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By Sam Smith | 2.23.2015 | 8:59 a.m. CT
It was Academy Award night Sunday, and in case you didn’t make it to the end, here’s a few awards you may have missed:
The award for Production and Wardrobe goes to… Russell Westbrook. You’ve got to add him to the MVP discussion, which for the most part has been between Stephen Curry and James Harden. Especially if the Thunder continue to make a run with Kevin Durant now going out at least a few weeks, which is very worrisome for the Thunder despite what they say. As for Westbrook, for all the lack of being a real point guard, as if there are many anyway, and basically being oblivious to where his teammates are when he wants to shoot, no one plays with the fury he does. It’s something to watch. No one dresses like he does off the court with what the fashion industry, if not exactly everyone, considers style. He’s one of those rare, so called guys you’d pay to watch.
The award for Foreign Language goes to… Dirk Nowitzki. There have been a lot of international pioneers, like Sarunas Marciulionis, Drazen Petrovic, Arvydas Sabonis, Vlade Divac, Toni Kukoc, Yao Ming and onto those who played college ball in the U.S., like Hakeem Olajwuon. Some already are in the Hall of Fame. But no one truly opened the door to international respectability like Nowitzki, who has become a champion, perennial All-Star and one of the great shooters in the history of the game and even in a lesser role is still scoring close to 20 points per game in his 17th season.
The award for Short Subject goes to... D.J. Augustin. Sure, the former Bull, Bobcat, Pacer, Raptor has bounced around and now is in Oklahoma City. So he steps right in for the streaking Thunder and averaged 10 points on four of eight threes in his first two games in the door. Players under six feet are a special category in the NBA. They’re not sought, but often valuable and special in what they do. The Bulls have one now in Aaron Brooks. Perhaps Isaiah Thomas is the most productive currently as he’s moved on to Boston. They are thought to be eminently replaceable, though valuable. Nate Robinson probably is the most famous unless you count Chris Paul, who calls himself six foot. Good luck with that. Same with Isiah Thomas (the true one). Calvin Murphy is in the Hall of Fame and Robinson and Spud Webb won dunk contests. Muggsy Bogues came up to your knee and played in the NBA. But Augustin saves teams, like he was doing for the Pistons when Brandon Jennings was injured and for the Bulls last season. He was a lottery pick, so he was no fluke. But he stepped in and proven valuable whenever needed and given a chance. That should win something.
The award for Visual Effects goes to… LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers. Who really are starting to roll, not that a Sunday win over the Knicks means much. James has moved up to third in scoring and the top 10 in assists. The bench isn’t that great, but they’ve got the league’s best winning percentage the last six weeks, second in the league in scoring at almost 110 per game, first in point differential at more than 12 per game, which translates to a 60-plus win season, and fourth in defensive field goal percentage in that span. They’re coming fast with a show time sort of approach. There aren’t many great defensive teams any more to be a major issue.
And the special award for Lifetime Achievement goes to… Tim Duncan. Really, the guy has been going since 1997 and just had 30 and 11 in 33 minutes against the Clippers last week. And that’s with DeAndre Jordan playing defense. The Spurs franchise has been one of the best ever, and well before Duncan. They were a fun ABA team with an almost 60 percent winning percentage and then eight seasons of at least 50 wins before Duncan arrived. But since that season the worst the Spurs were in any full season was 50-32 with five titles and six Finals and always Duncan in the middle. And still averaging just about a double/double in fewer than 30 minutes per game. He’s what you call a difference maker.
NBA news and notes
Big impact in Oklahoma City
Spurs coach Gregg Popovich was famously among several Western Conference coaches to complain in 2008 when the Lakers seemed to steal Pau Gasol from the Grizzlies. It subsequently worked out for the Grizzlies, who quietly received the rights to the unheralded Marc Gasol in the deal. So maybe everyone will withhold judgment on the Jazz handing Enes Kanter to the Thunder for basically salary cap flexibility—not generally a big deal in Utah which is not exactly a free agent destination—and a protected first round pick. Kanter got his second double/double Sunday in two games for the Thunder and 16th of the season, a rare young big man with offensive skills who runs the court. The Jazz now in less than two years have basically given away Al Jefferson and Paul Millsap, both All-Stars, and now Kanter, who is good enough to become an All-Star. The Thunder’s fate, obviously, rests with Durant, who underwent another foot procedure. So we’ll see if he is able to be at full health for a playoff run. Perhaps for Oklahoma City it’s not quite making up for moving James Harden, but it was a heck of an acquisition.
