Skip to main content

Main content

Print

Mix-and-match Celtics boast unique lot of talent, assets

A versatile roster is keeping Boston in the thick of the East playoff chase as it ponders how to attack a seemingly limitless future

POSTED: Jan 19, 2016 12:37 PM ET

By David Aldridge

BY David Aldridge

TNT Analyst

AD

Boston's new-found small-ball lineup has given it an edge on defense of late.

David Lee is a pro.

Whatever feelings the veteran forward has about being gradually written out of another team's narrative, a season after coming out of drydock at a key moment to help the Golden State Warriors win the championship, he will keep to himself. He will be ready when or if the Boston Celtics come calling again.

"I've been through this before, and it turned out okay," he said Saturday.

Make no mistake: the two-time All-Star, who's nearly averaged a double double over his 10 NBA seasons, believes he can help a team like Boston. Just a little more than six years ago, he helped Golden State emerge out of a decade in the darkness, the Warriors' first significant free agent signing in a long time when he went to the Bay from New York in a sign-and-trade deal the night of LeBron James' decision. But Lee fell out of the rotation in Golden State as the Warriors discovered the hidden value in Draymond Green's unique game, and rode small ball to a championship.

The same appears to be happening in Boston, as the Celtics tinker with their own unique group of players, looking for combinations that can give coach Brad Stevens a defensive edge while executing in the halfcourt behind guard Isaiah Thomas, making a strong bid for his first All-Star appearance.

With fits and starts, Boston starts play Monday back in eighth place in the volatile Eastern Conference, just two games in the loss column out of fourth place -- but just two games in the loss column out of 10th. Yet no team with playoff hopes this season has the potential cache of Draft picks and cap room that General Manager Danny Ainge will have at his disposal this summer. And that makes the on-court product even more important to gauge correctly.

What, exactly, does Ainge have on his roster? There are a lot of pieces, but which ones are worth building around?

Celtics Use Defense To Seal It

The Celtics come up with four clutch steals that lead to buckets to close out Indiana late in the fourth quarter.

It's a question that has to be answered, for Boston has a Golden Ticket in its back pocket -- the unprotected 2016 first-round pick from Brooklyn that the Celtics got from the Nets as part of the Paul Pierce-Kevin Garnett trade in 2013. And Boston has the Mavericks' 2016 first-round pick from the Rajon Rondo trade. It is protected 1-7, so it's likely it will be coming Boston's way. (The Celtics also have the Timberwolves' 2016 first-round pick, but it's protected 1-12. Given Minnesota's downturn after a fast start, the probability is that the Wolves will keep the pick and then have to give Boston second-rounders this year and next year.)

That means the Celtics will have at least one likely high Lottery pick in June's Draft, along with two other first-round selections.

With a near-healthy group for the first time this season, Stevens has downsized like everyone else, seemingly, on earth, surrounding one big (usually Amir Johnson) the last few games with some combo of his four smalls: Isaiah Thomas, Jae Crowder, Marcus Smart, Avery Bradley and Evan Turner. The four-out, one-in allows Boston to -- you guessed it -- switch most screen-and-rolls, while making opponents match up with them at the other end.

It's not a combo that Stevens can or will play for long stretches, but it's been effective.

"We've got those five experience now," Stevens said after Boston's last-second win in Washington Saturday. "The guards are still young -- they're all young -- but they all have had good experience ... we're going to keep shuffling those guys around, and Jonas (Jerebko) will play a little bit at the small forward. The more you can, the better, but you can't do it the whole game. It's just not feasible long-term."

Suns vs. Celtics

Kelly Olynyk scores 21, Isaiah Thomas adds 19 and five other Celtics score in double figures to win it 117-103.

Ainge and Stevens will have to decide after the season if they can keep all those guards, and young forwards -- first-round picks R.J. Hunter and Jordan Mickey, with no room in the rotation, are currently with Boston's NBA D-League affiliate in Maine -- or whether to use their expected cap room to take a run at a major free agent.

Ainge can go in a dozen different directions.

He could try to go all-in right now and use the two picks plus any combination of wings he wants to see if there's a star available from a disappointing team. He could lower his sights and go after a solid role player to help for the stretch drive. Or he could keep his powder dry, see where the picks are in the 2016 Draft and add still more pieces.

"No bearing," Ainge said Sunday of the smalls' current success on long-term planning. "Play the best players."

Boston has played much of the season with Johnson and Jared Sullinger up front, with Thomas, Bradley and Crowder. That lineup has been one of the league's best defensively, allowing 101.3 points per 100 possessions in 337 minutes, per NBA.com/Stats.

The Celtics are second in defensive rating (behind the San Antonio Spurs) and tied for 11th in points allowed. But lately, Stevens has gone even smaller. Unless the 5-foot-9 Thomas gets switched on a big man in the post, the Celtics won't do much doubling or trapping. Yet the four guards have gotten some timely stops.

"We usually switch everyone except Isaiah," Bradley said. "We show on him. But everyone else, we all have that defensive mindset -- it doesn't matter who we're on, we all help each other out so well it doesn't really matter who we're guarding. Like, I mean, you saw the last game, Smart's guarding (Knicks rookie Kristaps) Porzingis at the four man. It just shows our toughness."

Pacers vs. Celtics

Isaiah Thomas scores 28 points, Jae Crowder matches his career high with 25 and the Celtics snap a four-game losing streak with a 103-94 win over the Pacers on Wednesday night.

