege for long stretches this year.

SIXTH MAN OF THE YEAR

The Winner: Jamal Crawford, L.A. Clippers

The Runner-Up: Taj Gibson, Chicago

The Others: Marco Belinelli, San Antonio, Reggie Jackson, Oklahoma City; Markieff Morris, Phoenix

Crawford is the embodiment of what an old school sixth man should be: a gunner who can't be stopped by almost anyone's backups. He's been outstanding this season for the Clippers, both in reserve and when he had to start 23 games this season because of injuries. Averaging 18.5 points a game in 30 minutes a night, Crawford has slayed with his usual assortment of moves and long-range firepower. There haven't been too many people, period, who've stayed in front of JCrossover over the years.

Gibson has been outstanding for Chicago all season, becoming a diversified offensive threat who has made up for the loss of Luol Deng (averaging a career-high 13.2 ppg) and who is increasingly counted on in crunch time.

Belinelli hasn't always been where he's supposed to be for the Spurs, but he can put the ball in the basket when asked, and he's won several games for San Antonio this season. Jackson is as good a "1 ½" point guard -- good enough to start for many teams, perfect off the bench for OKC -- as there is in the league, and he's shaken off occasional self-doubt to be a dynamic scorer in his own right on a team with the best one-two scoring punch in the league. Morris has lit up the Arizona sky for the Suns all season, averaging 18.5 ppg off the bench.

ALL-NBA FIRST TEAM

G: Chris Paul, L.A. Clippers
G: James Harden, Houston
F: Kevin Durant, Oklahoma City
F: LeBron James, Miami
C: Joakim Noah, Chicago

ALL-NBA SECOND TEAM

G: Stephen Curry, Golden State
G: Damian Lillard, Portland
F: Kevin Love, Minnesota
F: Blake Griffin, L.A. Clippers
C: Tim Duncan, San Antonio

ALL-NBA THIRD TEAM

G: Goran Dragic, Phoenix
G: DeMar DeRozan, Toronto
F: Paul George, Indiana
F: Carmelo Anthony, New York
C: Dwight Howard, Houston

DRIBBLES

The owner listened, hidden from his coach.

This was late Thursday night, after the Warriors had, again, played strangely uninspired basketball at home against an also-ran, and lost, again, on the night Golden State planned to clinch a playoff spot at home. Joe Lacob, the owner, entered the media room where his coach, Mark Jackson, was giving his postgame comments.

The Warriors had led by 20 in the second quarter against the depleted Nuggets, who had only nine players available because of all their injuries. They had also played the night before in Denver and flew to the Bay Area afterward ... while Golden State had just enjoyed three days off. And yet, from that point of the game on, the Warriors went through the motions -- "taking shortcuts," as Jackson put it -- while the Nuggets, who had no intention of competing the first 14 minutes of the game, realized they could steal a win in Oakland.

So Timofey Mozgov -- Mozgov apparently being Russian for "Kareem" -- hit the boards, time and again, with no Warrior able to put a body on him. Mozgov dropped stepped and jump hooked the Warriors to death.

It's true, many rebounds fell right to him, but he was there to catch them because he outworked Andrew Bogut, Jermaine O'Neal and whoever else Jackson tried on him. Plus, the Warriors' guards kept leaking out for transition opportunities instead of finishing the defensive possession with a rebound.

By the time Mozgov was done bludgeoning the Warriors to the tune of 23 points and 29 -- 29!! -- rebounds, and Kenneth Faried posted up Draymond Green for the game-winning points in the final seconds, the Nuggets had won at Golden State for the second time this season. That added to the dubious list of bad teams -- Cleveland, Minnesota, New York -- that had scored Oracle Arena wins.

Jackson had some explaining to do afterward. And his owner listened, coming into the interview room about two minutes after Jackson started talking. Because of the way the room is set up, Lacob could hear Jackson talking, but Jackson couldn't see Lacob. (Think of the setup in the old "Dating Game" show, with Lacob standing where the bachelor/bachelorette would stand and Jackson sitting where the contestants would sit onstage, blocked from one another's view.)

"It's a process," Jackson told the assembled media. "And it doesn't happen overnight."

The owner listened.

"We don't hide from the fact that we've got to do better, and we've got to do our job," Jackson said.

The owner listened.

"We've got to own up to the fact that we gave up 25 offensive rebounds," Jackson said.

The owner listened. And he left the room as the postgame presser ended, before Jackson saw him.

It seemed odd.

I don't want to make too big a deal out of this. Who knows? Maybe he does that every night after a game, win or lose. Maybe he talked with Jackson afterward in a private room, or called him in the car on the way home. Maybe they have lunch every afternoon. But it was unusual to see an owner listening to his coach talk while not being visible to the coach.

There are odd things in the air in Golden State.

It's odd when two assistant coaches who started the season on the bench are no longer on the bench.

It's odd that there's so much speculation about Jackson's future, the flood not at all stemmed by a couple of public votes of confidence in Jackson by Lacob and general manager Bob Myers. Lacob said last week he remains confident Jackson can do the job, but he also told the San Jose Mercury News last week that Jackson will be evaluated after the season. (Now, no one in a decision-making capacity, including Lacob, wants to speak, saying the focus should be on the playoffs.)

Forget all this puffery about whether Lacob likes Jackson, and vice versa. I'm sure they like each other just fine. I like my mailman. But I don't pay his salary (not directly, anyway), and he's not evaluating my typing. This isn't about liking one another; it's about whether the Warriors' brass thinks Jackson's up to the job of leading Golden State to title contention.

