The offseason rage in the NBA was to try to unite three stars, which the Miami Heat did, and it’s starting to come together following the Heat’s impressive win Christmas Day in Los Angeles. Miami is 13-1 in December, winning 14 of its last 15. Statistically, they’re the league’s best defensive team, and they are fourth overall behind the Spurs, Mavericks and Celtics. A new final four?
The Spurs and Mavericks now become the real marquee game of December this Thursday as the two best teams in the Western Conference this season. Spurs/Lakers Tuesday? Just a warm up, right?
Phil Jackson knows the malaise of success after two championships now that Ron Artest is back to concentrating on non-basketball activities, though more appropriate in raising money for mental health awareness. Pau Gasol seems pretty much played out physically, Andrew Bynum again seems in not much hurry to play and the urgency is difficult to manufacture when everyone assumes you’ll win.
The Bulls faced it in both their three-peat seasons. In 1992-93, the Bulls were 22-8 after 30 games and with a 6-7 stretch coming compared to the Lakers’ current 21-9. The Bulls finished that season second to the Knicks in the East and third in the league. In 1997-98 going for their third, the Bulls were 20-10 after 30 games as Scottie Pippen was upset after being talked about in trade the previous June and purposely delayed surgery so he’d miss the first half of the season. He then declared he wouldn’t play again for the Bulls, though he eventually relented. Individual agenda and the lack of urgency are common when you already have gone back-to-back. Going for their three-peat in 1989-89, the Lakers were 19-11 after 30 games, though they’d make the Finals and be swept when Magic Johnson was injured.
The three star formula remains appealing, though perhaps the latest inclination could be the Otis Smith view.
The Magic, after an uncertain start following the big trades for Hedo Turkoglu, Gilbert Arenas and Jason Richardson, stopped double figure winning streaks of both the Celtics and Spurs, two of the league’s top three teams.
Smith’s view seemed simple: This may not work, but we weren’t going to win with what we had, so what’s the big risk? NBA executives tend to be conservative as it’s easier to lose your job if you make a big mistake rather than doing nothing. So most err on the side of excess caution.
Perhaps Smith’s action will change that thinking. After all, if you are a contender but not good enough, why settle?
What this thinking, if it prevails, could do is change the entire Carmelo Anthony equation. There was some talk last week that the Mavericks might get involved in the Anthony talks, which seems reasonable given owner Mark Cuban’s annual midseason aggression, and it’s a possibility I mentioned a few weeks ago. Cuban denied it, but that doesn’t matter since he’s long said he’d lie to protect his basketball business. Actually, it’s a credit to Cuban since he’s known as an owner who will take risks to try to win.
And what better time than now, as Dirk Nowitzki only has a limited number of top years remaining.
So why wouldn’t the Mavs take a shot at Anthony? I’ve heard a number of general managers are starting to think that way for their teams. Anthony has said he wants to sign that extension rather than potentially risk forfeiting millions under a new labor deal, and he has $18.5 million coming for next season if he doesn’t opt out. Maybe it’s worth a shot if you are not going anywhere with the team you have, which is why I can see some of these teams and players in play for Anthony:
Portland: LaMarcus Aldridge. He’s been on a roll lately, four straight double-doubles averaging 29.3 points mostly at center until a stinker in a loss to the Warriors Saturday. They aren’t going anywhere without Brandon Roy in decline due to injury now. So maybe take a shot to get it going with Anthony, Wesley Matthews, Marcus Camby and whatever other deals you can make. The Nuggets likely would love a big man.
Atlanta: Josh Smith and perhaps Jamal Crawford. They’ve stalled as they’re too small with Al Horford. But combining Anthony with Joe Johnson gives them some matchups issues with the big guys and their own intriguing three. Why not take a shot? They could barely get past Milwaukee with what they had.
Oklahoma City: Russell Westbrook. Why not? Who are they beating, ultimately? How about trying to defend Kevin Durant and Anthony? The Thunder has several expiring pieces and some picks. They’ve been cautious, but you’ve got to take a shot some time.