Said Smart of the assignment: "it was different, him being 7-2, and me 6-3, 6-4. It was definitely a challenge. But big-time players, we live for those type of challenges. And everybody on this team, I feel like, can live up to that challenge. And if they were put in the same challenge, they would dig down and do what they have to do."

Boston's turnaround defensively began last season, when it went 20-11 after the All-Star break and were No. 9 in defensive rating. But they wanted more versatility up front, so Ainge signed the ex-Raptor Johnson and traded for Lee. Johnson has started all but three games when he was dealing with plantar fasciitis.

"We stick to our defensive plans," Johnson said. "We basically stay with the whole game plan. If something else different happens, we're able to try and change it up during the game. And if all else fails, we just go small and switch everything."

The smaller lineup hasn't solved every problem, though. Boston has been getting into the bonus earlier than it would like. But in Bradley, Smart and Crowder, Boston has the size and defensive chops to throw at any team. And it plays to each man's nature.

"That's what I play this game for, to compete," Bradley said. "No matter what's thrown at me, you take the best of it and go out there and play hard. Because you can't teach that, and there's no replacement for playing hard. And that's what we're doing ... it's contagious. Whenever you see somebody out there playing hard, like Marcus Smart, I tell him after every game, 'I appreciate you.' And I know the first time I said it to him, he was looking at me like, 'what?' And I was like, I just appreciate how hard he plays. It's a motivation for me. And it makes me want to play hard every single game. I'm pretty sure everyone else feels the same way."

Celtics vs. Pistons

Avery Bradley leads with 18 points, Isaiah Thomas adds 17 with nine dimes as Boston top Detroit 99-93.

But injuries have made continuity impossible. Bradley missed time with a hip injury. Smart was out more than a month, missing 18 games with a knee injury. Sullinger had back spasms. Stevens also benched Sullinger for five games in favor of Kelly Olynyk, wanting more shooting on the floor, but has gone back to Sullinger, who is among the league's best in individual defensive rating.

The only constant has been Thomas, who has been sensational all season. He's in the top 15 in the league in just about all terrestrial and advanced offensive categories, from scoring (21.8, 13th in the league) to assists (6.6, tied for 10th) to Efficiency (19.7, 30th). And his most important stat might be free throws and free throw attempts (eighth- and 15th, respectively), which lets the Celtics set up their defense behind him.

Offensively, Boston doesn't run a lot of sets when it goes that small, playing "free," as Bradley puts it.

"I just feel like it opens the floor, especially with the shooters we have," Bradley said. "It helps us be able to move the ball, just all share, just play free. Whenever you have a small group out there, the ball moves a lot more. And, the other reason is some of the other guys don't know the positions, too."

Yet Stevens drew up plays out of timeouts down the stretch against the Wizards that weren't 1-4 clearouts for Thomas. He brought Bradley off a downscreen for a 3-pointer, then had Smart throw a lob to Crowder with the score tied in the final seconds, with Crowder walling off Washington rookie forward Kelly Oubre for the game-winning basket.

That Stevens went to Crowder is but the next step in the fourth-year forward's evolution.

Celtics vs. Wizards

Isaiah Thomas scores 32 points, John Wall scores 38 points with 13 assists but misses the layup to seal the win for Boston 119-117.

Crowder made his mark early in his career as a defensive hawk and energy/transition guy, drawing rave reviews from Rick Carlisle in Dallas, which acquired his rights the night after he was taken by Cleveland in the second round of the 2012 Draft. But after coming from Dallas in the Rondo deal, Crowder was ill-equipped to contribute much in the halfcourt game. He needed more tools in his bag.

"The guys and the coaches see how hard I work at it," Crowder said. "I want to be a significant player. I want to grow. Part of our job is to grow as players. I want to keep growing within our offense, within our scheme of things, and come to play each and every night."

Boston cleared playing time for Crowder by trading Jeff Green to Memphis last season, and Ainge showed his belief in him by signing him to a five-year, $35 million deal before he hit free agency. Like another former Marquette product, Chicago Bulls star Jimmy Butler -- who parlayed a Spartan summer into a max contract a year later -- Crowder worked mightily in the offseason to improve his game.

He spent the summer in Florida, working twice a day on pick-and-rolls with the ball in his hands and ballhandling drills in the morning, and spot-up or catch-and-shoot drills in the afternoon sessions.

Thomas Drops 32 On Wizards

Highlights from Isaiah Thomas as he scores 32 points to lead the Celtics over Washington.

"I focused on a lot of different things," he said. "Of course, I didn't want to shoot the ball as poorly from behind the arc as I did last season (an abysmal 28.2 percent). I wanted to improve on that, and just improve on making plays with the ball in my hands, and being able to be an offensive player."

Everything is up for Crowder this year: his minutes, shots, points, and field goal percentages, both overall (.456) and on 3-pointers (.360, both career highs). He's clearly a part of Boston's future, as are Bradley and Thomas and Smart -- and Stevens, who continues to impress as an NBA coach.

It has been a tough, tough few weeks for Stevens. One of his former Butler players, Andrew Smith, who played on the two teams that reached the NCAA national championship game, died last week at 25 after a second bout with cancer. Stevens missed the Celtics' game against the Bulls a couple of weeks ago to be at Smith's side in Indiana. (Ainge said on his local radio show in Boston last week that the Celtics sought to find alternate treatment plans for Smith before his death.)