And, let's be clear: Lacob and his partner, Peter Guber, put $450 million into this franchise. They've committed hundreds of millions more to build a new arena in San Francisco that's supposed to be ready by 2017 (although it sounds like it might be a little longer). They have the right to manage expectations and ask for an expedited return on their substantial investment.

It's just, as one player put it last week, "if you get rid of Mark, and we bring another coach in, and we take a step or two backwards, all of a sudden, that big new building you're talking about is gonna be empty."

It's easy to forget how fleeting winning has been around here, that this team just clinched back-to-back playoff appearances for the first time in 22 seasons. Most teams get a few years to try and develop championship DNA.

"It's kind of disappointing, to see a guy come in, kind of change things around, get the culture right, and take some hits for whatever reasons," forward Andre Iguodala said early Friday. "But it's part of the game. I was in Philly. That's as hostile as it can get. So I've seen it before. But we've got a fragile group when it comes to that at times, and it can weigh on us at times."

It wasn't Jackson, in a vacuum, who decided to bring in Iguodala as a free agent -- a decision that forced Harrison Barnes to the bench and Jarrett Jack to Cleveland. The organization, from Lacob on down, made that call. But it's Jackson who's had to deal with the repercussions of the move, with Barnes slumping for much of the season.

It's Jackson who's had to come up with different rotations, including playing the undersized Green at power forward with David Lee fighting a nerve issue in his hamstring, as injuries have taken almost everyone -- save Curry and Klay Thompson -- out of the lineup at different stretches.

Through all that, and those bad home losses, Golden State's defense has remained stellar most of the season, and the Warriors are one win shy of the franchise's fourth 50-win season. But all this tension remains.

"He knows how to just pump you up and get you confident," Curry said. "It's not fake, either. As a player, you love to hear that. Sometimes you go through dry spells, and you need that little boost. I know a lot of coaches, and you've probably seen them, who throw their players under the bus as soon as they can. He never does that."

Yes, players tend to back their coach -- who is the man who controls their minutes, and thus their stats, and who thus has a very important role in determining what their subsequent paychecks will be. But Jackson has his locker room.

"I think Coach understands the DNA of our team, the heartbeat of our team, and he does a very good job on reaching us," O'Neal said. "At the end of the day, I don't care if you have Phil Jackson in here. The players are going to be the ones to make up in their minds exactly where they want to be and how they want to get it done."

But Jackson has to rightly answer for some things -- like those bad home losses, first and foremost. There have been too many of them, as well as losses to good teams in difficult circumstances -- like a Spurs team playing without any of its Big Three in December.

Like the rash of turnovers that destroys his team's offensive flow for too many stretches. (No, the coach doesn't turn the ball over, but he can sit down players who consistently botch things up.)

"With some of the below-500 teams, we really struggle for some reason, especially here at home," O'Neal said. "We shoot, and we shoot pretty fast, and sometimes, our pace doesn't really change, and it needs to change sometimes. A lot of times, that's the players on the court. I'm not sure that's something the coach can control."

It is also odd, though, that a coach loses two assistant coaches in the space of a month.

The first, Brian Scalabrine, was reassigned after clashing with Jackson in a relationship that was chilly for several weeks. But the team didn't dismiss Scalabrine; he was "reassigned" to Golden State's NBA D-League team in Santa Cruz.

It's not unusual for a coach and his assistants to disagree about strategy, sometimes heatedly so. Assistants, especially young ones, want to be coaches themselves; don't ever think ambition isn't in the mix on an NBA bench. But it's very unusual any disagreement gets to the point where the assistant has to go during the season. (Scalabrine is still listed among the Warriors' assistant coaches in the team's media notes.)

The second, Darren Erman, is a situation off on its own, unrelated. Erman was fired by the Warriors for violating company policy, not for any disagreements with Jackson. Erman coached the Warriors' summer league team and came highly recommended by Doc Rivers, with whom he coached in Boston. This was not about coaching.

I asked Curry if he's expressed his support for Jackson to Lacob or others in the front office.

"Yeah," he said. "That's never been a question. I don't think, after what's happened with our assistant coaches, I don't think I need to run up there. I think they know. Obviously, they're the ones making decisions. They made the decision to hire him; I didn't. Kudos to them. But it's never been in question. The way we go out and play for him speaks about what we think about what he's done for us, and why he's been such a great leader for us."

The Warriors, sixth in the West entering Monday, may well play the Clippers in the first round. That would create its own subplots, with the Christmas Day game still fresh in both teams' memories -- Green elbowing Blake Griffin in the throat and getting ejected and Andrew Bogut later goading Griffin into a second technical foul, getting Griffin the heave-ho. Afterward, Griffin called the Warriors' tactics "cowardly basketball."

"They don't like us, we don't like them," one member of the Warriors organization said last week.

That kind of group hatred might be just what Golden State needs: a focus on something external instead of internal.

"We're going into the playoffs, and we should be playing at a really high level," Iguodala said. "... We've got to get to the point where we're mentally mature, where we understand what the end goal is going to be for us. We want to build a championship culture, and that means playing at a high level, no matter who's in the game, what the score is, how much time is left. We still have some learning to do. We've come a long way from where this organization has been in the past."

Jackson, along with Lacob, Myers and Curry (and so many others), have done a lot of heavy lifting the last three seasons to erase those memories. The Warriors have gone from 20 games under .500 to 20 over .500 in two seasons on Jackson's watch. That's a huge leap. But it's no guarantee for unending patience.

