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Done with three-guard idea, Suns turn attention to future

Also: NBA looks into blood clots and a Q&A with Russell Westbrook

POSTED: Mar 2, 2015 10:20 AM ET

By David Aldridge

BY David Aldridge

TNT Analyst

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Youth -- and hopefully a summer splash in free agency -- will be at the forefront as the Phoenix Suns move forward.

Even with five minutes to go before the Feb. 19 trade deadline, Brandon Knight wasn't sure. He had played well enough for the Milwaukee Bucks to get serious All-Star consideration, he was just 23, and they were building a team around young talent such as him.

But he wasn't sure.

"We had just back from open practice," Knight recalled last week. "As soon as I got back I was told to come upstairs to the front office. I knew right away what it was. We were already talking about it, joking about it, because we didn't think we were going to do anything."

Eighteen hundred miles away, the Phoenix Suns were about to do something.

A season that began with great expectations -- maybe too many -- for a team that didn't actually make the playoffs last year was unraveling. The Suns had wanted to play even faster than they did last season, believing that extra speed could make up the one game by which they missed the postseason.

But Phoenix's three-guard rotation of Goran Dragic, Eric Bledsoe and newly signed Isaiah Thomas wasn't working, and Dragic had made it personal, publicly saying he no longer trusted the Suns' front office and would walk if he wasn't traded. The feel-good story of last season had curdled.

"To a man, every player told us how much fun (last season) was, and how badly they wanted to make the playoffs this season," Suns general manager Ryan McDonough said Sunday evening.

"I do feel our team was more talented coming into this season than last season, but there was more selfishness than we would have liked," he said. "Last year was more like a college team, where nobody cared about minutes or shots."

So the Suns blew it up, sending Dragic and his brother Zoran to Miami for a 2017 first-round pick (protected 1 through 7) and an unprotected 2021 first-round pick, along with veteran forward Danny Granger, while sending the 2015 first-round pick they'd gotten from the Lakers in the Steve Nash deal to the 76ers as part of a three-team deal with Milwaukee that brought Knight to Phoenix.

And tonight is the first time that Goran Dragic will play his former team, with the Suns in Miami (NBA TV, 7:30 ET).

Dragic is happy, with a big contract likely coming his way this summer in Miami. And the Suns are ... well, they're not exactly happy, but they've at least resolved what had been an increasingly tenuous situation. They've given the ball -- and the money -- to Bledsoe, who's the point guard now and for the next few years after agreeing to a five-year, $70 million deal last September. And more often than not, Knight will play in the backcourt with him, his skills as a shooter a complement to Bledsoe's ballhandling and defense.

But things are still in flux. Markieff Morris was critical of his home fans after the Suns got blown out Saturday night at what is now called Talking Stick Resort Arena -- though the exterior and façade of the building still read U.S. Airways Arena.

"I do think that the spirit and camaraderie are better, so hopefully (Saturday) night was an aberration," Babby said. "We have gotten even younger. (Center Alex) Len is 21, Knight is 23, Bledsoe and Markieff (are) 25. So we have to remember that."

Spurs vs. Suns

Kawhi Leonard scores 22 points and grabs 10 rebounds as the Spurs defeat the Suns 101-74.

Phoenix has recalibrated. While the Suns are still just two games out of the final playoff spot in the West, and Oklahoma City can't stay healthy, Phoenix is now looking more toward the future than trying to pick up that one game they were hunting. The Suns were only 2-9 against the top four teams in the West before shaking up the roster.

"I think we're realistic about where we are in the league, especially in the Western Conference," McDonough said. "We could have done things to load up. Giving away picks or taking on contracts may have given us a short-term bump but it wouldn't have helped us toward our goal of building a championship contending team."

It leaves coach Jeff Hornacek with the unenviable task of trying to get continuity out of a new group on offense -- watching Hornacek on the sidelines Thursday night while his team battled the Thunder was mesmerizing, seeing play after play broken off -- while somehow trying to bleed more defense out of what's currently a dry stone.

The Suns are 28th in points allowed (105.1). That used to be explained away by advanced numbers proponents who said Phoenix was playing at such a high pace on offense, the stat was distorted. But the Suns are 19th in the league in defensive rating. They're 28th in free throws allowed per field goal attempt, meaning opponents are getting into the paint at will. And they're 23rd in the league in 3-point percentage allowed.

And Phoenix is struggling despite having one of the better defensive minds in the game on their bench in assistant coach/defensive coordinator Mike Longabardi.

"He's tearing his hair out trying to come up with some defensive schemes for us," one player said.

Phoenix Suns
The tandem of Goran Dragic, Isaiah Thomas and Eric Bledsoe didn't pan out.

The idea was that the defense could come along slower because Phoenix would be so impossible to deal with offensively. And, some nights, they were. But after trying to play Bledsoe, Dragic and Thomas together, things started going south. Dragic wanted the ball; Thomas wanted to start. The whole point of bringing in Thomas was to give Dragic some rest; the Suns thought he wore down toward the end of last season. But Dragic didn't see it that way.

Still, as the trade deadline neared, the Suns believed they had a commitment from Dragic that he would stay longterm if they traded Thomas -- a commitment that came, according to a league source, after Dragic met with owner Robert Sarver. So the Suns got serious about making a deal for Thomas. They thought they could re-sign Dragic to a deal that, if not a max deal, would have certainly kept him happy.