Player movement in New York
Deron Williams with a rare productive effort after the All-Star break with 12 points and 15 assists against the Lakers, starting for injured Jarrett Jack. But as hard as the Nets tried to acquire Reggie Jackson, you know they’re done with Williams. Buyout candidate? Similarly, the Pistons seem all in acquiring Jackson given Jackson has made it clear turning down $12 million he’s not coming cheaply. Since Stan Van Gundy is also the Pistons president it probably means the end for Brandon Jennings in Detroit, who had a good post-Josh Smith run until tearing his Achilles and going out for the season. ABC-TV dropped its weekly Sunday NBA game and ran an Oscar preview show rather than show the Knicks against the Cavs. The Knicks-Lakers game on Super Bowl Sunday was replaced by bowling and the last 10 Knicks games were dropped by national TV. They do have 10 wins, so the all-time worse record is safe with Carmelo Anthony opting for surgery and Amar’e Stoudemire bought out and signing with Dallas. The Knicks essentially ended hopes of retiring Stoudemire’s No. 1 by giving it to newcomer Alexey Shved. The latest it took Phil Jackson to reach 10 wins coaching the Bulls was Dec. 13 in the 1994-95 season before Michael Jordan returned in March. That was Jackson’s poorest Bulls season with 47 wins.
The future of team building?
Players can’t much understand the 76ers, either, as former Sixer Evan Turner told the Boston Herald about trading Rookie of the Year Michael Carter-Williams for future possibilities: “I don’t know what they’re doing over there, to tell you the truth. Michael is going to benefit from going to Milwaukee. They have a great young core on top of the fact that Jason Kidd is a point guard coach and it will help him grow. They traded Jrue Holiday, who was a 22-year-old All-Star, class act kid, and then they got rid of him (for the ability to draft Carter-Williams). Maybe they see something. Most people don’t. It’s a sad situation.”
Interesting take by Raptors coach Dwane Casey, who said with the big TV deal about to go into effect basically no franchises will be having financial issues and combined with more severe penalties for being in the luxury tax it will be much more difficult to accumulate multiple stars or find them being dropped. Said Casey: "Their (Atlanta) team is a model of teams of the future. With the new collective bargaining agreement, there are very few teams that are going to have a team full of superstars. They have a team full of very good players, a lot like us, that have bought in. I think the league is coming to that, which is a good thing. I think the days of the super superstars, conglomerate teams, with the new CBA is moving towards team first. We're that way and I think a lot of teams are going to be that way. I think Atlanta, Golden State, ourselves are good examples of not having a superstar, but what you can do if you play together and play committed and you buy in to what you're doing. You can get some things done."
So also the likelihood of acquiring draft picks to land a star from a franchise unable to pay salaries may be less. The 76ers acquired the Lakers top five protected pick for this June, which the Lakers probably will keep as they currently have the fourth poorest record. It becomes top three protected after this year, though the Lakers insist they will be much better after free agency. With yet another free agent seemingly off the market with Goran Dragic going to Miami, Marc Gasol and LaMarcus Aldridge unlikely to move and Kevin Love insisting he wants no part of L.A., maybe the 76ers will get value with the Lakers’ pick. So watch out for them in 2020? But one thing the 76ers have done successfully is blunt a once cynical Philadelphia media, which mostly has bought into the 76ers’ plan. Yes, the city of Wilt, Dr. J., Moses, Billy C, Iverson and the great rivalry with the Celtics seems to have accepted Joel Embiid, Nerlens Noel and more 19-year-olds. Pretty impressive P.R.
Post All-Star slide
John Wall called last week’s game with the Cavs given the standings and stretch run a must win for the Wizards, who then went out and lost by 38. If there’s one top team in free fall coming out of the break, it’s the Wizards. They are 11-14 since Jan. 1 and have come out of the break to lose by 38 and Sunday by 17 to the Pistons. There’s also been a bubbling from the locker room, where Marcin Gortat has said he didn’t like sitting fourth quarters and added after the Cavs loss the team gets flummoxed with over help on defense. Paul Pierce said without great individual defenders the help was essential and said he didn’t know what Gortat was talking about. Said coach Randy Wittman to local media: “I have guys [complaining] about playing time all the time. Well, here it is. What are you going to do with it? Show me you deserve to play.” One basketball issue has been a reduction in three pointers with losing Trevor Ariza and injury to Bradley Beal. Thus a less spaced court and a slower game, issues the Bulls have dealt with as well.