That's today's NBA.

"You've got to let him finish baking that cake," O'Neal said. "He's put in all the ingredients, and he does a very good job dealing with this team. I think it would be a disaster to bring in another coach to start all over again."

TOP O' THE WORLD, MA!

(Last week's record in parentheses; March 31 rankings in brackets)

1) San Antonio [1] (2-1): With Tony Parker (back) returning, Spurs appear to have managed their way through the regular season with no significant injuries going into the playoffs.

2) Oklahoma City [3] (3-1): Thunder's depth as good as it's been entering the playoffs, with Caron Butler, Nick Collison, Reggie Jackson and Derek Fisher chock full of playoff experience.

3) L.A. Clippers [2] (1-1): Best regular-season record in franchise history with a win in either of its last two games.

4) Houston [4] (2-2): Patrick Beverley returns, insists he'll be fine for the playoffs. We'll see.

5) Indiana [6] (2-1): After all the drama and horrible play over the last month, looks like the Pacers will indeed have home court throughout the East playoffs.

6) Miami [5] (1-3): This does not look like a team ready to three-peat. But it seems like we say that all the time about the Heat and they find another gear in the postseason.

7) Chicago [8] (2-1): Looking very, very dangerous to either Indy or Miami in a potential second-round matchup.

8) Portland [9] (3-0): Back on the defensive grind since Cousin LaMarcus returned from injury.

9) Golden State [7] (1-2): Forty-seven for Steph Curry Sunday night against the Blazers in a losing effort.

10) Dallas [10] (2-1): Why do I have the feeling the Mavs' PA guy got a little something extra from boss/team owner Mark Cuban after sending out all those anti-ref tweets following the Mavs' loss to the Warriors earlier this month?

11) Toronto [11] (2-1): Raptors clinch first division title in seven years, but team's defense has slipped of late.

12) Brooklyn [12] (2-2): Nets need to get Shaun Livingston (toe) and Alan Anderson (strained ab muscle) back and healthy for the playoffs. Both were key members of the rotation during Brooklyn's run.

13) Washington [13] (2-1): Clinched first winning season since 2007-08.

14) Memphis [15] (3-0): Grizzlies can still get as high as sixth if they win out and Golden State were to lose both of its remaining games.

15) Charlotte [NR] (2-1): Bobcats clinch their second playoff berth since the expansion team began play in 2004.

Dropped out: Phoenix [14]

TEAM OF THE WEEK

Atlanta (3-1): Hawks prove they do, too, want the eighth playoff spot with postseason-clinching wins over Brooklyn and Miami. They cap their week by hiring Turner Entertainment Networks' president Steve Koonin as their new CEO Sunday. He's a good guy and he'll do great there.

TEAM OF THE WEAK

L.A. Lakers (0-3): It's been a year since Kobe Bryant tore his Achilles' against Golden State. It's been a horrible, horrible 12 months. The place was a morgue last week when we came for the Rockets' game, and the team's one good moment in another blowout loss -- Steve Nash passing Mark Jackson for third on the all-time assist list -- was tempered when Nash aggravated the nerve damage he's battled all season. Just end this, already.

NOBODY ASKED ME, BUT ...

How close are the also-rans?

The playoffs start this coming weekend and the NBA world will rightly be fixated on that two-month drama. Can Miami three-peat? Can the Spurs erase last June's heartbreak? Can the Thunder break through and begin their own dynasty? Could the Bulls or Rockets (or someone else) surprise?

But, 14 teams didn't make the playoffs, and their fans have questions and hopes and fears as well. Let's look at their chances at a turnaround next season.

WELCOME TO HELL, MA! (A tribute to Spud Webb's infamous greeting to Mitch Richmond when the latter came to Sacramento from Golden State in a trade; the line is meant to describe the helpless feeling losing teams often have and is not a comment on the good people of California's capital city. Teams are ranked from best chance to break through next season to grab a Snickers -- i.e., you're not going anywhere for a while)

17. Denver (current record: 36-44)

ASSETS: Capable talent (Ty Lawson, Kenneth Faried), Lottery pick from New York (acquired in Carmelo Anthony deal), solid coach in Brian Shaw.

DEBITS: Frontcourt uncertainty (rehabbing Danilo Gallinari, JaVale McGee, Wilson Chandler).

OUTLOOK: Denver should get right back into the playoffs next season if its core group returns to health. They hope to have Gallinari, who had to have a second operation this year to repair a torn ACL suffered a year ago, back in time for training camp. The Nuggets have to ask themselves if Faried has genuinely improved to the point where he warrants a big contract extension, or if they were right in trying to trade him this season. The Nuggets won't have any cap room this summer, but could get well under the cap in 2015 -- when Faried becomes a restricted free agent.

18. Phoenix (current record: 47-33)

ASSETS: Dynamic backcourt (Goran Dragic, Eric Bledsoe), exciting style of play, emerging coach in Jeff Hornacek, up to four first-round picks in '14 Draft, more than $20 million in upcoming cap room

DEBITS: Bledsoe's impending restricted free agency; unproven front court

OUTLOOK: The Suns were supposed to be Tank Central this season. Instead, Phoenix has taken its unlikely playoff run to the end of the schedule. Now, GM Ryan McDonough has to parlay the picks and/or room into a couple of difference-making players who can solidify Phoenix in the West. Team Mostly Likely to Make a Harden-esque Trade This summer.