But the Suns moved too late. Dragic made his feelings known to them in a meeting on Feb. 15, then echoed those sentiments publicly the next day, adding the twist that the Suns were untrustworthy. This set off both McDonough and Babby, who took the unusual step of publicly rebuking Dragic after the trade was made.

"You can call me stupid, and you can call me short, but you can't call me a liar," Babby said.

But the Suns had no choice. It was a poor secret around the league that Dragic had a foot out the door; it was all the talk of All-Star weekend. Maybe he's got a max deal in his back pocket. Maybe he wanted to go East, where it would be easier for him to contend at point guard for his own All-Star spot in the future -- as Knight did this season -- rather than banging his head against the wall every season in the West against the likes of Russell Westbrook and Stephen Curry and Chris Paul and Damian Lillard and Tony Parker and Mike Conley.

"We wished he'd just said that, instead of saying that we were dishonest people and lied to him," McDonough said. "We think we treated him great. I was just really turned off by how they handled the whole situation."

Now, the Suns will ride with Bledsoe.

Bledsoe's Big Night

Eric Bledsoe puts up 28 points, 13 rebounds and 9 assists to help the Suns beat the Thunder in overtime.

"I've got a lot of responsibility," Bledsoe said after going for 28 points, 13 rebounds and 9 assists in an epic battle with Westbrook Thursday night, with Phoenix hanging on in overtime, a win that kept them on the periphery of the playoff race.

"Once they left, I had to be the next person to step up," Bledsoe said. "Goran was a big part of our team."

Knight was initially shocked, even though there had been those rumblings among Bucks players. He thought he'd had a good rapport with Jason Kidd, had picked up his defense, had shot the ball incredibly well. He'd learned that on a young team, players tend to be quiet on the court even as they bond on the court, and that he had to be the one to open his mouth and communicate with teammates on D.

"I wasn't expecting it," he said. "Like I've said, I've learned over these short couple of years in the NBA that anything is possible on the business side. (But) at the end of the day, my job is to play basketball, whether it's in Alaska or Hawaii, wherever it's at, I've got to play."

Granted, Phoenix has some positives that Milwaukee doesn't. But isn't Knight just a little ticked off?

Brandon Knight Jeff Hornacek
Jeff Hornacek now has Brandon Knight in the backcourt.

"Initially, I was," he said. "Initially, after the trade, you're kind of upset. But for me, I look at the bright side of things. The Suns gave up a lot to get me. So it's someone that wanted me. A system where I can flourish offensively. And we've got a lot of young talent. So I take the bright side of things."

Indeed, Phoenix gave up quite a bit, sending center Miles Plumlee, who looked like a steal a year ago, and 2014 first-rounder Tyler Ennis to the Bucks, and that precious Lakers first to Philadelphia, which sent Michael Carter-Williams to the Bucks. The pick is only protected 1-5 this year, meaning if the Lakers don't have one of the five worst records this season, the pick is conveyed to the 76ers. (Right now, the Lakers are fourth-worst in the league, 1 ½ games "ahead" of fifth-worst Orlando.)

But giving up the pick was the only way Philly would take part on the deal. At any rate, the Suns still have the two firsts coming from Miami, and a future first from Cleveland that should convey in 2016.

(Granger is not with the team at present, as both sides try to figure out how they want to handle things going forward. On the one hand, the 31-year-old Granger has a player option for next season and could certainly be looking to sign with a title contender. On the other hand, the Suns' training staff is renowned around the league for extending players' careers, which could be music to the oft-injured Granger's ears. McDonough said Sunday the Suns were "keeping an open mind" on Granger's future with the team.)

The deals also open up potential playing time in Phoenix for 20-year-old guard Archie Goodwin and 21-year-old forward T.J. Warren, both first round pickups by Phoenix (Goodwin via trade in 2013; Warren via the 14th pick last year), and both of whom have gotten regular run with the Suns' D-League affiliate in Bakersfield.

Knight Lobs to Goodwin

Brandon Knight drives and lobs it up to Archie Goodwin who finishes with the alley-oop dunk.

But the team's core remains Len, fast improving at both ends of the floor, along with backup center Brandan Wright, Bledsoe, Knight, rugged swingman P.J. Tucker, and the Morris Twins, who agreed to split $50 million in free agent money last year.

Marcus Morris has been solid, averaging 10 points and 4 rebounds per game, mostly coming off the bench. But Markieff had looked like something special most of the year, before a terrible slump through most of February lowered all his numbers.

He looked strong against Oklahoma City, with 29 points and 11 rebounds. But he was bad along with the rest of the team Saturday against the Spurs, who won in a rout. It wasn't the best time for a player to sound off, but Markieff Morris did, saying it sounded like there were more Spurs fans in the crowd than Suns fans. He said he wasn't just talking about that game, but a general lack of ardor throughout the season at home, where the Suns are 17-13 this season.

Later on Twitter, Markieff Morris said he knew fans would be angry with him, but "everything we do on the court is for you guys!!" A minute after that Tweet he added, "We can't protect home court without the best fans in the NBA!!!"

