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Your New Year’s NBA Time Capsule: January 1st, 2011

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Today is the first day of 2011 A.D.. It’s a brand new year, and by the end of it, things are unlikely to look much the way they look now, as it is with every 365 days.  So consider this your NBA Time Capsule, to dig up later and see what life was like on this day.

The NBA’s Biggest Star is… Kobe Bryant. Even with LeBron James nipping at his heels in every category and the two-time MVP, Bryant holds on because of his international (read:China) stardom. Winning championships makes you famous abroad, and right now Bryant holds that moniker squarely in his hand. On the verge of his second three-peat which will tie him with Michael Jordan, Bryant has left behind accusations in Colorado, turmoil with Shaquille O’Neal, and questions about his selfishness. Bryant’s time is definitely limited in this slot, as his jumpshot begins to deteriorate even as he clings for life to his usage percentage (currently highest of his career). Bryant is the leader of the defending champion team, in the biggest basketball market in the league, with the biggest fanbase of “casual” fans, and does so by scoring a lot of points. He is this generation’s greatest player, for all the good and ill that means.

The NBA’s Best Player Is… LeBron James. LeBron is also the most hated player in the A, but that doesn’t change the facts. Even as his numbers dip beside Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh for the Miami Heat, James is the only player who can take over on so many levels. He can rise up and nail the three-ball to dagger a team’s comeback hopes, he can fly in transition like no other athlete, he rebounds, chases down blocks, sees the whole floor, and is so good from so many spots. James’ value as a basketball player can be questioned in terms of heart, competitiveness, ability to rise to the moment, and humility (as if any NBA great has possessed true humility). But in terms of bouncing the ball on the hardwood and putting it through the net there is no question. LeBron James is the best player in the NBA.

The Most Underrated Player is… Al Horford. Horford was an All-Star last year, in the most quiet way possible. He’s better, much better, this year. On a Hawks team no one wants to look at or discuss because of their stale combination of players, limited playoff ability, and the contract of Joe Johnson which makes everyone squeamish to look at, Horford has been sensational. He’s averaging career highs in the following categories: points per game (16.7), points per 36 minutes (17.8), rebounds per 36 (10.3), assists per game (3.2), assists per 36 (3.4), AST% (17.3), Usage (21.3%), PER (23.3), FG% (58%), FT% (81%), Offensive Rating (122) and Defensive Rating (102). He’s the best player on the Atlanta Hawks, a team that features Johnson, Jamal Crawford, and Josh Smith. He is able to defend any frontcourt player in the league (even doing a decent job on Dwight Howard), works tirelessly, doesn’t create problems with his attitude, and gets the job done in every facet of the game. Horford should be talked about on halftime discussions on national television and voted into the All-Star game (he is currently third among East center reserves, behind a 38-year-old role player who averages 21 minutes a game and his brother-in-arms from Florida who has played 11 fewer games than Horford due to injury). Horford is an incredible player and one fans have not taken advantage of appreciating in his time.

The Biggest Problem for the NBA is… the CBA negotiations. On January 1st, 2011, we awake with the knowledge that we may not have professional basketball on this day in 2012. The current Collective Bargaining Agreement expires this summer, and both sides are deadlocked. The owners want massive rollbacks of the current salary structure, including contracts signed just this past summer, want to institute a hard cap which would dramatically change the sport, and generally peel back on everything financially related to the players. The Players pretty much don’t want anything to change, outside of better revenue sharing and more rules to allow more fluid player movement. The Players’ Union has agreed to a compromise regarding a change in the percentage of BRI (Basketball Related Income) they receive as part of the next CBA, a major compromise on their part indicating a willingness to work to get a deal. The owners have made no such equal compromise on their end. A lockout is regarded as unavoidable at this point, which is really depressing.

The Biggest Emerging Story in the NBA is… Blake Griffin is awesome. Seriously, if you’re reading this in the future, go check out his YouTube clips, if YouTube still exists.