19. New Orleans (current record: 32-48)

ASSETS: Anthony Davis, solid front office

DEBITS: Eric Gordon's contract (two years, more than $30 million remaining), likely Lottery pick to Philly, being in a brutal division

OUTLOOK: The All-Star Davis is a budding superstar, but New Orleans has to get him more help. The Pelicans need some good mojo before the lottery. If their pick is in the top five, they keep it and can add a young prospect to pair with Davis and former All-Star Jrue Holiday. If the pick is outside the top five, it goes to the 76ers to complete the deal that sent Holiday to N'awlins last year. Saw Ryan Anderson in L.A. last week, just before he underwent back surgery. His parents had come into town to help take care of him as he began his rehab. His return to health and good form is vital next season; the Pelicans have put a lot of money into him and Gordon and haven't yet gotten much return.

20. New York Knicks (current record: 34-46)

ASSETS: They play in the Eastern Conference; 2015 is only a year away; decent young chips in guards Iman Shumpert, Tim Hardaway, Jr.

DEBITS: Carmelo Anthony's decision, cap inflexibility, many untradeable assets

OUTLOOK: Phil Jackson's presence as GM only guarantees he'll have Anthony's full attention when he lays out the Knicks' latest plan to build a title contender. Jackson has never built an organization, and Anthony is under no obligation to be his guinea pig. Jackson could well put good pieces in place throughout the franchise, including a new coach, but we have no idea how he is as a talent evaluator or free-agent wooer. Still, the bright lights of the big city will surely lure someone important to New York in the summer of '15. Whether Anthony will still be there is Jackson's challenge.

21. Minnesota (current record: 41-39)

ASSETS: The Bearded Ones -- Kevin Love, Ricky Rubio, Nikola Pekovic -- tradeable contracts

DEBITS: Love's unhappiness and uncertain future, likely new coach, still cold in the winter

OUTLOOK: Team president Flip Saunders has spent a year taking Love's temperature, checking if the All-Star sees a future for himself with the Wolves. There's too much "Kevin wants to bolt" smoke for Saunders to feel comfortable. He's got one shot, this summer, to make a major move. A rookie from the Draft won't cut it. Saunders has to package his pick and a couple of his guys -- maybe even Rubio -- to bring back a superstar under contract to play next to Love next year.

22. Sacramento (current record: 27-53)

ASSETS: Talented pieces (Isaiah Thomas, DeMarcus Cousins, Rudy Gay, Ben McLemore), committed ownership, new revenue-generating building in the works

DEBITS: Unclear team structure

OUTLOOK: Is this a team that can get radically better with its current talent? I really don't know. The Gay trade helped some, and Thomas is really talented. But is Thomas an elite-level point guard? Owner Vivek Ranadive put his full faith and credit behind Cousins. But is he a franchise big man? Again, I really don't know. But there isn't likely a big trade to be made here this summer. Improvement will have to come from within.

23. L.A. Lakers (current record: 25-55)

ASSETS: Bountiful cap room; proven front office, Jeez, it was beautiful in L.A. last week

DEBITS: Who's the coach? How much does Kobe have left? Or Pau Gasol, for that matter? And is he even staying? And even if Kobe returns healthy, who's going to come here and play second fiddle to him? And can you get back to the playoffs with this many questions?

OUTLOOK: GM Mitch Kupchak has shown he can pull the trigger on meaningful deals, and that's really all L.A. fans can trust in as the offseason begins. He'll have all the space he needs to surround the rehabbing Bryant with better talent next season -- but it will have to be talent that can help without dominating the ball (Tyson Chandler, anyone?). At the least, the Lakers have a Lottery pick that should bring in much-needed youth (Australian phenom Dante Exum, one supposes). Kupchak also will likely have to hire a coach to replace Mike D'Antoni. If the Lakers really do want to bring back Gasol, D'Antoni must go, and vice versa.

24. Cleveland (current record: 32-49)

ASSETS: Young talent (Kyrie Irving, Tristan Thompson, Dion Waiters), significant cap room

DEBITS: Toxic chemistry, front office instability

OUTLOOK: Whoever owner Dan Gilbert hires as his permanent general manager has one task: Find out what Irving wants. If he wants to leave, the new GM should quickly engineer the best possible deal for the All-Star guard, and move on. None of this begging and mewling to convince Irving to sign an extension; Cleveland's had enough of that. Irving would fetch a hefty bounty in return, more than enough to build around Thompson, Waiters and rookie Anthony Bennett in a team more suited to Mike Brown's system offense and hard-nosed defense. (I see ... I see ... a team in the south. With a big man on a short, inexpensive contract and a point guard that almost went to Milwaukee last summer. And who has an All-Star center coming back next season off of injury. And that is desperate for a ticket-selling star.) Either way, whether they keep Irving or trade him, the Cavs are in far better shape going forward than many of their fellow non-playoff teams.

25. Detroit (current record: 29-51)

ASSETS: Talented frontcourt (Josh Smith, Greg Monroe, Andre Drummond), cap room

DEBITS: Detached ownership; crumbling fan base

OUTLOOK: Owner Tom Gores has a clean slate. The Pistons' owner can pick whomever he wants to rebuild the franchise with Joe Dumars out as team president/GM. Whether that's Isiah Thomas or somebody else, he'll have to decide how to handle Monroe's pending restricted free agency. If you keep Monroe, I don't know how you keep Smith as each is best at power forward. Fortunately for Detroit, it has a terrific young center in Drummond as the hub for the franchise's future. But the new GM has to bring some excitement back to a franchise that is bleeding attendance.