Whenever you see somebody out there playing hard, like Marcus Smart, I tell him after every game, 'I appreciate you.' And I know the first time I said it to him, he was looking at me like, 'what?' And I was like, I just appreciate how hard he plays. It's a motivation for me.

– Boston Celtics guard Avery Bradley

Stevens is dealing with his grief quietly, even as he has continued looking at any and everything that might give him an idea for how to best utilize the talent on his roster. He looks the same as he did less than three years ago, when Ainge shocked the world by naming the then-36-year-old coach out of college. But he's not the same guy.

Well, he is. But not professionally. His voice carries, and his players believe in the word.

"I feel like whenever someone's a little more confident in themselves -- a coach, a player, anybody -- you feel more comfortable," Bradley said. "That, and the amount of hard work he puts in. He believes everything he tells us, because he has the work to back it up."

DRIBBLES

The chain around John Wall's neck reads, "5 Deep." It is more than a slogan: to him, it means family and friendship and trust. It refers to him and his four best friends in the world, who grew up with him in Raleigh, N.C., well before he was an NBA star.

And 5 Deep's presence caused another big stir in the NBA agent game last week. That's when Wall became the latest big name player to announce he was going to change his representatives, firing the firm Relativity Sports, which had been his agency since before he went first overall in the 2010 Draft. Wall had been repped by Dan Fegan, one of the most powerful agents in the game.

In changing agents, Wall joined numerous prominent players who've switched agents in the last few months.

Many left Wasserman Media Group (WMG), which has been one of the most powerful sports agencies since it was founded in 2002. Among the players who left WMG were Milwaukee Bucks forward Jabari Parker, the No. 2 pick in the 2014 Draft, San Antonio Spurs forward LaMarcus Aldridge, Chicago Bulls center Pau Gasol and his brother, Memphis Grizzlies center, Marc Gasol. Gone from the WMG ranks are Brooklyn Nets guard Joe Johnson, Denver Nuggets forward Danilo Gallinari, Los Angeles Clippers guard Jamal Crawford -- who'd just joined Wasserman last summer -- and Portland Trail Blazers guard Gerald Henderson. (Atlanta Hawks center Al Horford, who'd briefly left Wasserman last fall, re-joined the agency last month.)

After the crazy free agent recruitment of Los Angeles Clippers center DeAndre Jordan by the Dallas Mavericks last July -- Jordan agreed to sign with Dallas, only to change his mind and re-sign with the Clippers for $88 million -- Jordan also fired Relativity as his agency.

It's important to note that both WMG and Relativity are still on very solid ground. WMG, which employs veteran agents B.J. Armstrong, Thad Foucher and Darren Matsubara, still represents more than 40 players, including Russell Westbrook, Anthony Davis, Draymond Green, Derrick Rose, Brook and Robin Lopez, Brandon Knight, Steven Adams, J.J. Redick, Marcus Smart and Tyreke Evans, and recently added Houston Rockets center Clint Capela.

At Relativity, Fegan still wields a significant client list, including DeMarcus Cousins, Dwight Howard, Chandler Parsons, Monta Ellis, Kevin Martin, Ricky Rubio and Anderson Varejao. Relativity's veteran agents, including Jarinn Akana, David Bauman and others, rep the likes of Andrew Bogut, Ty Lawson, Rodney Hood and Robert Covington.)

Yet the changes have come, in an atmosphere where agents are under increasing pressure to deliver not only the biggest contracts for their clients, but provide marketing opportunities in television, movies, music and shoes -- always, shoes. With so much money coming into the NBA system via the $24 billion in television money that will come on line later this season from ABC/ESPN and Turner Sports (which runs this here website), everyone is on notice. Today, it's agents. At the end of the season, it will no doubt be coaches and general managers whose teams don't live up to their teams' increasing cap numbers.

It is no longer good enough for coaches to win 50 games in a season. And it is no longer good enough to get your client a max contract, as Fegan did for Wall two years ago -- when precious few people around the league thought that possible.

"Just a decision that I made, just thinking about it with my team," Wall said earlier in the week. "The people I was with have been a great partnership the five years I was with them. They did a lot of positive things for me. It was just a situation where I felt me and my team wanted to go in different ways with how I wanted to build my team."

Wall wants what LeBron James -- and, a generation before both of them, Gary Payton -- achieved: representation that will empower those closest to him in meaningful positions.

Two of James's closest friends -- his former high school teammate, Maverick Carter, and Rich Paul, whom he met in the Akron airport when Paul was running a throwback jersey business out of his car -- now speak for him to corporate America. Carter is the CEO of LRMR Management, the marketing and branding company that represents James' business interests, including his foundation. And James hired Paul as his agent in 2012, leaving Creative Artists Agency (CAA), one of the world's biggest and most influential representation companies.

Wall wants that for his closest friends, that grew up with him in Raleigh and have been there with him at every stop along the way, through his troubled childhood, his explosion as a basketball talent in high school, his year at Kentucky and his six seasons in Washington. And he believes Paul -- among this season's worst-kept secrets is that Wall will hire Paul after the 15-day grace period to which players must adhere before hiring a new agent expires -- can do that.

(Also worth noting about Paul's Klutch Sports group: He represents Phoenix Suns guard Eric Bledsoe and has negotiated $327 million in new deals in the last year and a half, including Tristan Thompson's $82 million deal last summer.)

"That's the way," Wall said Saturday night, without naming any names. "That's what I want to do."