The Best Team in the NBA is… the Boston Celtics. They’re starting to swoon just as this has been written, losers of their last two and three of their last four. But from October 26th through Christmas, they were far and away the best team. Even with the San Antonio Spurs rocking off a 28-4 mark, the Celtics have simply dismantled nearly every opponent that’s come their way, usually losing only due to mental miscues or injury. If at full strength, it’s difficult to imagine a scenario where they do not win the Eastern Conference. Rajon Rondo has played at an incredible level when healthy, Kevin Garnett has appeared to have more explosion than he has in three years before a calf injury shut him down for two weeks, and Ray Allen is Ray Allen. All this and Kendrick Perkins is still on the shelf. The Celtics are downright terrifying.

The Biggest Bust in the NBA is… Hasheem Thabeet. Darko Milicic is a starter, now. Kwame Brown gets minutes. Hasheem Thabeet continues to haunt the Memphis Grizzlies as their biggest draft mistake in a long line of horrific draft mistakes. In a recent game he was unable to see the floor against the Toronto Raptors, despite the Raptors being without Reggie Evans and Andrea Bargnani. The Raptors started Amir Johnson and Joey Dorsey, yet Thabeet could not get playing time. What’s worse, as a colleague in Memphis pointed out, Thabeet somehow looks worse than he did last season. It’s a nightmare with the fact that Thabeet was drafted second overall. Hopefully in the far off future, this looks silly and premature.

The League’s Biggest Storyline is… How Good Are The Heat? The team everyone loves to hate (while they’re spending their hard-earned time and money on them) has destroyed everything in their path for the past month. After overcoming their early struggles, they used defensive stops to kick-start their transition offense, and in that area they are nearly unstoppable. They have a signature win over the Los Angeles Lakers on Christmas in LA. But they have also lost twice to the Celtics, once to the Magic, twice to the Mavericks, and a host of other good-not-great teams. No team is harder to figure out than the Heat, and we’re still struggling to get a grip on them as 2011 begins.

The League’s Second Biggest Storyline is… Will Melo Get Moved? Carmelo Anthony is on the trade block, has been since summer when he requested a trade after declining to sign the Nuggets’ max extension. Since then it’s been a ridiculous circus for the Nuggets as they were able to piece together a four-team trade with him going to the Nets…only to have it fall apart when they decided they wanted more than what they were getting. Now they’re in danger of having no one to trade with after souring multiple partners with their flip-flopping and squeamish behavior. They seem unwilling to accept that Anthony is vapor trails, and cling to the hope that he’ll sign his extension and stay in Denver. If when you read this he’s signed with Denver, count us all surprised, because we’re betting when you read this his next jersey reads “New York.” Or at least “Brooklyn.”

The MVP is… Dirk Nowitzki. Nowitzki has managed to do everything you’d want an MVP to do. He contributes on both ends of the floor, delivers in the clutch, puts up the numbers, can score when you need him to, has led his team to wins (second best record in the West), his team struggles without him (lost to Spurs with him on the bench), and he’s the face of the franchise. He’s done everything this season, so far. Other candidates include: Amar’e Stoudemire, Manu Ginobili, Kevin Garnett, Pau Gasol, LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Derrick Rose, and Dwight Howard.

We hope you enjoyed reading this on your rocket ship while sipping Tang, the beverage of the future.

Mike D’Antoni: Kobe Bryant and Carmelo Anthony rejected my system, but new (old) approach with James Harden

LOS ANGELES, CA - NOVEMBER 20:  Head coach Mike D'Antoni of the Los Angeles Lakers celebrates with Kkobe Bryant #24 and Pau Gasol #16 after the game against the Brooklyn Nets at Staples Center on November 20, 2012 in Los Angeles, California. The Lakers won 95-90.   NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Stephen Dunn/Getty Images)
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I can’t understate how revolutionary Mike D’Antoni’s offense looked with the Suns. In his first full season, 2004-05, they scored 110.4 points per game – the most anyone had scored in a decade. And it wasn’t even close. Phoenix played fast and scored efficiently.

That offense eventually got D’Antoni jobs in the NBA’s biggest markets and with two of the league’s best scorers, Carmelo Anthony (Knicks) and Kobe Bryant (Lakers).

Ian Thomsen of NBA.com:

But his coaching relationships with Anthony and Kobe Bryant in Los Angeles did not turn out so well. The last two stars essentially rejected his system.

