NBA news and notes

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By Sam Smith | 2.9.2015 | 10:10 a.m. CT

In some respects, though we’ll make the true judgment in the playoffs, the Atlanta Hawks have become the new model for building an NBA team. Yes, so much for three stars. Unless one is named LeBron.

The Hawks have the 26th highest payroll in the NBA at about $60 million, which is below the salary cap. Rarely has a contending team had the ability to add a player before the trading deadline without even having to give up a player for matching salaries. And the Hawks made the latest statement in one of the best games of the season, beating the Golden State Warriors last week at their game, running, passing and shooting. You don’t bring that weak Western stuff to the Eastern Conference. Of course, if the Hawks have ultimate playoff success—which many still doubt with their lack of front court size and a so called go to scorer—their payroll will expand with Paul Millsap and DeMarre Carroll free agents and Al Horford with one year remaining on his contract. So perhaps they’ll be a first test case. Or second if you count the Spurs. Will their guys take less to stay together? Should they?

We make fun of the ridiculously big, long term contracts in Major League Baseball, all of which basically fail. But what of it in the NBA? How many big contracts really make sense? Take a look at the top 25 salaries in the NBA this season. How many teams are getting their money worth (in millions of dollars)?

1. Kobe Bryant - 23.5
2. Amar’e Stoudemire - 23.4
3. Joe Johnson - 23.2
4. Carmelo Anthony - 22.5
5. Dwight Howard - 21.4
6. LeBron James - 20.6
7. Chris Bosh - 20.6
8. Chris Paul - 20.1
9. Kevin Durant - 20.0
10. Deron Williams -19.8
11. Rudy Gay - 19.3
12. Derrick Rose - 18.9
13. Blake Griffin - 17.6
14. Carlos Boozer - 16.8
15. Zach Randolph - 16.5
16. Marc Gasol - 15.8
17. Paul George - 15.8
18. Kevin Love - 15.7
19. Russell Westbrook - 15.7
20. Brook Lopez - 15.7
21. LaMarcus Aldridge - 15.2
22. David Lee - 15.0
23. Dwyane Wade - 15.0
24. Josh Smith - 14.9
25. Hibbert, Jeremy Lin, Eric Gordon, Omer Asik - 14.9

What it perhaps suggests is to beware of the maximum free agent unless he is someone who truly can carry a team, of whom there generally are fewer than five. LeBron, Kevin Durant, and I’m running out of names. Grow and develop your own and be careful about falling too much in love and overpaying your guy when you could get two or three for the same price. A lot of league executives are watching the Hawks for a lot more reasons than how they play.

NBA news and notes

So whatever happened to...?

Chris Paul: Yes, Blake Griffin is out now perhaps several weeks with an staph infection. The question more becomes with an inconsistent Clippers season of not whether they can win the West. But after yet another bad loss, a blowout in Oklahoma City Sunday, whether they can make the playoffs. You’ve always felt someone from the West’s magnificent seven could fall with the Suns, Pelicans and Thunder vying for playoff spots. The Clippers are tied for seventh, four games ahead of the Suns with the Thunder in everyone’s rear view mirror. Paul again put up exceptional numbers Sunday with 18 points, 13 assists and six rebounds. But his plus/minus was second poorest to Spencer Hawes and the legacy of Paul begins to become losing. About to play in his seventh All-Star game, he’s never been past the second round of the playoffs, missed the playoffs four times and been out in the first round twice in nine seasons. And as strong as the Western Conference is, shouldn’t a seven-time All-Star at least get to eighth?

Kevin Love: He’s going to the playoffs for the first time, but is it just along for the ride. He’d scored in single digits four of the last 10 going into Sunday’s walkover against the Lakers when he had 32. Though, yes, the Bulls did lose to the Lakers. Love’s scoring is a five-year low, his rebounding is low since his rookie season, his shooting is his poorest other than his season with 18 games. He’s known for his three point shooting, yet remains under 33 percent. And it’s not like you don’t get good looks playing with LeBron James. His assists are below his career average; he doesn’t block shots. His defense is notoriously poor. Were we all fooled by somebody with a bad team having to score? The consensus lately is Love will opt in for one season with the Cavs after what seems likely a strong playoff run and then go into free agency in 2016 when there’s more money in the salary cap and a chance to raise his statistics.

Tony Parker: He’s had injuries, which play a role in his poorest season since he was a rookie. But this is his 14th season and with Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili he’s considered the kid. But the point guard has a lot of responsibility and wear. And while Ginobili also falls a lot, he’s done so for years coming off the bench. Going on 33, perhaps the wear is a major factor for Parker. His points and assists are the lowest in a decade, his rebounding is a career low, he’s among the poorest on the team in plus/minus on the floor and his turnovers are up. Though his threes are better. NBA.com stats has him driving less often and opposing players scoring more frequently against him, according to advanced statistics. It’s not doom, but it is much different.