Wall will soon make his best friend, Ty Williams -- "my brother," Wall says -- his manager. Another friend, Reggie Jackson, is working at a bank in the D.C. area. Eric "E.J." Grissett is a disc jockey at local clubs; Alban (Bane) Okafor is a fledgling entrepreneur just as Rich Paul was all those years ago. And Wall wants his guys to follow that path.

"I think a lot of young players look up to me," Wall said, "and it's an opportunity for me, understanding what I've been learning the last six years. I think, like the next two, three years, just give my boys the opportunity to learn. And learn from some smart people. And maybe down the road, they'd be good at managing people."

You don't want to go too far afield here. Players switch agents like you or I would switch socks -- frequently and without a second thought. (Fegan, for example, was DeAndre Jordan's third agent; Jordan had originally been represented by veteran agent Joel Bell and was with Wasserman before he went to Fegan.) It's almost impossible to keep up with all the hirings and firings in a given year; any agent who's been around more than five minutes loses someone, sooner or later.

"As an agent, it's not 'if,' it's 'when,'" a prominent agent texted over the weekend.

But it's usually the biggest firms that swallow up clients of smaller agents, promising bigger deals and the like. It's rare to see such upheaval at two of the biggest agencies representing NBA talent.

WMG's defections are almost all linked to the departure of Arn Tellem, the biggest agent in basketball for the last 20 years, who left the business entirely last year to become vice chairman of Palace Sports and Entertainment, the Pistons' parent company. Among his new responsibilities, Tellem is tasked with working with local power brokers in the city to try and get both a new arena concept for the Pistons and a new multimedia rights deal.

Over three decades, Tellem and David Falk became colossi in the NBA, not only representing many of the top picks, but leading agent discord with aspects of the Collective Bargaining Agreement between the players' union and the league. Tellem was a frequent op-ed writer in The New York Times, part of one of Hollywood's great power couples -- his wife, Nancy, was the former president of CBS Entertainment.

In a business where a lot of agent egos are as big as the players they represent, Tellem -- while quite assured his position on his clients' worth was the correct one -- was able to do business relatively cordially with almost every team, and counted powerful executives like Jerry West as close personal friends.

Players went to Tellem, wherever he was at a given moment. And when he left, they left. Agents used to recruit against WMG by saying Tellem had too many clients and could never pay enough attention to them. Now, they recruit against WMG by saying Tellem did all the work there.

"It's pretty simple -- when you have a big agency and you have a legacy agent, the business with representation is based on the relationship," an industry source said. "The longer you've been with a client, the less they care about what agency you're with -- they care about you."

Like all agents, though, Tellem had to survive his own player defections over the years. He was Kobe Bryant's original agent, and hired the man who would become Bryant's agent, Rob Pelinka, to Tellem's then-mega-firm, SFX Sports. But when Wasserman hired Tellem in 2006, making him president of WMG, it did not hire Pelinka, who took Bryant and his other clients, including Andre Iguodala and Chris Kaman, to form his own agency, Landmark Sports. Today, Pelinka still has Bryant and Iguodala, along with James Harden, Trevor Ariza, Eric Gordon and Dante Exum, among others.

NBA player representation is dominated by a handful of agencies, whose lead agents -- Jeff Schwarz (Excel), Bill Duffy (BDA Sports), Mark Bartlestein (Priority Sports), Leon Rose (CAA) and Andy Miller (ASM Sports), along with Fegan, Pelinka and Relativity -- represent almost half of the league's players. If any of them not working on their own had left their respective companies, they might well have had the same exodus as WMG had when Tellem left.

"You can't just bring somebody in to be your agent. It's very emotional, human based," the industry source said. "Those guys left because Arn wasn't there."

WMG's chair and CEO, Casey Wasserman, said in June that the company had been preparing for Tellem's eventual departure since Tellem joined a group attempting to buy the Los Angeles Dodgers in 2012 -- a deal that would have made Tellem the Dodgers' president. Wasserman said at the time that he anticipated some damage but that WMG would endure.

Wall's and Jordan's defections come at an extremely sensitive time for Relativity, an entertainment management company that was a recent entrant into the sports agency game.

Relativity launched in 2012, acquiring entertainment agent Happy Walters' company, Rogue Sports, and added Fegan as the head of its new basketball division in 2013, after Fegan parted with the prominent Lagardère Unlimited firm. Having also acquired the giant baseball agency SFX Baseball and the football agency Maximum Sports -- and the 125 combined athletes those companies represented -- Relativity soon was a major player in the sports agency business. With Fegan's and Walters' clients, it represented more than 10 percent of all NBA clients. Two summers ago, the firm did more than $400 million in new deals for its free agents.

But Relativity has fallen on hard times financially. The company filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection last July, though billionaire Ron Burkle has subsequently taken over as chairman and invested $30 million in the company. Walters, the primary agent for Jimmy Butler, Amar'e Stoudemire, Iman Shumpert, Corey Brewer and others, left Relativity in October to form a new business.

Walters said Sunday night that he will announce his new company in March, "but all my guys are still being repped by me."

The former WMG clients scattered to different agents. Parker went with Charles Tucker, a former ABA player and owner of a doctorate in psychology, who represented several star players from the 1980s to the 2000s, including Magic Johnson, Isiah Thomas, Mark Aguirre, Doc Rivers, Glenn "Big Dog" Robinson, Steve Smith and Mateen Cleaves. Parker said he's known Tucker since he was 12 years old, when he started playing AAU ball with Tucker's son, Charles, Jr.