Boston: Rajon Rondo and Kendrick Perkins. You can’t go on that much longer with Allen, Pierce and Garnett. What a place for Anthony to take the baton from Pierce and ensure the Celtics run into the next decade.
Philadelphia: Andre Iguodala and Evan Turner with some picks and expiring contracts. The 76ers are a bit of a rebuilding situation, but with Anthony and the pieces they have they’d be just a big man short of getting something serious going. Not a bad package for the Nuggets and a real city for Anthony.
Golden State: Monta Ellis, rookie shot blocking big man Ekpe Udoh, picks and they have plenty expiring deals. It’s a bit of a stretch, but the fans last week (this is getting ridiculous) were chanting “MVP” for Ellis as he’s averaging 40 the last three games and they’ve actually won two straight. But Ellis could be very appealing in Denver’s wide open style. And where are the Warriors going with him and Stephen Curry.
There are others who’d like to get in, like Houston and the Clippers. But with the Orlando model, it wouldn’t be surprising to begin to see some big names coming up for Anthony. After all, how many times is a top five or six MVP candidate going to come on the market?
In Charlotte, coaching change just the first step
-- That would be Tyrus Thomas’ fourth coach in his fifth season. Paul Silas ought to have fun with him. Larry Brown had wanted out toward the end as he realized there no longer was hope for the team after having given up their best center and point guard before the season, Tyson Chandler and Ray Felton, for nothing in return as the franchise sought to save money. Owner Michael Jordan didn’t want to let Brown go, though Brown made his point in his last game starting Kwame Brown and Matt Carroll and giving added time to Sharron Collins back from the D-League, as well as playing Derrick Brown more than Thomas. Yes, that got Michael’s attention and Larry had made his point. The back story, though, is not necessarily a team quitting on Brown. The breaking point, insiders say, was a withering session with Jordan following a 31-point home loss to the Celtics Dec. 11. Jordan went into the locker room and blasted the players, though it was not lost on them how the team had been torn down to economize. The Bobcats then went out and struggled but got by Toronto, but lost the next four games by an average of 23 per game. It’s why a coaching change was just the first step. The Bobcats likely are to make major personnel changes with this negative reaction to Jordan. Now, that said, I cannot fully disagree with Jordan. They weren’t playing for a title, so there was no reason to pay the luxury tax. But players don’t look at it that way, and that group has run its course and it’s likely time to break it up and begin again.
NBA news and notes
-- There was much attention to LeBron James’ comments about the league going back to a golden age of the ‘80s when the talent wasn’t so watered down with more teams. He never mentioned contraction, but they likely were celebrating in the league office. If the league’s arguably best player isn’t opposed to the NBA’s biggest threat to players of lost jobs, then the union resolve cannot have much staying power. Again, I think it’s more that James strings together words and doesn’t actually think that much. In the end, this probably doesn’t hurt the union because it knows it doesn’t truly represent role models. … Paul Pierce has been playing a lot of point with Rajon Rondo out and you wonder why teams don’t trap him more as Pierce is not a great ballhandler. Teams often seem too deferential. … After Roy Hibbert got 17 points and 14 rebounds against Shaq, the Celtics big man said he’d praise only Blake Griffin among the young big men. Said O’Neal to Boston media: “Blake Griffin is the truth. All these other guys, I’m not impressed.” … Ben Wallace last week joined Avery Johnson as the only undrafted played to play in 1,000 games in the NBA. Wallace never was quite what he was supposed to be, a team’s emotional leader and big man, as the Pistons with Rasheed Wallace did a good job covering for him and enabling him to inflate his rebounding totals. But Wallace worked, kept himself in shape and made something of a player whom the Wizards when they got him thought they’d make into a shooting guard because he was so small. Now, that I would have paid to see. … Beware the deer? The Bucks are in the United Center Tuesday and with Andrew Bogut playing well and John Salmons beginning to get it together, the Bucks could begin to make the Central race interesting after beating the Lakers.