Deron Williams: That could be doom as he’s got a coach now who doesn’t much care for or worry about his moods and has him on the bench backing up Jarrett Jack. Williams has had major ankle problems, and they are important to a point guard. But he’s fallen as far from elite as any of the top players. He shoots under 40 percent, is scoring the lowest since he was a rookie and rarely drives to the basket, mostly playing side to side with handoffs. With the Nets trying to unload all their major contracts, he’s drawn the least interest.

Luol Deng: He’s tried to hang in there in bad situations for him since being traded by the Bulls. His shooting is better, but his role continues to diminish as he’s at career lows in assists, rebounding and free throw shooting and tied for the third lowest scoring average of his career with a team in decline. He has an opt out of about $10.2 million. Would he exercise that?

O.J. Mayo: Not that he’s been a big name for awhile once he became a backup with the Grizzlies, but big things were once projected for the player in the draft day deal for Kevin Love. And the Grizzlies were thought to be the winner back then. He’s quietly accepted a basically last-man-off-the-bench role with a big surprise Bucks team. But he’s basically at or near career lows in every major category. He perhaps was always oversold given he never was the great athlete and not the shooter later advertised.

Denver Nuggets: Just about everyone, including Kenneth Faried, Ty Lawson, Arron Afflalo, Danilo Gallinari, Wilson Chandler and wherever JaVale McGee is has fallen off the NBA earth in an across the board underachieving season that rivals the opposite spectrum of the Hawks and Bucks.

Everyone will be watching

It’s the NBA’s Monday Night football Thursday when the Bulls host the Cleveland Cavaliers. It’s a rare scheduling for the NBA with just one game and on national TV with everyone else done for the All-Star break. So it makes it the big game of the week, but perhaps bigger for the Bulls. Are the Bulls contenders or pretenders? We’ll hear all that one regular season game stuff. But this is the sort of game a team needs to show it can win. It doesn’t have to win as that sometimes comes with a bounce. But even with Atlanta’s breakout season and likely best record in the Eastern Conference, the Cavaliers appear to be the team to beat. Especially since their roster overhaul and the coach saving his job by taking them bowling. OK, kidding on that last part. LeBron James has settled down like he did that first season in Miami, so David Blatt can stay. The additions for the Cavs have been terrific as over the last month they’re one of the league’s best defensive teams with James and Kyrie Irving a rival for Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson as the most impressive offensive duo. Iman Shumpert has been a needed defensive wing player and J.R. Smith much in control and a reliable spot up shooter. They often don’t close with Kevin Love and use him as a scorer against bad teams and early in the game. Tristan Thompson has dominated the Bulls on the offensive boards. Can the Bulls be physical with the Cavs, which the Pacers did to stop their winning streak last week? Like the Bulls were with LeBron’s Heat? Derrick Rose used to dominate Irving. Can he still play with him? The Cavs now are one of the most impressive offenses in the league. Can the Bulls fire up enough defense? You’d assume a game like this would inspire more consistent effort than they’ve given much of the season. For a rare night in the NBA, everyone will be watching. We’ll see what the Bulls have to offer against the Eastern favorites.

Dean Smith and Michael Jordan

I didn’t know Dean Smith well, but I knew how much he meant to Michael Jordan. Every time we’d see Jordan in the locker room dressing it was Carolina blue shorts. There always was Carolina blue. I remember the first day I met Jordan in his first week in Chicago. I was at his little townhouse for an interview and the phone rang, Smith calling to check up on him. I also remember late in the 1992-93 season Smith showing up for a Bulls game for the first time. Smith had never been to a Jordan Bulls game in Chicago and promised Jordan he’d do so before Jordan retired. None of us figured it out. Or believed it. The popular narrative about the end of the Bulls’ run was Jordan effectively being forced out. The truth was the Bulls were trying to do everything to persuade Jordan to play another season. One of the suggestions as Phil Jackson was leaving no matter what was they’d hire Dean Smith to coach Jordan if he liked. Jordan rejected all the suggestions. He was done, he insisted. Well, at least for a few years. One of the reasons there aren’t many like Jordan was Smith. Players like Kobe Bryant and LeBron James had their experiences and their mentors. But one reason Jordan was so special was that enthusiasm and openness he developed with people, the product of a strong family upbringing and the coaching of Smith for three years. It’s another reason why there likely will never be another Jordan. Players don’t remain in school very long and thus miss the mentoring and life lessons from someone like Dean Smith; not that there were many like him. A part of the brilliance with a player like Michael Jordan comes from the teaching and support of someone like Dean Smith. It’s what so many kids in sports today do without and never know. It’s another of the great legacies for Smith. He won the games and the championship, but more importantly his players not only won them as well, but carried his message forward in the people they were to make him proud. It’s the greatest gift for a coach and a teacher.