Aldridge and Johnson signed with Excel, whose client list is a cross section of NBA talent: Blake Griffin, Paul Pierce, Kevin Love, Al Jefferson, Andre Drummond, Harrison Barnes, Deron Williams, Kemba Walker, Kyle Korver, Isaiah Thomas, Tyson Chandler, Khris Middleton, Brandon Jennings and Marco Belinelli, along with emerging players like C.J. McCollum, Hassan Whiteside, Michael Carter-Williams and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson.

Gallinari signed with CAA, LeBron's old company, whose group of agents including Rose, Henry Thomas, Steve Heumann and Aaron Mintz -- and Arn Tellem's son, Michael -- still has Carmelo Anthony, Chris Paul, Chris Bosh, Paul George, Tony Parker, Dwyane Wade, Reggie Jackson, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Jonas Valanciunas, along with young players like 2015's No. 1 overall pick Karl-Anthony Towns and 2014 Lakers first-rounder Julius Randle.

Kevin Durant was with CAA, but left for Jay-Z's Roc Nation Sports agency in 2013. Roc Nation also represents the Nuggets' Wilson Chandler, Celtics guard James Young, rookies Justise Winslow (Miami) and Willie Cauley-Stein (Sacramento), along with Dallas Wings star Skylar Diggins of the WNBA.

Durant Talks Jay-Z Deal

The Thunder's Kevin Durant talks about the rebuilding process in OKC and his new deal with Jay-Z with CNN's Rachel Nichols.

Crawford went back with veteran agent Aaron Goodwin, with whom he'd been most of his career.

"I was with him 11 of the 16 years, so I figured being the most comfortable with him why not finish what I started,?" Crawford said via direct message on Saturday. "...With my contract coming up, I needed experience and a pit bull."

League scuttlebutt has hinted that Wall wants a big, big shoe deal. The discussions Relativity was having with adidas, Wall's former shoe company, were not proceeding to his liking -- especially in the wake of Harden's 13-year, $200 million deal with adidas reached last year. Wall says that's not true.

"That wasn't part of the decision why I wanted to make that" (agent) change, Wall said. "It was just something that I've been thinking about for a while. I'm still open to every shoe company. I'm going to talk to all of those guys through the process and figure out what I can do. I still have interest in adidas and all the other companies that want to talk to me and have a meeting. I'm open. I've just been wearing what's comfortable for my feet and protecting my feet for right now."

Wall originally signed with Reebok after being drafted but then went to adidas in 2014, signing one of the bigger deals in that company's history. His first signature shoe came out later that year, but the sides couldn't reach an agreement on a new contract, and Wall's deal with adidas expired last September.

Going forward, it's hard to see anyone getting the deals that Durant got from Nike to stay with them in 2014 instead of going to Under Armour -- reportedly, between $265 and $285 million over 10 years -- or that adidas gave Harden. Wall may lose this bet. But he's done well believing in himself over the years. Now he's gambling on 5 Deep, too.

"They're all doing positive things," Wall said. "They're all up here learning, doing different things. That's something I'm looking for, for them to do that. I don't think everybody can. But you have certain ones that can. I think I'm one of those players that had the opportunity. So, I'm just trying to let them learn."

TOP O' THE WORLD, MA!

(previous rank in brackets; last week's record in parenthesis)

1) San Antonio [2] (4-0): So many different people can beat you every night, and the quality of the Spurs' consistency, player by player, day after day, is unmatched.

Mavericks vs. Spurs

LaMarcus Aldridge records 23 points and seven rebounds, Boris Diaw adds 16 points as the Spurs defeat the Mavericks.

2) Golden State [1] (2-2): 37-4 at the halfway point of the season, but standing in the way of the Warriors' pursuit of matching (or besting) the 72-10 record the 1995-96 Chicago Bulls amassed are seven remaining games with the Spurs (four) and Oklahoma City (three), along with two more against the Clippers.

3) Cleveland [3] (2-1): The Cavs are already head and shoulders above everyone in the East, and now they can really create separation: 17 of their next 24 at home over the next seven weeks.

Inside The NBA: Evaluating The Top Teams

Kenny, Shaq and Chuck take a hard look at the Spurs, Cavaliers and the Warriors.

4) Oklahoma City [5] (4-0): Lockdown: allowed just 88 per game in the last four games, including a season-low 74 points to the Heat Sunday -- the fewest allowed by OKC since giving beating Utah 95-73 on Nov. 24, 2013.

5) L.A. Clippers [4] (1-1): If Blake Griffin does return against the Cavaliers on Thursday, his team did an incredible job holding down the fort while he was out.

6) Toronto [9] (1-0): Working on their fourth win streak of four games or more this season, with seven in a row coming up at Air Canada Centre.

7) Atlanta [6] (1-2): Tim Hardaway, Jr., gets regular run with the Hawks for the first time since just after Thanksgiving.

Nets vs. Hawks

Paul Millsap leads a balanced attack scores 21 points with six rebounds as Atlanta tops Brooklyn 114-86.

8) Miami [7] (1-3): Running out of point guards.

9) Chicago [8] (1-3): Fred Hoiberg says Mike Dunleavy, Jr., may get onto the practice floor in the next couple of weeks. The Bulls desperately need his ability to stretch the floor.

10) Dallas [10] (2-2): You wonder what Mark Cuban and Donnie Nelson really think about their team, which isn't bad -- but which seems a world removed from Golden State and San Antonio and Oklahoma City, which isn't good.