The team talked with Markieff Morris en route to Miami, but had no plans to discipline him, with McDonough saying Sunday the timing of Morris' comments "wasn't great. We came out and basically didn't show up against San Antonio. It was probably our worst performance of the year... I think there's a way to deliver the message a little more tactfully than he did."

But internally, the Suns do think they could use a little more fan support. They're 22nd in the league in attendance, according to ESPN.com. Of course, fans think they could use a few more wins, as they got in the Seven Seconds or Less days.

Phoenix believes that time is coming, as the Spurs and other West powers finally (maybe?) begin to show their age. The Suns are well-positioned to be free agent players again this summer, after failing to land LeBron James or other top names last summer. Bledsoe, at $13.5 million beginning next season, is not only the only big contract on the books next year, but for the next four years.

So the Suns can use their projected dollars for Dragic on Knight, who's a restricted free agent at the end of the season. It is a similar situation the team found itself in with Bledsoe, who had said at one point during the summer that he believed Phoenix was "using my free agency against me" in hoping that another team would sign him to an offer sheet, allowing the Suns to match. That never materialized, though.

"For us, we're trying to make a playoff push right now to the best of our ability," Knight said. "It's a tough road. But like I said, I've got to take it day by day for myself. If I just keep doing what I'm doing, I know I'll be in a position where I'll be fine. I'm not really worried about myself right now. When you're younger, you kind of worry about your individual self. But as I've gotten older, and I've started to play well, I know my worth in this league."

There's still time for the Suns to make a playoff run. But if they come up short again, they know that it will take a lot more than one game for them to get where they want to be.

"I know it's tempting with where we are to say let's go for it," McDonough said. "But my goal has never been to put a team that can just make the playoffs and get our ass kicked in the first round. We want to build something more sustainable."

TOP O' THE WORLD, MA!

(Last week's record in parentheses; last week's ranking in brackets)

Hawks vs. Heat

Paul Millsap scores 22 points, Dennis Schroder adds 16 points with 10 assists as the Hawks edge the Heat 93-91.

1) Atlanta (3-0) [1]: Per the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the Hawks' magic number for clinching a playoff spot in the East is three. They lead the second-place Wizards in the Southeast Division by a ridiculous 13.5 games.

2) Golden State (3-1) [3]: One game left in the Warriors' double-barreled East coast trips that bracketed the All-Star break, then 10 of the next 12 back at Oracle.

3) Houston (4-0) [4]: This is what is known as a shot across the bow.

4) Memphis (2-2) [2]: Looks like a tired team right now. ZBo struggling offensively.

5) Cleveland (2-2) [5]: Kyrie Irving (shoulder) to be re-evaluated before Tuesday's game at Boston.

6) Portland (3-0) [8]: Blazers already singing the praises of Arron Afflalo, who displayed his defensive versatility in wins over the Spurs and Thunder last week.

7) L.A. Clippers (2-2) [6]: CP3 since Blake Griffin went out with the elbow injury in early February: 20.7 points, 4.7 boards, 12.4 assists per game, shooting 51.1 percent from the floor.

Rajon Rondo -- Rick Carlisle Altercation

Is this latest incident a bad sign for the Mavs, or will the team rally around it?

8) Dallas (1-2) [7]: This Rajon Rondo business with Rick Carlisle... well, it's part of what happens during a season. Coaches and players blow up at each other. But there's some real tension beneath the surface. It bears watching when Rondo hits free agency this summer.

9) Chicago (2-2) [10]: Unlikely the Bulls will bring in another guard if, as indicated in their release, they expect Derrick Rose to return in 4-6 weeks.

10) San Antonio (2-2) [11]: Finish the Rodeo Road Trip 4-5, the first losing record on the RRT in franchise history (13 trips since 2003).

11) Oklahoma City (2-2) [12]: Enes Kanter is still raw in a lot of areas, but dude is really effective and active at the offensive end of the floor. By far the best post big man the Thunder have had on the roster in a long time -- maybe since moving to OKC.

12) Toronto (0-4) [9]: Raptors need to get Jonas Valanciunas some more touches while the team struggles from the perimeter during this rough patch.

13) Washington (1-3) [14]: Yes, losing Paul Pierce and Bradley Beal shrank the floor for John Wall and made the Wizards easy to guard. But they need some more mental toughness, too. See the Pelicans below.

14) Milwaukee (1-3) [13]: Blew an opportunity to overtake the struggling Wizards for fifth in the East with losses to the lowly Lakers and Jazz on the road.

Ajinca Shines

Alexis Ajinca shines versus the Heat minus Anthony Davis scoring a career-high 24 points (on 9 for 10 shooting) to help the Pelicansraly to cool off the Heat.

15) New Orleans (4-0) [NR]: Showing a lot of heart with Anthony Davis, Ryan Anderson, Jrue Holiday out of the lineup, winning five straight with guys like Alexis Ajinca and Quincy Pondexter and Dante Cunningham.

Dropped out: Phoenix [15]:.

TEAM OF THE WEEK

Houston (4-0): Terrence Jones stepped back in the starting lineup last week and gave the Rockets a huge boost at both ends -- 26 points against the Nets, five blocks against the Clippers, 19 and 7 Sunday in the overtime win over the Cavaliers.