26. Boston (current record: 25-55)

ASSETS: Rajon Rondo's expiring ($13 million in 2014-15) contract, minimum four first-round picks next two years, front office/coaching stability

DEBITS: Limited overall talent

OUTLOOK: Coach Brad Stevens got six years for a reason. This is a long-term fix, and while Danny Ainge and Wyc Grousbeck crow about the Celtics' young players, the reality is there's not much to work with here. Ainge will surely parlay Rondo into something this summer (some of us have been talking Rondo for Greg Monroe/parts for a while now, but there are other options, too), and maybe Ainge throws a huge deal at Jazz restricted free agent Gordon Hayward. It's those Draft picks, though, that Ainge has to make into chicken salad. He'll get his chance.

27. Utah (current record: 24-56)

ASSETS: Young talent galore (Trey Burke, Alec Burks, Derrick Favors, Gordon Hayward, Enes Kanter), enormous cap space, two first-round picks (including a lottery selection), strong front office

DEBITS: Young talent doesn't win in this league, unless its ultra special -- and Utah's isn't

OUTLOOK: The Jazz took this year off in order to be in better shape for this summer and the summer of '15. Utah can literally go in a dozen different directions, from standing pat with its young core and adding a couple more pieces through the Draft, to packaging a couple of them with a pick to try and snag a young veteran star. In the interim, it would really, really, really help if Duke star (and Mormon) Jabari Parker landed here, this summer or next.

28. Orlando (current record: 23-57)

ASSETS: Room for growth with young core, significant cap space, two first-round picks, Florida, Florida, Florida (h/t Tim Russert)

DEBITS: Who's the first free agent on the ground? Fan base getting restless

OUTLOOK: There are some good young players with upside here, from Victor Oladipo to Maurice Harkless to Nik Vucevic to Tobias Harris. But the anchor of the next iteration of the Magic as a title contender isn't on the roster yet, and GM Rob Hennigan has to find him, soon. It's hard to see any free agent of significance coming here this summer or next, even with the Magic's geographic and tax advantages. Orlando's gotten a free ride the last two years from expectations in the post-Dwight era. That's about to end.

29. Philadelphia (current record: 17-63)

ASSETS: Very good young point guard in Michael Carter-Williams, an organization that will build the right way

DEBITS: Just about everything else

OUTLOOK: Just because GM Sam Hinkie has a good plan doesn't mean the plan will be successful. But the Sixers will continue to build slowly and methodically, flipping their bounty of future firsts and second-round picks the next three years into better and better assets. But even if they get two more good pieces in the Lottery, they're still going to be incredibly young pieces, teamed with the returning Nerlens Noel and second-year star Carter-Williams. It's a long way to Tipperary. It's a long way to go.

30. Milwaukee (current record: 15-65)

ASSETS: A lot of length (Giannis Antetokounmpo, John Henson, Ersan Ilyasova, Larry Sanders); likely new ownership group with deeper pockets

DEBITS: Horrific defense, no chance at free agents, clock ticking on partial public subsidy for new building

OUTLOOK: "When you go down, you go down in flames," golfer David Simms tells Roy McAvoy after Roy fires a 12 on the final hole of the U.S. Open in the movie "Tin Cup." And the Bucks took their rebuilding project all the way down to the studs. There's no other way for Milwaukee to go but up next season, but the speed of that improvement remains to be seen. The Draft is the only way the Bucks will be able to add talent under contract for multiple seasons, and to build that way, you not only have to be good (like believing Russell Westbrook can play point guard), you have to be lucky (if OKC had gotten the first pick, they would have taken Greg Oden and the Blazers would have taken Kevin Durant). Plus, it takes a really, really long time.

... AND NOBODY ASKED YOU, EITHER

When in Rome ... you can say bad stuff about the Pope. From Francesco Conti:

At the end of your Kobe/race piece you said you hope/wish athletes talk about everything, mentioning religion.

Here in western Europe people can talk freely of their religious views, however unpopular or peculiar, without fear of repercussion.

I have lived in the USA, and you can't do that.

What if a high profile player like, say, Carmelo, came out and said that people who believe in any of the organized religions are making poor use of their intelligence? Would he not set himself (and his family) up for a life where crazy fanatics may want to end his blasphemous life?

I don't know that it would be that extreme, Francesco. Generally, people aren't killed for expressing their religious (or non-religious) beliefs here. But certainly Carmelo, or any athlete, would run the risk of losing sponsorships and endorsement deals if they talked extensively about religion or politics in any substantive way. And they don't like risking that coin.

A charter member of the "But What About" Club. From Lawrence Bentley:

Matters racial will always go back and forth between who think they are "real" who thinks they are "progressing" blah, blah & blah.

My point is about the Miami Heat:

Did they actually say the ONLY purpose of that picture was bring George Zimmerman to trial? If so, why did they stop there? Why didn't they follow-up after the verdict? What have they done against "stand your ground laws"? Have they helped Trayvon's brother, mother, father and other family members?

Where is their support for Marissa Alexander? Where are they on Michael Dunn shooting and killing Jordan Davis?

It is the Heat's business what they respond to or not. But people need not act like the Heat need defending from what Kobe said. Because it appears they are NOT jumping on every African-American cause even in their own state, just like Kobe's point.

I like Miami and look forward to returning there after Stand your ground is changed.

Sure would be nice if LeBron said he was opting out of his contract due to how the stand your ground law has been applied, but we will see...