11) Memphis [12] (2-1): Back to the Future: Zach Randolph and Tony Allen back in the starting lineup, Jeff Green and Matt Barnes back to the bench.

12) Houston [14] (3-1): Dwight Howard looking like Old Dwight Howard, not an old Dwight Howard.

Rockets vs. Lakers

James Harden scores 31 points, Clint Capela and Dwight Howard each add a double-double as the Rockets defeat the Lakers.

13) Detroit [13] (1-2): With Pacers struggling and Bulls now without Joakim Noah, Pistons have a shot at commandeering second place in the Central.

14) Indiana [11] (1-3): Pacers got off to a scorching start in November playing small, but it hasn't gone nearly as well since -- C.J. Miles, who'd shot 44 percent on 3-pointers in November primarily playing the four, is shooting just 33.5 percent on 3-pointers since, including 25.6 percent (14 of 54) in January.

15) Boston [NR] (3-1): Isaiah Thomas, last 10 games: 25.1 points, 6 assists per game.

Dropped out: Utah [15]

TEAM OF THE WEEK

San Antonio (4-0): TOTW until further notice, or until someone actually beats them in, you know, a game.

TEAM OF THE WEAK

Phoenix (0-3): Ended another abysmal week with a 30-point loss Sunday to the Timberwolves, who'd dropped nine in a row and 13 of their last 14. The Suns' three-game road trip: three losses, by 19, 14 and 30. They've lost 13 of 14 themselves. Hard to see a scenario where coach Jeff Hornacek survives much longer.

NOBODY ASKED ME, BUT ...

Inside The NBA: Latest All-Star Votes

With the latest returns in from the All-Star votes, Kenny, Shaq and Chuck give their two cents on the tally.

Who should be the All-Star starters in each conference?

Once again: it doesn't bother me who fans vote for to see in an exhibition game, which is what the All-Star Game is. If they want to see Kobe Bryant one last time before he retires, I'm good with that. Whether or not a player earns an All-Star Game bonus is not something that's important to me, though I understand why it would be important to them.

Having said that, if you're asking whom I think has earned the right, based on how they've played so far this season, to be one of the 10 starters, I'll tell you what I think.

Fan voting will conclude tonight (Monday) at 11:59 p.m ET. The top three vote-getters among forwards and the top two among guards in each conference will start in the Feb. 14 game.

EASTERN CONFERENCE

Current Leaders

Frontcourt: LeBron James (830,345 votes), Paul George (569,947), Carmelo Anthony (368,336)

No problem with any of those three, though George has dropped off noticeably of late, and Chris Bosh has been terrific after missing almost half of last season after developing blood clots in his lungs. I'd love to see Bosh get some recognition for his return at a high level. George, though, has an even better story, obviously, and seeing him at Air Canada Centre is going to be a very emotional moment after all that he's been through. Paul Millsap has been outstanding for Atlanta this season. Krystaps Porzingis will be in the rookie game. The East has become much more difficult this season, but just as in the West, downsizing has made most big men almost obsolete in the regular season NBA. Most. Andre Drummond's glass work and Hassan Whiteside's shot blocking are outliers that deserve recognition, but fall short of being All-Star starters.

Guards: Dwyane Wade (736,732), Kyrie Irving (399,757)

This is where it gets tough. Irving is a better player than Kyle Lowry, or John Wall. But they're having much better seasons, because they've been on the court since the end of October, and Irving hasn't, as he continued his rehab from a fractured patella suffered in The Finals. If it's just about merit, you have to go with one of those two at one of the guard spots ahead of him. I would go with Wall in a photo finish over Lowry. Wall's scoring just as much, shooting a higher percentage, and he's averaging nearly 10 assists a game.

At the other spot, it's not like Wade has been terrible. He's been very good, considering many around the league thought he'd never be able to play 30 effective minutes again on those knees. But I think DeMar DeRozan deserves a starting berth and at the least, his second All-Star appearance, even though (shudder) he's not a good 3-point shooter! (Can you support someone for an All-Star berth anymore who doesn't shoot threes?) DeRozan and Lowry have carried Toronto this season, and DeRozan has borne a huge offensive load. He's gone for 25 or more points 15 times this season for the Atlantic Division-leading Raptors.

Chicago's Jimmy Butler has a case for a starting backcourt spot, too, and you wouldn't be wrong to support him. Isaiah Thomas' numbers across the board are impressive. But if you're asking me to choose a starting backcourt from the East, I'd pick Wall and DeRozan.

Eastern All-Star Starting Guards

Who will be the starting backcourt at the All-Star Game for the East?

WESTERN CONFERENCE

Current Leaders

Frontcourt: Kobe Bryant (1,533,432), Kevin Durant (774,782), Draymond Green (499,947)

If this is about merit, Kawhi Leonard must start ahead of Bryant in the All-Star Game. Period. Leonard is having one of the great seasons in recent history -- and if he's said a word about it, that is news. Leonard is, at the same time, top 10 in the following categories: 3-point percentage (.481, second), PER (25.9, fifth), True Shooting Percentage (.614, 10th), Effective Field Goal Percentage (.571, eighth), Offensive Rating (121.9, eighth), and Offensive Win Shares (4.7, fourth) -- AND top 10 in the following defensive categories: steals (76, seventh), Defensive Rating (92.3, second) and Defensive Win Shares (3.4, first).

His trail of ruin of opposing small forwards who've had to go against him this season is unbelievable. (Look at his Defensive Dashboard on NBA.com.) And he's doing all of those things while staying completely attached to how the Spurs play as a team at both ends of the floor. Just remarkable.