TEAM OF THE WEAK

Toronto (0-4): Some things aren't hard to figure out: Raptors have gone south because their backcourt of Kyle Lowry (29.7 percent shooting since the All-Star break) and DeMar DeRozan (34 percent since the break, including a ghastly 3 of 15 Saturday against the Knicks) can't hit the broad side of a barn right now. They missed all 12 of their combined field goal attempts in the first quarter Friday against Golden State; the Raptors shot 5.3 percent from the floor (1 of 19) as a team and scored just 11 points en route to a 113-89 blowout loss at home.

NOBODY ASKED ME, BUT ...

Is there something we're all missing with NBA players and blood clots?

There's an old phrase: "Once is an accident, twice is a coincidence, three times is a habit." Unfortunately, the NBA is in the habitual stage today when it comes to current players recently having to miss significant chunks of the season with blood clots.

Miami's Chris Bosh was released from a local hospital over the weekend, but will miss the rest of the season due to a clot discovered in his lung. The clot was found after Bosh had complained of chest discomfort soon after returning from a vacation during the All-Star break. (Bosh's Heat teammate, Udonis Haslem, disclosed last week that he also dealt with blood clots in 2010).

Brooklyn's Mirza Teletovic was shut down for the season in January after complaining of shortness of breath during a Jan. 18 game in Los Angeles against the Clippers. He was taken to a local hospital. The next day, blood clots were found in his lungs.

And Cleveland's Anderson Varejao missed the last three-plus months of the 2012-13 season after blood clots were discovered in his lungs in January of 2013. He had undergone surgery on his quadriceps days before, and had back and chest pains afterward. Upon returning to the hospital, doctors discovered the clots.

Fortunately, Bosh, Teletovic and Varejao found out what was bothering them. Thousands of other people aren't as fortunate.

Former NBA player Jerome Kersey died Feb. 18 after a blood clot from his calf moved into his lung, causing a fatal pulmonary embolism. Kersey had undergone arthroscopic surgery on his knee just days before his death. It's by no means certain that the operation caused the clot to form, but clotting after surgery is a common occurrence.

According to the Centers for Disease Control, an estimated 60,000 to 100,000 persons die each year from Pulmonary Embolisms (PE) or Deep Vein Thrombosis (DVT). Published research maintains that clots occur in all races and ethnic groups, in both genders, and in all age groups.

But the recent spate of NBA players impacted by them is giving many around the league pause.

"I can't tell you that it's not been concerning," said Michele Roberts, the Executive Director of the National Basketball Players Association, by telephone on Thursday.

Chris Bosh
Chris Bosh (blood clots) is out for the rest of the season.

"I don't much believe in coincidences," Roberts said. "It struck me that as a player I would want to be convinced there was nothing to be concerned about."

In previous years, the NBA adjusted team protocols dealing with cardiac screening of players, developing in consultation with physicians a standardized league-wide test in 2006 after Hawks player Jason Collier died in 2005 and was found to have an abnormally large heart. In 2011, the league instituted specific baselines and protocols for players who suffer concussions.

But with clots, most of the parties involved -- the union, the league, and the teams -- are currently in fact-finding mode.

"I think this is something that's on our radar," said Gregg Farnam, the Minnesota Timberwolves head athletic trainer and director of medical operations, and the current chair of the National Basketball Athletic Trainers Association, on Saturday.

"It's something that, in speaking with the league office, we're in the process of assembling some team athletic trainers, some physicians, some specialists across the country to look deeper into this issue and see if there's any correlation, and within that correlation see if there's anything we need to do differently," said Farnam, who's in his 18th season with Minnesota and 15th as head athletic trainer.

Roberts said she and union leaders plan to meet in the coming days with physicians at New York University who are experts in DVT and PE.

"The preliminary thought is there 's probably no reason to panic but we want to be able to answer any questions that the players might have," she said. "We have to do some homework on this."

The extensive travel and time spent on planes by NBA players would, at first glance, be a prime suspect in the causation of clots. Travel of several hours or more at a time -- a regular part of the job description for NBA players -- is believed to increase the risk of developing embolisms or deep vein thrombosis. Because people sit on planes and leg movement tends to be restricted on flights, even on the charter planes all NBA teams now use, blood can pool in the legs and clots can develop -- especially if a player is dehydrated after playing. (It's not a surprise that NHL players, who have very similar travel schedules as their NBA brethren, also are dealing with blood clots). It's an issue in Major League Baseball as well.

Arena Link: Ethan Skolnick

Ethan Skolnick joins GameTime via Arena Link to speak on Chris Bosh being out for the season and its effect on the Heat.

"My first thought was, is it the schedule?" Roberts said. "Obviously they're on planes a lot. But is it compounded by the number of games, and the back to backs?"

But teams have become much more proactive in recent years when it comes to both hydrating their players and taking precautions on long flights. Gatorade (a league sponsor) is prevalent on every bench in the league, though many players, like LeBron James, endorse other sports recovery drinks like Powerade. Of course, James famously cramped up severely during Game 1 of last year's Finals in San Antonio, when the air conditioning system at AT&T Center broke down.

More teams are also altering their gameday schedules -- including postponing shootarounds until the early afternoon, or doing away with them altogether -- so that their players can get more sleep, both at home on the road.