Can the Spurs do it again?
The Spurs, 34-21, have 21 losses the earliest since 2010. On the way to a championship last season, the Spurs lost 20 games the whole regular season. Can you come out of the bottom four of the West, as the Spurs are now seventh, and win a title without home court? The Rockets did in 1995. But that was after adding Hall of Famer Clyde Drexler in an in season trade. You never count out the Spurs, but the years and so many playoff games and titles, while the goal, also wear you out. After all, after three straight Finals appearances, Michael Jordan retired twice. The Spurs and basically this group have been to the Finals five of the last 12 seasons.
Watch out for the Grizzlies. They won their fifth in the last six times Sunday in Portland. Sure, LaMarcus Aldridge was out, but the Grizzlies are perhaps the only team in the league now who’ll beat you with defense. The Grizzlies don’t attempt many threes, contrary to current NBA dictates. But teamwide no one defends as consistently as they do. Working on their best season in franchise history they are a Western Conference cofavorite with Golden State.
Dragic moves to Miami
Yes, Goran Dragic probably didn’t need to express his dislike for the Suns to force that trade to Miami. It was clear to just about everyone in the NBA after they added Isaiah Thomas for no apparent reason and then paid Eric Bledsoe and made Dragic a shooting guard that the free agent wasn’t sticking around. But many around the league were surprised to hear the overly defensive reaction from Suns management in crowing how they really got the best player in the deal. Dan Gilbert reportedly told them to write the Heat that they’d win a title first.
Praise for Pau
There are some interesting works in the new Players Tribune, started by Derek Jeter to enable players to write their own stories, which is basically a long version of Twitter. The always thoughtful Tyson Chandler gave his take on his top big men. He named Anthony Davis, Zach Randolph, DeMarcus Cousins, Tim Duncan, LaMarcus Aldridge and Pau Gasol and had this to say about Gasol: “In terms of pure technical skill for a big, Pau might be the best in the game. And that’s no offense to Tim Duncan. It’s just that Pau is years younger. On the block, Pau can beat you with his right or left, with the face up jump shot. He’s super long—one of those guys who’s taller than you think. He’s able to palm the ball and shoot hook shots that are impossible to get to. Pau takes advantage of the fact that officials limit the contact you can have in the post. So he’s able to face you up and then take his dribble to the middle, and then turn back to the baseline for the finish. A skinnier guy like Pau—if the officials see any contact, he’s going to the line. Any time you lean on him, he’s going to show it to the ref. So it’s a fine line guarding him because you have to be strong but you can’t be overly aggressive.”
Around the league
No one is saying buyers’ remorse yet, though the Mavericks continue to be less than impressive with Rajon Rondo, who was absolutely torched by Russell Westbrook last week. Though that happens to a lot of guards. The Mavs’ offense has bogged down with Rondo’s ball control and you don’t hear the Mavs talking max deal so much. Kobe Bryant long has been close with Rondo and the speculation is Bryant will try to talk the Lakers into signing free agent Rondo. It will be interesting to see if the Mavs try to match
Getting his first DNP-Coach Decision last week, you wonder if this is the signal of the beginning of the end of Carlos Boozer’s career. Boozer doesn’t seem like the sort of player to stick around on a veteran’s minimum next season if he cannot get a contract after 13 years. Boozer was back playing Sunday.
The knock on Andrew Wiggins has been a lack of emotion to be a star. If Kevin Garnett cannot wake him up, then we’ll know. Garnett is expected to eventually move into Timberwolves management and perhaps a stake in ownership and Sam Mitchell, who was close with Garnett as a teammate, to eventually replace Flip Saunders as coach.
The debate last week in the NBA was the latest hack-a-bad shooting center with the Spurs’ Popovich sending DeAndre Jordan to the free throw line 28 times. The Bulls even tried it briefly with Andre Drummond. It’s a conundrum since it’s not new. Teams did it to Wilt and onto Shaq. You don’t want to change the rules to benefit a few players who cannot shoot free throws. They should practice. And not be scared or embarrassed. But the league also went to a 24-second clock, a jump ball after late free throws to reduce fouls and three free throws make two, all to reduce the ugly elements of the game. Intentional fouling away from the ball is as well. It’s easy enough to clean up as a center running away from a player trying to foul him sure would qualify as an intentional foul not involved in the play. One shot and possession. When people try to take advantage of loopholes and hurt the product you have to close the loopholes for the good of the game even if it may help a few teams and help those who cannot help themselves by making a darned free throw.