“They did,” acknowledged D’Antoni. “And they were paid 20-something million dollars for it — they were successful. So I don’t blame them. Nothing’s been proven up to that point.”

The Warriors had yet to show that D’Antoni’s offense could thrive in late May and June.

“They’re thinking, like, he’s crazy,” D’Antoni said of Anthony and Bryant. “So I don’t blame them at all. This is a much better situation.”

With the Knicks and Lakers, D’Antoni edged back from his own offensive principles in part because he wasn’t sure, either. He was in a lonely place as the proponent of a style that was rejected by NBA fundamentalists. In New York and L.A., D’Antoni lacked the proof that would be provided years later by the Warriors of Kerr, who when serving as GM of the Suns had himself objected to D’Antoni’s point of view. The inventor didn’t believe fully in his own invention.

“I wasn’t that confident,” D’Antoni insisted. “It was a little bit before analytics. Everybody was telling us that we couldn’t do it, no one was telling us we could. Analytics came in and said, hey, you can do this — this is good, actually. So now you’ve got (GM) Daryl Morey with the Rockets and how they play and different teams trying to do it, and now it’s kind of caught on.

This bucks the narrative that D’Antoni’s offense can’t work with a score-first star. If D’Antoni compromised his scheme for Kobe and Melo, we haven’t yet seen it full bore with a player like that.

We will this season in Houston, where D’Antoni has turned score-first James Harden into the Rockets’ point guard.

As D’Antoni said, it’ll be easier to sell his scheme now that it has been proven to work. But as other teams adopt elements of it, he’ll have less of a strategic advantage.

The best coaches have revolutionary ideas AND get their players to buy into them. D’Antoni’s methods are no longer as cutting-edge, but he’ll have an easier time selling his players. That’s a justifiable knock on D’Antoni’s overall coaching prowess, but he still brings positives.

We’ve seen D’Antoni’s system at full throttle, and we’ve seen him coach generational scorers. To get both simultaneously will be a fun experiment in Houston this year.

Paul Pierce: Clippers are a super team

PLAYA VISTA, CA - SEPTEMBER 26:  L-R; Paul Pierce #34, Austin Rivers #25, DeAndre Jordan #6, J.J. Redick #4, head coach Doc Rivers, Blake Griffin #32, Jamal Crawford #11, Luc Mbah A Moute #12 and Chris Paul #3 of the Los Angeles Clippers pose for a photo during media day at the Los Angeles Clippers Training Center on September 26, 2016 in Playa Vista, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory copyright notice.  (Photo by Jayne Kamin-Oncea/Getty Images)
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Derrick Rose opened the super-team floodgates by declaring the Knicks one.

Paul Pierce is trying to get the Clippers into the conversation.

Pierce, via Jesse Dougherty of the Los Angeles Times:

“To me, I think we have a super team here,” Pierce stated at Clippers media day on Monday. “You look at Chris Paul who’s been first-team all-NBA … Blake Griffin first-team … DeAndre Jordan currently first-team All-NBA.

“I mean how many teams can currently say that? You have the best three-point shooter in the NBA (J.J. Redick). You have the Sixth Man of the Year (Jamal Crawford). I mean why is this not a super team? What defines super team? When you look at those stats and you hear when I’m saying, this could very well easily be what’s considered a super team.”

If the Knicks are a super team, so are the Clippers – and Cavaliers and Spurs and Grizzlies and Bulls and…

But New York can’t be the standard.

With four players who made an All-NBA team last year – Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant, Draymond Green and Klay Thompson – the Warriors are the undisputed super team.

Relative to Golden State, the Clippers don’t hold up.

All four All-NBA Warriors are expected to remain elite. Paul is 31 and coming off injury, and Griffin had an injury/suspension-ravaged season that kept him from making All-NBA last year.

Jordan made All-NBA at center, where a bevvy of players have cycled through in recent years. None of the All-NBA Warriors relied on that wide-open position to make it.

Golden State has two players – Curry and Durant – better than any Clipper.

Redick is one of the NBA’s most underrated players, but he’s not a star, leaving the Clippers with just three to the Warriors’ four. Crawford’s Sixth Man of the Year award last year was dubious, and I’d rather have Golden State reserve Andre Iguodala.