"Maintaining hydration levels is kind of a standard practice for us," Farnam said. "That's part of it. Teams are more aware of rest and recovery, and trying to do what's best for the athlete."

The Nets give players compression shorts to wear on long flights, and have aspirin, a blood thinner, for players to take. Mandatory periods in which players will have to get up from their seats and walk or stretch may come in the future.

Teletovic told the television network Al-Jazeera last week that he's improving.

"There has been a lot of exaggeration about all this," he said in an interview from Sarajevo. "Already after three weeks I've started to work out on some 70 percent of capacity. I had lung CT screening and they've found out my lungs are clean. Practically, all those blood clots vanished in four weeks. Now I'm in process of mandatory taking pills. This process lasts for six months, maybe three if everything goes OK."

Roberts also wants to make sure no one is missing potential links between injuries and clots.

"What constitutes an injury that might not allow them to play is one thing," she said. "But an injury is still an injury. We want to make sure there's no correlation between bruising, or a tear (and clotting). I have three, four, five, six questions I want to pose to this doctor. And maybe he'll just say no."

There may not ever be a simple answer as to why these players all got clots. We may well just have access to more information and communication in this social media age. But there is growing concern that there may be something no one is currently seeing.

"It's going to be interesting to see if they can correlate something in common between the three cases and say we should look at this closer," Farnam said. "You look at all the flights and all the traveling that all the teams do in the league, to have two isolated cases this year, it's hard to say it's something other than the travel that needs to be addressed. I don't think that teams are doing anything differently than they've done the last few years."

... AND NOBODY ASKED YOU EITHER

Follow the money. From Daniel Abania:

I saw your tweet that the Bucks waived Larry Sanders, where the buyout for the rest of this year and the final 2 years of his contract will be $13-15M. What struck me is the amount of money he will receive, and the concept of buyout. My question is this; Isn't the amount too much for the Bucks organization to pay after he decides "he doesn't want to play basketball anymore"? He quits, he is $13-15M richer...

It's a fair question, Daniel. In this case, I'd call it a case of the Bucks cutting their losses. If they'd just waived him outright they'd have to pay him the full $44 million. I suppose they could have made a claim that Sanders' reported comments that he didn't want to play anymore constituted him quitting -- in which case they wouldn't have to pay him anything. But since that's still conjecture and not a matter of fact (there's no letter from Sanders to the team, for example), taking that route undoubtedly would have taken months in courts or arbitration panels. Better to end it with a buyout, save around $30 million you would have had to spend otherwise and move on.

They don't see the vision thing in D.C. From Ben Becker:

Wizards Struggles

Matt Winer, Rick Fox and Mike Fratello discuss what the Wizards latest offensive struggles.

Since Ernie Grunfeld took over as Wizards GM in 2003, there have been one hundred twenty eight (128) 46-win seasons posted by NBA teams. The Wizards have none of them. Charlotte and Philly are the two other franchises with zero 46-win campaigns over that same time frame. Grunfeld hired a coach who is staunchly and publicly anti-analytics, while owner Ted Leonsis sits on the advisory board of the Journal of Sports Analytics. There would seem to be a disconnect here, no? The Wizards' recent slide has shined a light on an old and shallow roster, apart from a few exceptions of varying impact. Leonsis is famously -- perhaps notoriously -- loyal and slow to make changes in leadership within his sports teams. At what point does he wonder whether Grunfeld is the man to lead the Wizards to sustained relevance in the modern NBA?

I know the criticism of both Grunfeld and Randy Wittman well, Ben -- the Wizards take way too many deep twos and should shoot way more 3-pointers (specifically, Bradley Beal). This is the kind of instance where I believe the analytics community gets a little strident. The Wizards didn't shoot a lot of threes when they were 31-15, but few people were carping then. The long knives have come out as Washington has spiraled downward since the break. (You know who shoots even fewer threes than Washington? Memphis -- where advanced stats are king, and Lionel Hollins is in Brooklyn. But the Grizzlies have Marc Gasol, a favorite of the advanced stats community, and they're 26 games above .500. I don't hear many calls for Dave Joerger's head.) I know where the NBA game is, and is going -- threes, threes, threes -- and I know I'm likely on the wrong side of history. I still believe, though, that your personnel dictates how you play. The Wizards have two really good bigs in Nene and Marcin Gortat who need touches. Should Wittman design more sets for more threes for Beal and Pierce? Yes. Should he or Grunfeld be fired if the Wizards don't get out of the first round? I wouldn't. I think continuity matters if you're trying to build a championship team. But, if you're asking me if Grunfeld needs to add another quality wing player next season, the answer is yes.

Norma Rae would like an answer. From Brian Wilson:

I have a question I've always wondered about: who's in the union? Only those with an active roster spot right now? Ray Allen is unsigned and may or may not play this season - is he in? Would he have a vote if something came up tomorrow? Andrei Kirilenko just exited the 76ers - is his membership automatically void? How do the ins and outs work for players whose careers and contracts are less stable?

This question always seems fluid, Brian, but I believe players have to be on a roster at some point during a season to be considered members of the union for that particular year. So, right now, my understanding is that Ray Allen wouldn't be a member of the union. Once he signed with a team, he'd be back in the union. Retired players can be "associate" members of the union, but they have no voting rights and can't be officers. I think the union wants to try and avoid uncomfortable situations like it had a couple of years ago, when its president, Derek Fisher, along with several members of the Executive Committee weren't on teams.