Lawrence, I'm not going to rip LeBron or the Heat because they didn't make opposing Stand Your Ground, or other causes, their full-time job. They are basketball players. But if your point is that they are doing exactly what Kobe said he was doing -- judging each case individually, on its merits, and not merely leaping to support every person of color involved in controversial cases -- I guess that's correct. Though I don't think that was their point.

Putting it all together. From Christoph Stegert:

This year we are presented a special finale in the West with three teams fighting for two playoff seeds. And , somehow, all three play each other in the last five days: Mavs @ Suns (4/12); Suns @ Grizz (4/14) and Grizz @ Mavs (4/16).

In the light of that I wonder: How could those responsible for the schedule know this? Now, I don't believe in conspiracy (I guess 80 percent of common theories are wrong, but I'm European) and looking at Bleacher Report it is obvious: This can't be planned! Their prediction is: Grizz 52 wins, Mavs 38 wins, Suns 19 wins!

I believed in the Mavs and who knew that Marc Gasol and Mike Conley would miss a combined 32 games (says TrueMemphis) but who - outside of Arizona - picked the Suns?

However, it ignited the question again on how the schedule is possibly done? I know that national TV dates are set and that the three inter-division games played by certain teams follow some five-or seven-year cycle (who picks the two home and one away schedule, though?) But if that team meets to get it done, how do they start, plan, realize it with all the road trips, back-to-backs etc.?

The man who makes all this make sense is Matt Winick, who's been primarily responsible for making the NBA schedule for the last three decades or so. Matt's official title is Senior Vice President of Scheduling and Game Operations, but he's The Schedule Guy. There are people in his office that help, of course, but Matt does the heavy lifting. He usually starts making the following season's schedule in February, when the league begins getting available dates from each team for the following season. This all comes down to available dates. The Bulls go on a west coast trip early every season because United Center has the Ringling Bros. Circus come in every November (and has for decades). Same with the Spurs and their famous "Rodeo Trip" that surrounds the All-Star Break. This is why you can't just assume an East team going west can hit Sacramento and Golden State in the same trip (or that a Western team can play Orlando and Miami in succession on an Eastern swing). If both buildings are available, they can. If they aren't, they can't. There's no conspiracy or stupidity at work here.

Once Matt knows what days aren't available, he starts working with the ones that are. There are preferences and requirements (Winick broke it down with ESPN.com's Kevin Arnovitz a few years ago), but it always works out: 41 home, 41 away, an almost -- almost -- equal number of back to backs and four games in five nights. And, trust me, every team complains at some point of the season about its schedule. Because at some point of the season, every team has a tough stretch of the schedule.

Send your questions, comments, criticisms and audition tapes for Comedy Central, who's on the lookout for new talent 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 (28.8 ppg, 4.3 rpg, 3.5 apg, .464 FG, .914 FT): Completing a magical regular season, he is driven by winning a championship, not an MVP trophy. And it will take traversing an extremely hard road for him and the Thunder to get there.

2) LeBron James (32.3 ppg, 7.5 rpg, 4.3 apg, .543 FG, .786 FT): Even LeBron says Durant's probably going to be the MVP.

3) Blake Griffin (26.7 ppg, 7.7 rpg, 5 apg, .519 FG, .758 FT): Has 15 technical fouls, one short of a one-game regular-season suspension -- the clock, again, starts over once the playoffs begin, with players suspended for one playoff game once they receive a seventh postseason T.

4) Tim Duncan (14.3 ppg, 8.7 rpg, 2 bpg, .485 FG, .686 FT): Spurs Nation almost had an embolism, it held its breath so long after Duncan hyperextended his knee against Dallas last week. But he returned and looks OK for the playoffs.

5) James Harden (27.3 ppg, 4.8 rpg, 10.3 apg, .467 FG, .896 FT): The Rockets' superstar guard cracks the top five on the strength of his carrying Houston the last couple of weeks with Dwight Howard and Patrick Beverley on the shelf.

Dropped out: Dwight Howard.

BY THE NUMBERS

$160,000,000 -- Financial contribution from the city of Indianapolis to the Pacers in a new deal that will keep the team in town through at least 2024, according to the Indianapolis Star. The deal will also include improvements to Bankers Life Fieldhouse, but also allows the city the right of first refusal to buy the team should owner Herb Simon ever opt to sell.

26,756 -- Career points for Dirk Nowtizki, who passed Oscar Robertson last week to move into 10th place on the NBA's all-time scoring list. If the Diggler plays a couple more healthy seasons, he's almost certain to pass Hakeem Olajuwon (ninth, with 26,946 points), Elvin Hayes (eighth, with 27,313 points) and Moses Malone (seventh, with 27,409 points) -- and maybe Shaquille O'Neal (sixth, with 28,596 points).

3 -- First-year coaches, out of nine, whose teams will be in the playoffs this season -- Brooklyn's Jason Kidd, Charlotte's Steve Clifford and Atlanta's Mike Budenholzer. A fourth, Memphis' Dave Joerger, is on the verge of clinching a spot with the Grizzlies. But if the Grizz somehow stumble and Phoenix gets in, the Suns' Jeff Hornacek still ups this number to four.

I'M FEELIN' ...

1) I've said my piece about Joe Dumars, who is on his way out in Detroit. He is a good man and a good executive and a smart team that needs a new boss would be wise to hire him. End of rant.

