November to remember for a few teams

With just over a month of NBA basketball in the books, Sam Smith of takes a look at some of the top teams, as well as those who have surprised.

It wasn’t a November to remember for the Bulls with Derrick Rose’s injury that will keep him out the rest of this season after missing last season.

But it’s thrilling for different reasons in different places:

Indiana: The Pacers are off to the league’s best 16-1 record with a roster that really doesn’t fully make their case with role players other than Paul George. Great management chemistry, commitment and coaching even with getting nothing from the injured Danny Granger. Gene Hackman has to love this bunch.

Miami: They’re still on their way to a third straight title. Dwyane Wade is OK, though not so athletic anymore. Chris Bosh is all over the place. But they are reminiscent of the 90’s Bulls in doing enough to win early on with the elite star of the game. There really is no one ever that close to LeBron James anymore for consistency, big plays and carrying a team like Michael Jordan.

San Antonio: They lose Tony Parker a game and win big; Tim Duncan shoots to open the season like Chris Dudley and they win. They don’t have anyone you’d really say for sure is top 10 in the league, but no one has a better system of play, more consistent effort, better management that fits their style and the model of a sports franchise.

Portland: They don't knock you out. Adding mountain man Robin Lopez and Mo Williams with his sixth team to a non playoff team even their best player wasn't sure he wanted to stay with didn't sound like a plan. But they're having their best season in 20 years and haven't even yet seen highly touted rookie C.J. McCollum. Good for very good guy coach Terry Stotts.

Phoenix: They appear to have a starting lineup with a guy coming off heart surgery, a chucker dumped by six teams, a center who couldn’t get on the court last season elsewhere and a couple of guys who run around. Rookie coach Jeff Hornacek has done a terrific job getting them to play hard and compete with management trading off what was supposed to be their top players.

Los Angeles: Yes, the Clippers have more talent. But Mike D’Antoni has done a terrific job keeping the Lakers around .500 being able to play his shooting game again without Dwight Howard. They’ve got a bunch of retreads in Nick Young, Shawne Williams, Jodie Meeks, Wesley Johnson and Xavier Henry putting up numbers, showing D’Antoni will get guys paid.

Charlotte: Don’t sleep on the Bobcats, which is a change from sleeping watching them. The Bobcats gave the Heat a good scare Sunday, helped by Al Jefferson averaging a solid 17.6 points and 8.8 rebounds since back from injury. It’s still not much of a roster, but the first low post threat in the Bobcats short history and a team modeled much like the Bulls on defense with Tom Thibodeau’s former fellow assistant coach, Steve Clifford, has the Bobcats fourth in field goal defense behind the Pacers, Rockets and Bulls. It’s not like last season’s mirage start. They’re playing you now.

Kobe part of the Lakers’ plan

-- Some winced about Kobe Bryant’s two-year $48.5 million extension even though he hasn’t played yet after Achilles surgery. But you can see the Lakers’ plan. The Lakers, as we know, think big and think stars. Bryant’s contract will expire after the 2015-16 season. It just so happens that’s when Kevin Durant, the game’s best player not named LeBron, could become a free agent. Also, Kevin Love could opt in after next season and become a free agent that summer. That could put the Lakers in position for two of the top players in the game. In the meantime, they can patch together two competitive seasons with Bryant, who should have two decent years left. They’ll still have enough salary cap room for a maximum salary free agent after this season. They could bring back Pau Gasol, though at a lesser salary since his market isn’t very high anymore. They could make a move back for former All-Star Andrew Bynum, whom the Bulls saw Saturday may be able to play at an All-Star level again. Plus, current Lakers’ chief Jim Buss is the one who pushed the organization in 2005 to draft Bynum and who reluctantly agreed to the Dwight Howard deal because it involved Bynum.

The truth was Bryant never was much enamored of the Lakers switch from Bynum to Howard. Years ago Bryant wasn’t very high on Bynum. But Bryant came to understand the big man’s value. Having 16 and 20-point games in the last week, if Bynum’s knees hold up Bynum may be an option this summer as he has an opt out in his Cleveland deal and said he wished he could have stayed with the Lakers. It seems unlikely James would join Bryant or that the Lakers would invest their future money in Anthony, whose history is mostly coming up short and turns 30 in May. You build titles with stars, and it’s not like they’re going to turn in their tickets the next two years in Los Angeles. They’ll have a heck of a chance to reload in two years.