Durant has made a strong recovery when there were whispers around the league before the season that he might not be able to get back to his old self. And Green's two-way play on a team that is 37-4 should speak for itself. There was a case to be made for Blake Griffin before he went out with a torn quad. Anthony Davis has been great, just not often enough for the underachieving New Orleans Pelicans. Ditto for DeMarcus Cousins and the Sacramento Kings. Tim Duncan and Dirk Nowitzki hate All-Star Games and would be very grateful if you didn't include them in the weekend, thank you very much.

The Starters: Zaza For All-Star

After discussing Pachulia's All-Star candidacy, The Starters received a huge backlash from Georgia, and now, it's time to make amends.

Guards

Leaders: Stephen Curry (1,206,467), Russell Westbrook (609,901)

It is better to be silent and merely be thought a fool than to speak and remove all doubt. There's no discussion worth having here -- Curry and Westbrook start, and everyone else is playing for a coaches' pick. Don't say anything else, or start some argument about Chris Paul or James Harden or Rajon Rondo. Please. You'll feel better with all that unused oxygen in your lungs.

The starters for the 2016 All-Star Game will be announced Thursday on TNT.

... AND NOBODY ASKED YOU, EITHER

'Zing(is) go the strings of his heart. From Ahmad Deeb:

Where do you see Kristaps Porzingis in 5 years from now? in terms of production? is he the next Anthony Davis as a player that the Knicks can build around? What does he need to be better?

Porzingis Solid vs. Spurs

Kristaps Porzingis hits 28 points on 11-21 shooting with three triples and 11 rebounds versus the Spurs.

He is a potential superstar, Ahmad, but I hesitate to put such expectations on him precisely because he is playing in New York. If he turns out to merely be a good, solid, 10-year player, he will be viewed a bust by many up there because he was drafted so high. I do think his ability to shoot, combined with his size and his willingness to stick his nose in to rebound and block shots, will make him at the least a very, very good, multiple All-Star kind of talent. He'll need to get stronger so that he can avoid cheap fouls and stay on the court. But he's the first young, substantial piece the Knicks have had to build around in a generation.

Do Not Ask for Whom the Beal Tolls. From Drew Angerer:

What do the Wizards do with Bradley Beal? He wants a max contract but has injured the same leg 4 seasons in a row and has now admitted he'll probably have to be on some kind of minutes restriction for the rest of his career. Do Ernie Grunfeld and the Wizards give him the max deal that he wants? They can't let him walk for nothing. What other options do they have here? Sign and trade? Hope for health? He's a fabulous player who could have a great future, if he stays healthy.

Arena Link: Bradley Beal

Wizards' Bradley Beal joins GameTime via arena link after a 22-point performance in a victory over Indiana.

Not sure why everyone's wigging out over this. The Wizards are still going to max Beal. He has indeed had the same issue with his leg throughout his first few years in Washington, and it always gets worse the longer he plays. So, the logical and obvious solution is to limit his minutes. To me, it's no different than what Boston did with Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce late in their careers there, or what the Spurs do with Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker -- the Wizards will just have to start Beal's maintenance program sooner. There's no reason he can't still be an All-Star caliber player at 30-35 minutes a night; he's just going to have to be more efficient. And if it accelerates Washington's pursuit of another impact player to go with Beal and Wall, I don't think you'll object, right?

He believes more in Clinton Portis. From John Steppling:

The love fest for Bobby Portis is irrational in a way and you should perhaps know better. He cant jump. At all. I mean not at all. Now that does not mean he cant be good, but it means he is likely a solid rotation player...maybe, but that's it. Not an All-Star. Plus, wait for a month and lets see if his defense can hold up at all. In college people abused him at times because of his lack of both lateral quickness (not bad, but not good) and his total and absolute lack of hops.

If jumping was the only quality an NBA player needed, John, Zach LaVine would be an All-Star already. There's more to basketball than vertical leap. No one said Portis was going to dominate the league for the next decade, but I do think he can overcome his physical limitations because he plays extremely hard, and that can get you over on a lot of nights when talent doesn't fire.

Send your questions, comments, criticisms and sitcom ideas for a man and his 1,500-pound friend 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)

1) Stephen Curry (33.3 ppg, 5 rpg, 5.8 apg, .479 FG, .895 FT): This is, officially, absurd.

2) LeBron James (22.7 ppg, 8 rpg, 6.3 apg, .521 FG, .722 FT): Announces development of another television show, this one to be shown on CNBC this summer, in which he and business partner Maverick Carter will match four Cleveland entrepreneurs with businesspeople who will help fund their fledgling local companies -- which will be utilized in developing neighborhoods throughout the city.

3) Kawhi Leonard (14.8 ppg, 6.8 rpg, 1.8 apg, .391 FG, .818 FT): Neck and neck (.481) with the Clippers' J.J. Redick (.484) for the league lead in 3-point percentage.

4) Russell Westbrook (11.8 ppg, 8.8 rpg, 11 apg, .432 FG, .500 FT): Fifth triple-double of the season Sunday in the Thunder's victory over Miami.

Nightly Notable: Russell Westbrook

Russell Westbrook notches his 24th career triple-double with 13 points, 15 assists and 10 rebounds.

5) Kevin Durant (26 ppg, 8.3 rpg, 4.3 apg, .556 FG, .889 FT): KD says we in the media have it all wrong, and that he doesn't hate us. In fact, he loves us. I don't think it's either, and will settle for cordial and civil.