Rising Bucks

The Bucks would win the Most Improved Team award if there were one and there were no Hawks. Their small ball, long arm, so called positionless defensive game works in this NBA. And Giannis Antetokounmpo is starting to break through. With the addition of minority investors from the community and the governor seeming to get on board for a new arena, they appear to be another positive for the small markets. The Bucks remain on pace for almost a 30-win addition from last season ... John Lucas III is back in the NBA with the Pistons after a stint in China where he averaged 26.7 and 7.1 assists per game. Explained the amiable Lucas to Detroit media: "I'm glad I went to China. Last year was difficult for me. I had to go back and fall in love with the game, and that's what I did in China. I always loved the game, but it wasn't me. I kind of lost my swag. I lost who I was out there when I was with the Bulls and Toronto. When I was in Utah, it was a different style, a different type of play." Lucas had swag? ... D.J. Augustin is saving another team. With Brandon Jennings going down, Augustin has scored at least 20 points in five of the Pistons last eight with a high of 35 ... With the Wizards, like the Bulls, hitting a midseason malaise, coach Randy Wittman did some Tom Thibodeau as he said after a loss last week, “The key tonight was we don’t play hard anymore. That falls on me. I’ll take that.” Said Bradley Beal: “We just got to get back to having fun.” Wonder who that sounds like?

Trending: defense

It’s great sport to belittle the NBA regular season, but there are so many great nights. And last Friday was one of the best with the Hawks 124-116 shootout in a fabulously played game with the Warriors, the Pelicans back and forth with the Thunder won on Anthony Davis’s shot, the Pacers upsetting the Cavs and stopping their winning streak, Minnesota with Ricky Rubio, Nikola Pekovic and Kevin Martin back isn’t that bad and beats the Grizzlies, Russell Westbrook and James Harden putting up multiple 40-plus point games; just great, great stuff ... Was it Tom Thibodeau’s great defenses that helped change the way the NBA game is played? And now perhaps put the Bulls at a disadvantage? Kyle Korver suggested that in interviews before the Hawks played the Warriors last week in a game the Hawks said attracted more media than any of their playoff games the last few years. Said Korver: “The trend a couple of years ago was coach Thibs' defense, loading up the one side of the floor, stopping the iso. A lot of teams have caught onto that. A lot of teams do that now. We’re (Hawks and Warriors) different teams, and we have different personnel. But I think a lot of the philosophy is probably similar. Both teams play with the pass, both teams play with space, both teams have a lot of shooting, both teams play great defense. It’s really fun to play on this team. Like every time down the court we all matter because we play as a group. You might not shoot the ball, but you’re definitely going to at least set the screen, or make the pass, or make the cut that opens up whoever it is that’s going to get that shot. It just makes us play hard because you matter.”

NBA news and notes, continued

Though the Mavs stole a win over Portland Saturday, they are still probably wondering whether the Rajon Rondo deal will work. They’ve played poorer with him, though that’s often attributed to a new fit. But without Rondo the ball again moved more and the problem you can have with Rondo is the way he dominates the ball and then can be stuck with it late in the shot clock and who wants him to shoot? Rondo helps their ball pressure defense, but do you pay him a maximum deal to keep him? That win got the Mavs to 3-11 against West playoff teams ... Next coach out? “We're in a bad place right now," Nuggets coach Brian Shaw told local media last week. "It has to get better. If it doesn't get better—and even if does get better—at some point things still may change. I understand that going into this. And I accept anything that comes from it." The belief in Denver is the players will go first this time ... Pretty sad to listen to DeMarcus Cousins, of all guys, ripping his teammates for not competing: “It’s just coming down to playing hard, just some pride, have some self-respect, act like you care.” Cousins cares; he did make a winning shot Sunday over the Suns, albeit with a lucky bounce and what’s he doing shooting a 20 footer for the winner, anyway? Just watch Cousins sometime. He is always out of place on defense, backing off, flopping around, rarely helping; then on offense forcing everyone into always standing around. He puts up great numbers and is a physical power. He could be a star. He is an All-Star this season, but really should not be. Perhaps it’s not his fault the only coach he’s ever had—or really respected and listened to—in the NBA was Mike Krzyzewski for USA Basketball. That’s when Cousins was exactly who he should be, a tough, physical big man playing inside instead of wandering all over chasing shots. The Bulls get a look Tuesday and he can beat you. But you never can win anything with him. At least until he gets that real coach. George Karl? The search continues.