Truth has set Karl free

-- George Karl has been a terrific NBA coach, probably headed to the Basketball Hall of Fame. But he was fired last season after winning Coach of the Year with the Nuggets, and Karl may not get back because George just never much takes a break from being George. Honesty is a nice trait with the media, with whom Karl is beloved. Not always by his bosses. You could say the truth has set him free: From various jobs. You may remember about a decade ago when Karl after Doc Rivers exploded on the NBA coaching scene and won coach of the year with the Orlando Magic that Karl said in an interview with Esquire magazine that former players like Rivers without experience were using their race in sort of a reverse discrimination to deny jobs to qualified white assistants. Tough logic there given the decades of discrimination against blacks in sports. Playing into an ugly bias, the NBA wasn’t too pleased and called Karl to New York for a discussion. In that infamous interview, Karl also continued to lambaste Ray Allen as weak minded and soft, eventually forcing Allen out of Milwaukee and basically breaking up the Bucks best team in years. Karl’s coaching abilities are uncontested, but his view of the world can be perverse and impolitic. So perhaps that’s why there wasn’t much response last week when Karl basically accused former Nugget Andre Iguodala of being a spy for Warriors coach Mark Jackson in last year’s playoff series. Well, Karl is in the media now and you know they could say anything. In an interview with Denver writer and media personality Dave Krieger, there was this exchange:

Q: Do you think Andre Iguodala was Mark Jackson’s “mole”?

A: No question.

Q: Does that bug you?

A: I just think that’s media hype. I mean, that series was not a physical series. Everybody wants to be more aggressive with the guy kicking your ass, so...

Q: The media didn’t say it. Jackson said it.

A: I thought Mark had a lot of tricks in that series that were bush-... I don’t know. I don’t know what they were. Almost high-schoolish. They were beneath the NBA level. And they might have worked. They might have motivated his young team in a good way. You know, he’d announce a starting lineup and start another guy. C’mon, man. You think we’re not ready for that?”

Karl now is an ESPN commentator, and if you’ve heard him perhaps the best given his knowledge of the game and shocking honesty in the often buttoned up world of sports commentary. Karl is a cancer survivor, active in the community and charities and said he’d like one more shot at a head job. The issue he continues to have with teams is whether he is worth it.

Davis to miss homecoming game again

-- Disappointing Monday at the United Center as Chicago’s Anthony Davis, developing into one of the game’s young stars, sustained a fractured left hand Sunday night against the Knicks and will be out indefinitely. Perhaps it’s a break for the Bulls given Davis was averaging 19.6 points, 10.6 rebounds and 3.7 blocks and was becoming one of the game’s most exciting players. Though the high powered Pelicans with their three-guard attack of Jrue Holiday, Eric Gordon and Tyreke Evans are tough to control. "When we are running, attacking the rim and the guards are sharing the ball, we are a hard team to beat," Gordon told the New Orleans Picayune. "Now we just have to make it a habit. Make this consistent every night. And if we do that, it'll be an easy game." Pelicans coach Monty Williams from the Spurs College of Defensive Coaches is probably going to have to give up on that end with such a powerful offensive roster. As for Davis, he is one of the youngest in the league. He also was out 18 games with injuries last season. You wonder whether he is another player who came into the NBA before his body matured and has made himself more vulnerable to injury in his career. The Washington Post last week after Bradley Beal went out with a leg injury again postulated from a “source close to Beal,” which really means Beal, that “the recent leg injuries could also be a result of the 20-year-old still physically maturing."

Desperation in New York?

This would suggest desperation as Carmelo Anthony said the Knicks miss Rasheed Wallace, who played 296 minutes last season and now is a coach with the Pistons (that’s another inexplicable development). Anthony told New York media: “That makeup of a team was different. I think now we do miss J-Kidd, Kurt (Thomas) and Rasheed (Wallace). We’ve just got to start having fun once again on the basketball court, believing in one another.” Amar’e Stoudemire had criticized the lack of ball movement, later saying it wasn’t aimed at Anthony, who never moves the ball. Iman Shumpert also said the ball doesn’t move enough and watched rookie Tim Hardaway replace him down the stretch of Sunday’s loss to the Pelicans, their seventh straight at home to fall into a tie with the Bucks for last in the Eastern Conference. Coach Mike Woodson, who had to tell a radio show he didn’t think he was losing the team, blamed J.R. Smith and Shumpert for not doing enough. Hey, a guy’s got to try to keep his job. Anthony responded the problem was defense, which obviously is Stoudemire’s weakness. Though many say the Knicks have the most obvious help defense in the league. You know, when beaten off the dribble, the players yell, “Help!” Before the loss to Portland last week, Stoudemire yelled in the locker room for the TV, which generally runs a loop on the opponent, to be shut off because a player had put on the Monday Night Football game. "We’ve lost five straight games," Stoudemire was quoted by local media in a sharply worded comment. Sounded like J.R. wanted to watch some football. No word if Tyson Chandler wants to come back to this.

NBA news and notes

-- Cavs insiders say under no circumstances will the team give up a No. 1 pick in trade. Plus they are not pushing the idea, at least for now, of trading Dion Waiters, who has been playing better than Kyrie Irving, whose shooting percentage has decreased in each of his three seasons to a current 40.1 percent and 30.5 percent on threes. ... He’s the broadcaster’s nightmare, but one of the rookie surprises may be the Bucks’ Giannis Antetokounmpo, who turns 19 this week. The 6-9 No. 15 pick is drawing comparisons from coaches to the Pacers’ Paul George with his long, lean body and good shooting touch. Antetokounmpo’s energy was vital in helping the Bucks break an 11-game losing streak Saturday against Boston. He probably should replace Ersan Ilyasova as a starter at some point and with the return from injury of Larry Sanders and point guard Brandon Knight back you are never out of it in the Eastern Conference, where the Raptors lead the Atlantic Division at 6-10. They’re printing up, ‘We’re Finally No. 1” placards for fans in Toronto.