2) If this is indeed the last roundup for Rick Adelman as a coach -- everyone in Minnesota seems to think so -- we all need to take a minute to ponder how good he's been for so very long. In Portland with the Clyde Drexler-Terry Porter-Jerome Kersey-Buck Williams teams, in Sacramento with the Chris Webber-Vlade Divac-Mike Bibby/Jason Williams teams, and in Houston with the Yao Ming-Tracy McGrady teams, Adelman took whatever 12 players were available on a given night and devised the best possible way for them to succeed. The Kings teams of the late 1990s and early 2000s that battled the Lakers were beautiful to watch, a triumph of team basketball, passing, cutting and execution. He didn't make the playoffs with the Timberwolves, but he gave the franchise stability when it desperately needed it. And he will certainly take his 1,042 wins with him to Springfield in five years.

3) Add Minnesota: It's April, so you take bad team stats with a grain of salt. (Remember The Ledell Eackles Quandary.) But Wolves' rookie big man Gorgui Dieng is having a pretty doggone good end of the season run.

4) He won't win the award, but if last Thursday is any indication, the Nuggets' Timofey Mozgov is much improved. Much, much improved. And that gives Denver some real good options at center going forward, assuming JaVale McGee returns to good health next season.

5) Many congrats to Alonzo Mourning, Mitch Richmond, Gary Williams, Nolan Richardson and the Immaculata University women's team from the early '70s for being named to the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame Class of 2014 last Monday. They join those already named from the Hall's various direct elect committees: former commissioner David Stern, longtime Pacers coach and broadcaster Bob (Slick) Leonard, Nat (Sweetwater) Clifton, who was the first African-American to sign a contract to play in the league, with the Knicks, in 1950, former Warriors guard and Lithuanian star guard Sarunas Marciulionis and four-time NBA All-Star Guy Rodgers.

NOT FEELIN'...

1) For the first time in the history of the NBA, the playoffs will begin next weekend without the Knicks, Lakers and Celtics in them. The playoffs will be great, but there's something wrong in having them without three of the league's most famous franchises.

2) It's not that we can't have a reasoned discussion about whether marijuana should be made legal in other states besides Colorado and Washington, or about its medicinal benefits to some. But Larry Sanders can't lead that discussion after being suspended five games -- which is a third violation of the NBA's anti-drug policy -- after testing positive. The Bucks, and Sanders, have some soul-searching to do after this season about whether Milwaukee remains the best place for him.

3) RIP, Lou Hudson. One heck of a basketball player.

4) Jordan Spieth, a great young golfer, played one-plus years at the University of Texas before turning pro. All weekend, he flirted with winning the Masters before finishing second to Bubba Watson. No one has suggested that professional golf has suffered since his arrival, or that Texas has been irreparably harmed since his departure.

5) Today marks one year since the Boston Marathon bombings, and the death and chaos and terror that followed. Kudos to everyone in that great city who would not allow an act of madness determine their fate, who stood up and found the bombers, and who've put their lives back together and have helped others do the same.

Q & A: BRIAN SHAW

When you're in the NBA life, you quickly realize that nothing is promised, to anyone. Even a Hall of Fame, legendary coach like Phil Jackson couldn't go home again to the Lakers, even though he'd won five titles there, his fianceé runs the business side of the team and the franchise's fans clamored almost en masse for his return. So Brian Shaw certainly couldn't expect certainty. He'd come to realize that it would take him a while to get the head coaching job he'd dreamed of since retiring as a player.

A dozen interviews over the last four years hadn't ended in a team offering the 48-year-old the keys. What was supposed to be an orderly transition to succeed Jackson with the Lakers fell apart. Cleveland's fortunes changed dramatically when LeBron James left town. The Nets' job was his until fellow Oakland native Jason Kidd's star power overwhelmed Shaw's pedigree. It was, and is, filled with accomplishment and connections: teammate to the Big Three in Boston, to Shaq in Orlando and L.A., to Kobe Bryant near the end of his playing days, followed by a coaching apprenticeship under Jackson. And after the Lakers job went to Mike Brown, Shaw left California for two years as the associate head coach with the Pacers.

And then, finally, Shaw got his chance with the Nuggets, even though the gig was a tough one -- following the 2013 Coach of the Year winner, George Karl, with his thousand-plus coaching wins, and a team-record 57 regular season wins last year. And even now, Shaw was denied a chance to coach the young, athletic bunch he'd signed on to lead.

Injuries destroyed the Nuggets' depth this season, with Danilo Gallinari needing a second surgery to repair his torn ACL, JaVale McGee needing an 18-inch steel rod put in his leg, ending his season after five games, sparkplug Nate Robinson tearing his ACL, Wilson Chandler unable to stay on the floor and Ty Lawson nursing an ankle. Shaw also had to massage a dispute with guard Andre Miller, who was suspended after getting into a heated argument with Shaw over playing time, separated from the team, and ultimately traded to Washington for Jan Vesely.

The Nuggets will miss the playoffs this season for the first time in 11 years, though it could be worse for Shaw: He could have been coaching the Lakers through their current freefall.

Me: After all the waiting you did, how does the suit of being a head coach feel on your back?

Brian Shaw: It feels good. It feels natural. I feel like it was a seamless transition. Obviously there were a lot of things I dealt with this season that were unexpected, but it feels natural.

Me: How different are you now, having gone through this first season, than you were before?