Send your questions, comments, criticisms and escape plans for these freedom fighters to daldridgetnt@gmail.com. If your e-mail is sufficiently funny, thought-provoking, well-written or snarky, we just might publish it!

MVP WATCH

(Last week's averages in parentheses)

Harden Shines In Overtime Thriller

James Harden goes toe-to-toe with LeBron James and lifts Houston to victory.

1) James Harden (25 ppg, 7 rpg, 9.3 apg, .348 FG, .846 FT): Per the NBA, the Beard is the first Rockets player to record multiple triple-doubles in a season since Steve Francis in 2001-02. And per Elias, Harden and Hakeem Olajuwon are the only players in team history to have a triple-double with 30 or more points.

2) Stephen Curry (27.3 ppg, 3.3 rpg, 6 apg, .615 FG, 1.000 FT): When the story of his season is written, it must start not with the incredible shooting, which has always been there, but by how incredibly improved Curry is as a ballhandler. You can't get it from him with a court order.

3) LeBron James (32.7 ppg, 8.7 rpg, 6.7 apg, .486 FG, .545 FT): Cavs rest him on Friday against Indiana, making good on promise to get him some nights off down the stretch of the regular season.

4) Marc Gasol (16.5 ppg, 8 rpg, 3.8 apg, .553 FG .636 FT): Posted his first double-double since Feb. 10 with 27 and 11 Saturday in a win at Minnesota.

5) Russell Westbrook (33 ppg, 12.7 rpg, 10.7 apg, .382 FG, .879 FT): Been beastly again with Durant again out of the lineup, and inserted himself in the MVP discussion.

Dropped Out: Anthony Davis.

BY THE NUMBERS

$800,000,000 -- Reported high bid for the Hawks, according to Forbes, of the groups that submitted offers last week by the deadline set by the investment banks handling the sale. Several different groups, including ones headed by Grant Hill and former player Junior Bridgeman, former player Chris Webber and former NBA executive Jason Levien, had expressed interest in buying the Hawks, who officially went on the market in January.

21 -- Years since the Lakers have had consecutive sub-.500 seasons, a mark they are now guaranteed to match after Sunday night's loss to the Thunder dropped them to 16-42 this season. The franchise went 39-43 in 1992-93, and 33-49 in 1993-94 -- with Magic Johnson infamously coaching the last 16 games of the season. This marks just the fourth time in the franchise's 67 seasons that it's had back-to-back losing campaigns.

300 -- Consecutive games started by the Clippers' DeAndre Jordan, the current longest such streak in the league.

I'M FEELIN' ...

1) Craig Sager is back. Not a better, shorter sentence you will read all season.

2) Andrew Wiggins, you're about to get a post-grad basketball education that you'll remember the rest of your life.

3) Dominique Wilkins gets his statue outside of Philips Arena on Friday, and it's a well-deserved honor for one of the all-time greats -- and, still, the most iconic player in Hawks history, with all due respect to Bob Pettit, Lenny Wilkens, Lou Hudson and all the other great players that have played for that franchise.

4) More transparency is always welcome, so the league's decision to begin making its grading of its referees' calls during the last two minutes of regulation and overtime of every game public, beginning today, is a positive. The conspiracy theorists are always going to find some way to find nefarious plots with regard to the refs, no matter what the league does. But people that don't have tinfoil next to their brains will likely find what most of us do: that the refs get the vast majority of split-second decisions right, far more than you or I do on our couches.

5) NBA players are the best athletes in the world, Vol. MCMLXXVIII.

NOT FEELIN' ...

Remembering Earl Lloyd

Yesterday, the NBA family lost a towering figure in league history when Earl Lloyd passed away at the age of 86.

1) Earl Lloyd was, in all ways, a dignified man. He would answer any and all questions one had about his being the first African-American to play in the NBA in 1950, a day ahead of Chuck Cooper, the first African-American to be drafted, by the Celtics, and three days before the Knicks' Sweetwater Clifton, the first African-American to sign a pro contract in the league. But if Mr. Lloyd was embittered by the racial indignities he suffered, he never displayed it as he was constantly asked to relive it. He always had a pleasant bearing and accepted his role in the history of the game with grace. He was a champion, with the Syracuse Nationals, and he was the first black head coach in the history of the Pistons franchise, in 1971. He was a genuinely decent man whom I was privileged to speak with on many occasions over the years. Oh, what a life he led! Rest in Peace, Mr. Lloyd, and thank you for the trail you blazed that has led to the league we all know today.

Anthony Mason Moments

The Game Time Crew reflect on some of the best moments of Anthony Mason's career.

2) Anthony Mason was the perfect face of the Knicks in the '90s: not a ton of skill, but with a willingness to throw his body around and dare the refs to do something about it. Mase could also use his long arms to great effect around the basket, and had point-forward ballhandling ability. Plus, Mase in Yo Face was from Queens, making him a folk hero to Knicks fans. He had his issues, some very serious, and he got way too heavy after he finished playing, and sadly, the congestive heart failure he suffered at age 48 took his life over the weekend. RIP to a real New Yorker.