With three All-NBA players in or near their prime, the Clippers might have been a super team in a different era. They stack up reasonably well in stature with Pierce’s 2008 Celtics, who also had Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Rajon Rondo.

But the Warriors have pushed the bounds of what a super team can be so far, I’d consider them the league’s only super team now.

At least Pierce’s claim sparks discussion of the term and his team’s credentials – unlike the response Rose inspired: laughter.

Cavaliers keep re-watching their Game 7 victory over the Warriors

OAKLAND, CA - JUNE 19:  Kyrie Irving #2 of the Cleveland Cavaliers shoots a three-point basket against the Golden State Warriors in Game 7 of the 2016 NBA Finals at ORACLE Arena on June 19, 2016 in Oakland, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)
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The Cavaliers’ win over the Warriors in Game 7 of the NBA Finals was an all-timer.

LeBron James bringing a championship to title-starved Cleveland, the Cavs topping the 73-win defending champions who’d built a 3-1 lead, Kyrie Irving‘s shot, Kevin Love‘s defensive stand – the game had it all.

The Cavaliers obviously enjoyed it. And enjoyed it, and enjoyed it and…

LeBron James, via Brian Windhorst of ESPN:

“I’ve seen it a few times,” James said. “It was on NBA TV throughout the summer. I watch it from a fan’s perspective. I see what we could’ve done better, but I also watch it for enjoyment, to see those three zeros on the clock.”

Irving, via Windhorst:

“I was rewatching the games and talking to my teammates about it, sending them snapchats of me watching,” Irving said. “I got chills. My stomach was dropping knowing the ball is going in but knowing exactly, emotionally how I felt at the time. It still gets me excited thinking about it. It’s such a huge moment for not only Cleveland but our team, our families, our friends.”

Iman Shumpert, via Windhorst:

“I’ve watched it over and over,” Iman Shumpert said. “Oh, it was enjoyable.”

At some point, the Cavs have to refocus on the upcoming season. Maybe they already have.

But I’m not going to tell them to stop reliving Game 7. It was a big deal. Enjoy it.

This can even be healthy if it motivates them to chase that euphoric feeling again.

And if it just distracts them from their goal of repeating? There are worse things – like being stuck on a Game 7 loss.

Report: Rockets give Gary Payton II fully guaranteed salary

TARRYTOWN, NEW YORK - AUGUST 07:  Gary Payton II #0 of the Houston Rockets poses for a portrait during the 2016 NBA Rookie Photoshoot at Madison Square Garden Training Center on August 7, 2016 in Tarrytown, New York. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2016 NBAE  (Photo by Nick Laham/Getty Images)
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The Rockets scooped up undrafted point guard Gary Payton II shortly after the draft ended.

How did they do it?

Fully guaranteeing his deal, according to Eric Pincus of Basketball Insiders.

I rated Payton a borderline first-rounder coming out of Oregon State, but he went undrafted. Perhaps, the league just deemed him unworthy. Or maybe the teams that liked him most weren’t positioned to draft him. Or maybe teams opted for lesser players in the second round who were willing to spend a year overseas or in the D-League.

Houston guaranteeing his deal certainly points to a robust market for the point guard. It could also indicate the Rockets plan to keep him into the regular season.

Payton gives the Rockets 15 players with guaranteed salaries plus restricted free agent Donatas Motiejunas, who has an outstanding qualifying offer and seems likely to return. There’s no obvious candidate for Houston to waive to reach the regular-season roster limit of 15 – and it could be Payton. This could just be a (more expensive than usual) way of getting Payton onto the Rockets’ D-League affiliate. They won’t be the only team to eat a guaranteed salary this season.

With James Harden (yup), Patrick Beverley, Pablo Prigioni and Tyler Ennis at point guard, Houston doesn’t have a pressing need for Payton. But Ennis, who has accomplished little in two NBA seasons, should be on notice. That Houston values Payton so highly could mean Ennis is the odd man out. Both players, and everyone else, will have the preseason to prove themselves.

Payton, son of the former SuperSonics guard, has major defensive potential. Running an NBA offense will be a tall order, but he has enough raw skills to offer intrigue on that end. He’ll need his defense to buy him time.