-- After the Celtics lost to the Magic Christmas Day, Kevin Garnett noted Dwight Howard still is a too limited offensive player and Glen Davis told reporters, "They can't beat us. With Shaq in the game we just have too many (big) guys.” The Magic have the pieces to make a move for a big man, and most team executives say they expect the team to offer J.J, Redick, whom the Bulls failed to attract last summer as a restricted free agent. The Bulls cannot trade for him because their offer was matched. Reserves like Chris Duhon, Jason Williams and Quentin Richardson have little value and Arenas and Richardson will make Redick less needed. … Everyone is in a good mood when you win. Dirk Nowitzki, who has been brilliant in the Mavs’ terrific run to the league’s best record, likened the team’s acquisition of Tyson Chandler to the Celtics’ pickup of Kevin Garnett. That Tyson Chandler? Did Michael Jordan owe Mark Cuban for a lost golf bet? “It's almost like when KG went to Boston,'' Nowitzki told the Dallas Morning News. "I don't think Ray Allen or Paul Pierce were great defenders before KG got there, but KG with his energy and influence and high octane kind of changed the whole mentality of the defense.'' That’s what Tyson has done for Dallas, Dirk suggested. The Mavs are fourth in opponents’ field goals and sixth in fewest points allowed and probably play more zone than any team. It was a big reason they’ve been able to beat the Heat twice. Hello, anyone else watching? Nowitzki, once revolved as “Irk” for his no D, last week passed Larry Bird in points scored and while he’s no Bird, he is going to be the first international player to go to the Hall of Fame for his NBA career (Drazen Petrovic was honored more for his international play).
-- The Spurs are starting to break out their secret weapon, center Tiago Splitter, who is averaging 11.5 points and seven rebounds in just 19 minutes per game. He’s a talented seven-footer whom the Spurs have pretty much hidden and who is going to give them a nice boost later this season as they and the Mavs, both with more size, are making the Lakers think much harder about the season. It’s not just lack of so called focus and motivation. The Spurs, also using more zone, and Mavs are bigger and better prepared for the Lakers this season. Their play so far is showing that, which is what’s been most important about the fast starts of both. … The Spurs have a find in 26-year-old rookie Gary Neal, averaging almost 18 the last four games. Three years ago, he and Splitter played against one another for the championship in Spain. … It’s been a zoo with last place Sacramento with DeMarcus Cousins’ choke sign to a Warriors player and then Cousins, poetically, dropping what would have been the clinching rebound and the Kings losing in overtime. Tyreke Evans has had an awful sophomore season, shooting poorly and sounding like guys don’t much like playing with him. Observed Omri Casspi to the Sacramento Bee: "We don't move the ball. There's guys in the corner. Císco (Francisco García) was hot (against Houston), for example, and he didn't even get a shot in the fourth quarter. What do you want him to do? He didn't get the ball. The ball didn't move, and the guys that start the offense have got to be talked to and work on it." … Coaches just hate those guarantees, especially from an owner. Grizzlies owner Michael Heisley made one of those playoff guarantees before the season and it’s been a tough go for the 13-17 Grizzlies, last in the Southwest. Hollins got into it with a fan last week, supposedly with some expletives, and told the Memphis Commercial Appeal, “Yes, I was angry. Yes, I snapped at the guy… We've got people sitting on the front row now talking to you and telling you who to put in the game. Shut up. You can cheer, you can boo, but it's getting more disruptive. If the guy above (Heisley) thinks that we're a playoff team and we don't make the playoffs, then he'll be looking at me. If we're realistic about everything, we'll understand that we have to do something to strengthen our roster.” I think the Grizzlies biggest issue is they paid Rudy Gay and Mike Conley while Zach Randolph waits impatiently for an extension (most expect him to be traded) along with O.J. Mayo and Marc Gasol. It doesn’t lead exactly to teamwork, and apparently not so much holiday spirit from Hollins. Having been fired by the Grizzlies in Vancouver, he could be working on one of those Billy Martin things with Heisley.