-- First “big” trade of the season had former No. 2 pick Derrick Williams going to the Kings as the Timberwolves exhausted efforts to make him a small forward. Said Minnesota coach Rick Adelman with Kevin Love and Dante Cunningham at the position: “He is going to be a good player in this league, but he’s going to be a power forward. He’s going to get a chance to play (in Sacramento) and we’ll see what he can do.” How about some of these recent other No. 2 overall picks: Stromile Swift, Tyson Chandler, Jay Williams, Darko Milicic, Emeka Okafor, Marvin Williams, Michael Beasley, Hasheem Thabeet, Evan Turner, Michael Kidd Gilchrist and, in effect, Tyrus Thomas as the Bulls swapped out No. 2 in the 2006 draft. Of course, the Thunder (nee Supersonics) did pretty well sitting around waiting to see who Portland would take in the 2009 draft with the No. 1 pick. Durant is the scoring leader again going for his fourth scoring title in five seasons. But be careful with that No. 2 pick. ... Bulls fan favorite Malcolm Thomas is headed to the Spurs to join Marco Belinelli, according to ESPN. ... The best big guy to get this season may be Chris Kaman, who has six straight DNP-CD’s and counting with the Lakers as they’ve gone to using Pau Gasol and Jordan Hill. There have been rumors the Lakers would want to get something for Gasol rather than lose the free agent. But the soon-to-return Bryant likes playing with Gasol. Plus, Gasol’s contract has a trade kicker that takes it over $20 million. Kaman makes $3.1 million, though the Lakers probably would want a first round pick. ... The Clippers, unlike the Lakers, probably are thanking the league for the blocked deal that prevented them from trading DeAndre Jordan for Kevin Garnett in a deal presumably to get Doc Rivers to the Clippers. Jordan had 10 points, 15 rebounds and nine blocks against the Kings last week. Garnett sat out the loss to the Clippers last month in his regular rest for old forwards. He then had four points and nine rebounds last week in a loss to the Lakers and is averaging 6.8 points per game this season.

-- Omer Asik is basically below his career averages in every major statistical category, though playing some again. The reports are the Rockets are asking for two No. 1 draft picks for Asik, which one general manager called “delusional” last week. Though it’s said to be consistent with Rockets general manager Daryl Morey, who is unpopular with his colleagues as he is considered to be something of a trash talker about beating others in deals. ... Thrilling ending in Oklahoma City with the Warriors unable to get a last rebound three times and Russell Westbrook throwing in an unlikely three to win. In two games with overtime this season, they’ve each scored 228 points in the games. ... The Spurs play the Timberwolves Wednesday in Mexico City. It is considered a Minnesota home game, apparently because of the similarity of the December weather.

-- Pacers coach Frank Vogel, for one, doesn’t think the Bulls should be breaking things up as Vogel told the Indianapolis Star he isn’t counting out the Bulls yet: "I think there's always a team or two or three who can surprise and get in the mix. I'm not sure if some of those teams will be able to keep up with what we're shooting for and what Miami is shooting for. But there'll be some teams who have really successful seasons, and I think one of them's going to be Chicago. Everybody's sticking a fork in them like they're done. But they forget to realize how good they were last year without Rose and how good they've been at times this year without Rose. I think they'll have something to say about the East." Nice guy. ... Someone must have told Brandon Jennings and Rodney Stuckey that Andre Drummond was tall. Drummond, involved in the Pistons offense for a change after the Pistons also kept Drummond out in a loss to the Lakers last week to match down, had 31 points, 19 rebounds and six steals over the 76ers Sunday. And that’s with seven of 18 at the line and removed from the game when being purposely fouled. One NBA guy says Drummond and Anthony Davis stunt and recover the fastest for big men since Hakeem Olajuwon. ... Like many around the NBA, the Spurs’ Gregg Popovich was stunned by the Derrick Rose injury. Said Popovich to the San Antonio Express: “It’s hard to even imagine what he’s feeling right now. He’s great for the league. His importance to Chicago is pretty obvious, also. It just makes you sick when somebody like that goes down. Back-to-back years? I don’t know anyone that’s happened to. It’s beyond comprehension.” ... Marco Belinelli is fitting in well with the Spurs, averaging 13.4 the last five games and 67 percent on three-point shooting in that stretch in just 23 minutes per game. Belinelli also threw a half court lob to Tim Duncan for a dunk against the Magic as the Spurs had two lob dunks in the game, doubling their total of lob dunks from all last season. San Antonio Showtime!


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