3) Nothing more to say about D. Rose's situation that would be enlightening. Just feel for him and his family. They've all been through so much the last four years.

4) I am sure that Leonard Nimoy, at many points during the last 30 years, really, really got tired of the Spock questions. Like, 'How did he get those ears?' Or, 'What was Spock's first name?' It is hard to think of an actor that was so tied into his character, one of the iconic ones of the late 20th century. The look, the manner, the logic (of course) -- there was no one who ever was like Spock. And that was a tribute to Nimoy, who died last Friday at the age of 83. As time went on, Nimoy accepted the fanciful nature of his celebrity and embraced being Spock, including in a terrific commercial a couple of years ago. Maybe he knew how much the character truly meant to so many. Live Long and Prosper.

Q & A: RUSSELL WESTBROOK

GameTime: Russell Westbrook

TNT's David Aldridge sits down with the energetic Russell Westbrook to get his take on his aggressive approach to a tumultuous season.

What it must be like to engage Russell Westbrook when he's not in a crouch, ready to attack. As with anyone, there are surely multiple sides to Westbrook. But most of us only see him on the floor, where he engages the opposition in a full rage -- not of anger, but of energy, as he comes at them, time and time again.

We have known for years that Westbrook is one of the best guards in the game -- it's silly to call him a point guard or a shooting guard, as he excels at both -- but he has been even more sensational this season, with Kevin Durant out for long stretches of the season with injuries. With Durant casting such a long shadow for so long in Oklahoma City it's been hard to see Westbrook sometimes, as so many question his shot selection, or his demeanor with the media (the gamut normally runs from utter indifference to contempt).

But the past month has given Westbrook a chance to shine as he never has before. He exploded on New York during All-Star 2015, captivating audiences during the city's Fashion Week as his clothing tentacles reached out to new fans, both as creative director for the clothing company True Religion and promoting his new eyewear collection, the Westbrook Frames Silver Series for JackThreads. On the court, he dominated the All-Star Game, scoring 41 points, one short of Wilt Chamberlain's record, and winning MVP honors.

Upon his return to the Thunder, Westbrook continued to go nuts, averaging 32.8 points and 11.5 assists over six games, including three straight triple-doubles, while Durant recovers from a Feb. 20 surgical procedure to relieve irritation in his ankle. And for the first time, Westbrook is getting serious league Most Valuable Player consideration (Reggie Miller unearthed this last week: it's been 58 years since teammates won back-to-back MVP awards -- the Celtics' Bob Cousy in 1956, followed by Bill Russell in 1957).

But Westbrook's run has been interrupted, at least for a few days, by surgery on Saturday to repair the zygomatic arch bone in his right cheek, damaged Friday night in Portland when he was inadvertently kneed in the face by teammate Andre Roberson. Westbrook missed Sunday's game against the Lakers, but may be back as soon as the end of this week. This interview took place before Westbrook's face was, at least temporarily, caved in.

Me: I was talking with one of your coaches, and he said he thought your winning All-Star MVP has raised your game to an even higher level. You think he's on to something?

Russell Westbrook: I mean, it definitely was a great accomplishment, as far as the long weekend. I think the second half of the season is the most important, for our team and what we want to do as a team -- win a championship.

Me: How different is the spacing on the floor without Kevin on the court?

RW: I mean, it's definitely different. We look different. Without the best scorer in the planet on the floor, it definitely can change some things. We definitely have to find different ways and different ways to be effective when he's on the floor.

Me: You've played without him before and played at a high level, but not this high a level. What is different this time?

RW: Just try to pick my spots, I think. Just constantly trying to find ways to lead my team, lead our guys. I think with some of the new pieces we have, with Enes and Kyle and D.J., helps out a lot as well while Kevin's being out. Serge is playing really well. I think he's playing some of the best basketball of his career as well, which is great for us right now. We're just at a good place.

Me: Is it any easier for a point guard to get used to new teammates, because he has the ball in his hands and can see where they like to operate or get the ball?

RW: It's tougher. I think it's tougher. Because you've got to be able to integrate new guys into the plays, the style of play that you guys want to play with as a team. Guys really came in and did a great job of learning the plays, and coming in and playing hard.

Me: Do you have to go to some dummy sets and simpler stuff as you're working them in?

RW: For sure. I think that's part of my job, part of my job is to find a way to try and keep those guys involved in the offense, keep those guys involved in the game. That's a part of leadership.

Me: Where is your game now in terms of the physical matching the mental, knowing the game, knowing the league?

RW: I think it's in a good place. My leadership level and the way that I feel like I've got our team and the guys we've got here, it's at a level where it's hard for teams to beat us. And I think if I constantly keep doing that, it gives us a chance to win a championship.

Me: What were the last couple of days before the trade deadline like, just because you knew something big could happen?

Nightly Notable: Russell Westbrook

Highlights from Russell Westbrook as he scores 40 points, grabs 13 rebounds and dishes out 11 assists.

RW: I mean, just constantly trying to find a way to keep our team together. Part of my job is to make sure that the guys we do have here know that we have their back, that we want to constantly keep winning games and that we support them constantly, and instill confidence in the guys we have.

Me: Was it hard the last few weeks with Reggie, because he had some things on his mind, and you guys may have had other things on your mind?