BY THE NUMBERS

8 -- Retired jerseys in Pistons history after the team raised Ben Wallace's No. 3 to the rafters at The Palace of Auburn Hills Saturday. That number will increase next month when Detroit officially retires Chauncey Billups' No. 1, joining Wallace, Joe Dumars (4), Dennis Rodman (10), Isiah Thomas (11), Vinnie Johnson (15), Bob Lanier (16), Dave Bing (21) and Bill Laimbeer (40). In addition, banners honoring the late Chuck Daly (No. 2), owner William Davidson and former general manager Jack McCloskey are in the rafters.

Ben Wallace Jersey Retirement

Ben Wallace has his #3 jersey retired by the Detroit Pistons.

360 -- Consecutive games played by Clippers center DeAndre Jordan, a streak that ended last week when Jordan missed L.A.'s game against the Heat with pneumonia. The new consecutive games played leader is Cleveland's Tristan Thompson, at 326.

10 -- Years, on Thursday, since Kobe Bryant scored 81 points against the Raptors, the second-highest individual scoring night in league history behind Wilt Chamberlain's 100 points. And Bryant scored almost all of those points against Toronto with the outcome of the game still in the balance.

Kobe Bryant Tweets 81-Point Game

The Lakers' Kobe Bryant live-tweeted his 81-point game as it aired on NBA TV.

I'M FEELIN' ...

1) You could say I'm looking forward to seeing Stephen Curry and Kyrie Irving go at one another with my own eyes in The Q tonight (8 ET, TNT). Don't know if we'll settle who the better point guard is by one game, but it'll be Must See TV, anyway.

1A) Oh, and LeBron vs. Draymond. Proceed.

2) Okay, this and this are brilliant. Kudos to the Detroit Pistons for originality and amazing labor putting them together.

3) Cuban: The Early, Beer-Soaked Years.

4) Love this.

NOT FEELIN' ...

1) It's sad that Kobe Bryant has withdrawn from consideration for the Summer Games in Rio. Not because he isn't right, and that he'd be taking a spot from someone else who's more deserving (this isn't an All-Star Game; this is for a gold medal and for representing our country), but because he is so respected by this generation's stars. I don't think his presence would have caused a bit of angst among the rank and file players.

2) No, Joakim Noah was not starting any more in Chicago, and he was only playing 21 minutes a game and averaging career lows across the board this season. The Bulls are still going to miss him, terribly.

3) I love Steph Curry. I already think he shoots the ball more consistently and deeper than anyone I've ever seen. And I loved John Stockton, who was as tough a player -- not point guard, player -- as I ever saw. An all-time great. But any list that has Steph Curry and John Stockton ahead of Isiah Thomas as a point guard is ludicrous.

4) What an awful week. When I was at ESPN, Chris Mortensen and Peter Gammons were the only two guys who knew the pressures of what being an "Insider" really meant. And both of them were incredibly generous with their time and counsel when I would ask them about making the transition from print to broadcast journalism. It was Mort who told me that in TV, you only really have time to give the viewer the headline of the story -- which was the perfect way to explain the difference. I am so saddened to hear that Mort is battling throat cancer, and I offer my sincere prayers for recovery to him and to his family, for families are stricken with the disease, too.

5) "Who said we were terrorists?"

"And when we kissed, which was about 11 o'clock the following morning, we were trembling so much we couldn't take off our clothes."

"Moses was a drunk. Look what he accomplished. And no one's even asking you to part an ocean. All you have to do is go to New Jersey."

RIP, Alan Rickman. You were an incredible actor.

6) The first time I was in a club as an adult, and asked a girl to dance, the song that played was "Let's Dance." It means so much to me, as does the singer, David Bowie. Rest in Peace to a great, great entertainer, who went out of his way to ask impolite, uncomfortable questions of those in power -- when he had power -- about where and when artists of color would get the same chance to perform on their airwaves as he had. He didn't have to do it, but he did. People remember things like that.

TWEET OF THE WEEK

-- Lakers guard Lou Williams (@TeamLou23), Tuesday, 1:48 a.m., responding to a fan who asked if he was recruiting Raptors guard DeMar DeRozan, expected to opt out of his contract at season's end and become an unrestricted free agent. The Lakers are one of many teams, including the Nets, expected to take a run at DeRozan,

THEY SAID IT

"We are relying on him to shoot jumpers, we are relying on him in the post. It is a lot for a 20-year old. Welcome to my world."

-- Coach Sam Mitchell, in a Q&A with the Minnesota Post, on how much the Timberwolves already depend on rookie Karl-Anthony Towns to provide much of their offense.

"I know I got to keep my mouth shut because then he'll run and tell. So we're focused on playing that team [the Knicks]. And when I'm retired, him and I will cross paths again."

-- Matt Barnes, to the New York Daily News, on playing the Knicks last Saturday and their coach, Derek Fisher, with whom Barnes was involved in an altercation last October at the home of Barnes' ex-wife -- with whom Fisher had become involved after the Barneses' divorce. The league suspended Barnes for two games for his role in the fight with Fisher; Barnes has said he only came to his ex-wife's house at the request of the couple's children.

"Are you crazy? I didn't see any of it. I really didn't. I thought he'd be a guy that could survive in that league."

-- Michigan State Coach Tom Izzo, to the Lansing State Journal, on what he thought the NBA prospects would be for his senior forward Draymond Green when Green was taken in the second round of the 2012 Draft.

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.