BS: Well, I don't know if you can see my goatee at all, but there weren't any grays when the season started. I'm different. I'm the same person on the inside. But I think that with all the things that I've had to deal with as a coach this year -- made two trades, had a player suspended, and all the injuries we had to deal with the expectations we had, not only that I had for us and our team, but that the organization and the fans had, falling short of that, for whatever reason, we're not going to make any excuses -- it was eye opening. I also feel that I was prepared by the best of the best for a long time. And anything that I face, any situation that I have to come across, I'm equipped to deal with. There's going to be a silver lining after it's all said and done. I really, truly believe that with our team. We're going to get everybody healthy and strong and together, and I think there's going to be some teams out there that's not going to want to see us.

Me: Given your history as a player and assistant coach, who have you leaned on this season? I read that you and Jason text each other all the time. Do you talk to Phil as well?

BS: I do. I kind of backed off of talking to him when he was going through the whole thing with the Knicks, and taking the job there. But he would text me sometimes and say, 'Did you guys run this particular action, a triangle action, after a timeout, at this time on the clock?' And I'd laugh. It was just his way checking in on me, letting me know that he was watching what I was doing. I also leaned on him when I had to deal with some situations with our players, disciplinary things that were going on. And just having discussions about times, and how they've changed. With all of the technology, and social media that our players have available to them now, it's different walking in the locker room, when you have a game on and you expect the players to be watching the film of the team you're about to play, and everybody has their head in their IPads or their cell phones, or what have you. So you have to kind of evolve. Your coaching has to evolve with the times we live in.

Me: Magic Johnson, famously, did not evolve!

BS: That was the very beginning. If I picked up every cell phone and slammed it into a locker every time a phone went off or someone's alert went off, nobody on our team would have any mobile devices.

Me: What are you looking forward to next season, assuming most of your core can come back healthy and is ready to play?

BS: I think that we have, and they have an understanding now, of what I expect from them, and how we want to play. And I think that's huge. This year, I was getting used to them, and they were getting used to me. I don't know if, all year, if everybody bought into our vision and what we were trying to do. But over this last month, I've been very pleased with how our guys have been competing, especially in light of the fact that we have a young team, we've been eliminated from the playoffs for a while now, and it would be real easy to let go of the rope and just give up, because we don't have anything to play for. But they've been very professional. They come out and compete. They're still playing for one another. They take their professional responsibilities seriously. And going forward to next season, I'm excited about what I know these guys can do now, and what they can bring. There's still a question mark about the guys who didn't get an opportunity to play because of the injuries this year. But, if they are able to bring what they've done in the past, and the experiences that our young guys have gotten this year because of their injuries, I think we'll have a deep team.

Me: Did it surprise you that it took so long for them to understand what championship habits really are?

BS: Not really. I think Rick Majerus, I heard him say a long time ago, he said 'players don't care about how much you know until they know how much you care.' And I think for our team, I tried to do some things. I'm old school. The first time we played in Oakland, I brought the whole team to my [family's] house after one of our practices. And just talked to them about, this is what we used to do. When you came to a city that a guy was from, his family cooked and brought the whole team over. Now, guys get on the phone, or their IPad, and they go in different directions. So I tried to bring some of that old school stuff. I wasn't a star on my team. I don't claim to know everything. But I have been fortunate and blessed to be around the greatest of the great, from the guys I came in with -- Larry Bird, Kevin McHale, Robert Parish, DJ [the late Dennis Johnson], Danny Ainge and Red Auerbach -- to the team I ended up with, Shaq, Kobe, being around Jerry West, Mitch Kupchak, and a bunch of guys in between. So I've seen the best do it on a player's level, on a coaching level, on a front office level. I think I understand what it takes. I know what it looks like. And talking about it is one thing. I've been used to sweat equity on the court, getting out and banging with guys, and that was something I had to kind of back up from as a head coach. But I think when our guys started to see that what I was talking about was real, I've lived it, I'm not telling them to do something I haven't experienced myself, it just took a while. And I think now, they get it. And I think they know how much I care, and I think it's showing in how hard they're playing for me right now.

TWEET OF THE WEEK

It was time for my lil princess to go home & feel no more pain,now she's happy & she's my angel watching over me.
-- Michigan State forward Adreian Payne (@Adreian_Payne), Wednesday, 7:12 p.m.

No, Payne is not in the NBA yet, but his well-documented friendship with 8-year-old Lacey Holsworth, known as "Princess Lacey" to her many Twitter followers, crosses all lines. Lacey passed away last week, after a long battle with cancer. She and Payne thought of one another as brother and sister, as she became a part of the Michigan State family, with her and her family traveling to see the Spartans play throughout the Big 10 and NCAA Tournaments. RIP, little lady.

THEY SAID IT

"They didn't know what to do with him. And we didn't, either."
-- Wolves Coach Rick Adelman, after forward Corey Brewer scored a career-high 51 points Friday night in Minnesota's win over Houston.

"Guys like Josh Gordon need to stay in his sport and mind his own business. Does he still play for the Browns? I'll continue to root for the Browns, but in terms of this stuff here, what goes on in this locker room, he needs to stay out of it."
-- Cavs guard Kyrie Irving, to the Akron Beacon Journal, refuting claims by Gordon -- the Cleveland Browns' wide receiver -- who told ESPN that there was a rift between Irving and teammate Dion Waiters, and that it might "play out better" if Irving or Waiters were traded.

"The young man made a mistake. Like I told him, I'm upset with him and disappointed but he's mine so we love him."
-- Raptors Coach Dwane Casey, after the team's starting center, Jonas Valanciunas, was arrested last week and charged with DUI by Toronto police.

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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