RW: I mean, it definitely can be difficult when guys aren't all the way in. But at the same time, my job is to worry about the other 13, 14 guys on our team. Part of the job as a point guard is to be able to find a way to get through different things like that. Some guys may be going through different things on the court, whether it's trades, contracts, whatever it may be. But at the same time, you still have to play the game.

Me: How do you get the new guys up to speed, that weren't in playoff races or trying to get where you guys want to be?

RW: Just leading them, man. I think it's important for myself and Kevin when he gets back to lead those guys. We know what it takes to get to the NBA Finals. We know what it takes to get there. And our job is to lead those guys there.

Me: Any concern the first half of the season, especially with all the injuries, that you might not get to the playoffs?

RW: Not one bit. I've said numerous times prior to everybody getting hurt and different things happening to our team, which is part of the NBA season, I said numerous times that we were going to take it one day at a time. We're still fighting right now. We're just going to take it one day at a time and take care of business.

Me: You think that once or if you get in, it doesn't matter what seed you are?

RW: It does not matter. It does not matter. To win an NBA championship, you've got to win on the road. I think regardless of who we play, where we play at, we can beat any team when we're playing our best basketball.

Me: What do you tell the young guys like Jeremy Lamb or Perry Jones that aren't playing right now, but who you may need down the road?

RW: Just constantly keep instilling confidence in them. Because I think when you don't play and you sit on the bench throughout the season, sometimes you may lose confidence in yourself. And confidence as a basketball player. And I think part of my job is to constantly lift those guys up, on or off the floor, in terms of what may be going on, just constantly lifting them up.

Me: You think you're in the MVP discussion?

RW: I don't know, man. I don't know. I think that our team is in the MVP discussion. I think a lot of guys have been playing extremely well that haven't been getting the credit, like Serge. Serge has been playing great. He's just doing a great job of playing the right way, protecting the basket, shooting the ball really well. I can go down the line with our team. Everybody's been doing a great job of just competing every night.

Me: Is Serge back to where he was last season with Kevin, where they had the screen-roll working really well and he was shooting it really well?

Arena Link: Russell Westbrook

Russell Westbrook discusses getting his 11th career triple double.

RW: I think he's rebounding at a high level. I think his rebounding constantly ignites him, blocking shots. And obviously he can shoot the ball real well. But I think he rebounds and runs the floor, he's a different player.

Me: I don't know if you know if our man Steve Smith is doing this Mount Rushmore of the NBA in different categories. Given your interest in clothing, I need your Mount Rushmore of NBA Style. Four players with the best style. And you can include yourself.

RW: Oh, I'm definitely including myself. I'd say myself, Kevin, James (Harden) and...I'm gonna go with Dorell Wright.

Me: Now, that is a name I didn't expect to hear. What about him is so nice?

RW: He has some swag. Obviously, people may not know it and see it as much as everybody else, but he definitely has some swag.

Me: You have always been fearless on the court. Did you ever have any fear in the fashion game?

RW: No. It's something that I love to do. Obviously I started in basketball, but it's something I want to do when I'm done playing. I attacked it the same way, kind of go at it with the mindset I go at it on the court. Being fearless, having an open mind and trying to get the best I can out of it.

Me: You have been named creative director of True Religion. Where do you want to go with it?

RW: I'm just excited, obviously, to be a part of the brand, to be the creative director moving forward. I just want to bring some new and fun and exciting things to the brand. Obviously the brand has been successful for a very long time. I'm just trying to bring some new and different things to the brand.

Me: I've seen some of the stuff you've designed, and it looks great...on athletes. But I need a middle aged line for guys like me that don't have quite the same look.

RW: I'm working on some casual wear right now that you can throw on.

Me: And the eyewear, too?

RW: I got you. I got a few things for you.

TWEET OF THE WEEK

-- Blake Griffin (@blakegriffin32), Friday, 12:47 p.m., spoofing the Twitter madness that ensued as the world argued about what color a dress was -- black and blue or gold and white? This was, truly, the end of American Civilization.

THEY SAID IT

"Honestly, I was almost in tears. It's different when you know the guy that well."

-- Miami's Luol Deng, to local reporters after the disclosure that Derrick Rose would need another knee operation to repair a torn meniscus.

"I've been a head coach for 22 years. People overlook that too easily and I think unfairly. I know I'm the new kid on the block in the NBA and I recognize the greatness of this league and the difficulty of this league and the fact that I've had to make, and am still going through the adjustment to coach in this league, but I am not now, nor have I been for quite some time, a rookie coach."

-- Cavs coach David Blatt, to the Cleveland Plain Dealer, on how he's been perceived during his first season as an NBA head coach. Blatt won 17 championships during his coaching career in Europe, including EuroBasket and EuroLeague titles, and led the Russian team to the bronze medal in the 2012 Olympics.

"Every team has a certain number of throwaway games. You just know. You just know you're not winning tonight. You don't have it. And then after the game, coach knows it, everybody knows it, coach comes in, says 'All right, bring it in guys. We'll get 'em tomorrow. 1-2-3 team!'"

-- Former player Shane Battier, during a panel discussion last week at the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference in Boston, advocating the NBA reduce its schedule from its current 82 games to 60 games.

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.