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.

Will Kobe Bryant’s pending retirement change how Lakers use him?

Kobe Bryant, D'Angelo Russell, Byron Scott
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This is Kobe Bryant‘s final season in the NBA; he made that clear with his announcement on Sunday. If for the Lakers organization that means they want Kobe to go out playing his way — still trying to create and make tough shots — then go right ahead. As evidenced by the reactions at Staples Center Sunday night, the fans love it.

But what should have been the Lakers’ primary goal for this season — developing young players D'Angelo Russell, Julius Randle, Jordan Clarkson and Larry Nance — has seemed at cross purposes with that. At least in the mind of coach Byron Scott.

So there it was in crunch time against the Pacers’ Sunday and Kobe and Nick Young were on the court while Russell watched from the bench. It gives the perception the Lakers don’t embrace the future.

Will how they use Kobe Bryant — and by extension the younger players — change now that Kobe has made it official this is his final season?

“I don’t know that I’ll change that much, as far as I want him to play,” Scott said. “I still want him to go out on a very positive note. And there’s a part of me that feels he is going to have those glimmers, having some of those games I know he’s capable of having.”

Scott’s job as coach, at least in his mind, seems to have been to make the last couple seasons of Kobe’s career comfortable. He said that Kobe has earned the right to take his tough, contested shots but has benched the players he’s tried to develop for their mistakes (and not clearly communicated to those players why they are sitting, if you ask the youngsters).

Beyond the coach, this is an organizational decision and priority.

“We have to huddle up and decide if there is going to be anything different in terms of minutes,” Lakers GM Mitch Kupchak said. “It’s not something that’s going to be decided today. But since he has made it clear this will be the last season for him, it will be more enjoyable and I think people can appreciate and will appreciate what he’s accomplished, not only in our building — with loads of love — but even more so on the road.”

Kobe isn’t going to change.

“I gave up hoping he would change his approach 15, 18 years ago,” Kupchak joked. “He is what he is. And I’m thankful for it.”

I understand the need to let the fans see Kobe be Kobe, to let him go out on his terms (although playing him 30+ minutes a night and saying the goal is to have him standing at the end of the season is an odd mix, Scott). The Lakers are selling Kobe while they try to develop their young players.

The question of how well they are developing them remains.

One thing I would like to see is more Kobe with the second unit, and by extension less with Russell and Randle. Kobe’s going to take his shots, but if he is taking those away from Nick Young or Lou Williams, so what? Let those guys fight over the ball a little (that would be entertaining). But then rest him and let Russell and Randle and the other youth learn to work together for long stretches without any of those ball dominating players on the court. That includes letting the kids close some games, even if it’s not pretty.

This was always going to be a rough Lakers’ season, although it is uglier than the team and its fans imagined. But that’s okay if the young players are getting their minutes, being coached up, and developing. The Lakers can’t let the Kobe farewell tour get in the way of that.

Utah’s Rudy Gobert with the crazy high alley-oop finish (VIDEO)

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I love that the Jazz were going to be themselves against the Warriors — two of our three best players are big men in Derrick Favors and Rudy Gobert, and we are going to use them whether you go small or not. Those two have the athleticism to make that work in a way few teams can’t. The result was a close game, one ultimately won by the Warriors because Stephen Curry can do Stephen Curry things, but you had to love the way the Jazz played.

And you had to love this finish by Gobert in the fourth quarter.

This alley-oop is pretty well defended, but there’s not much a defender can do when you can lob the ball above the box on the backboard, and Gobert can just go get it and finish.

Kobe Bryant farewell tour starts in his hometown of Philadelphia

Los Angeles Lakers v Denver Nuggets
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Tuesday night’s Lakers/76ers game a “showdown” of the two worst teams in the NBA — and it’s Philadelphia’s best chance to get its first win of the season.

But that storyline is being overshadowed — Kobe Bryant announced this is his last NBA season, and that makes Tuesday night his farewell to his hometown of Philadelphia.

“So much of my game was developed in Philadelphia,” Kobe said Sunday while talking about this game. “At Lower Merion High School and coach (Greg) Downer, playing in the Sunny Hill League and all the great coaches, playing at Tustin playground and Ardmore playground and so many great memories there. It’s going to be a very special night.”

As they are known to do, Sixers fans have had a love/hate relationship with Kobe. He has been booed there before — most notably during the 2002 All-Star Game (after Kobe’s Lakers beat the Sixers in the Finals the season before, when Kobe said he was coming to Philly to “cut the heart out” of a gritty Sixers’ team). But this is one of the higher hoops IQ fan bases around the league too — they know the game, and they know greatness.

With that, expect Kobe to get a warm reception in his final trip to his hometown. And expect Kobe to savor it.

“I would hope that he has more fun, and appears less frustrated, and also gets more appreciation,” Lakers’ GM Mitch Kupchak said of Kobe making his announcement. “He’ll get it at home, but on the road too, because people will have to recognize this is his last year and they are watching one of the all-time greats.”

Sixers fans will recognize that before the game, but once the ball goes in the air for the opening tip those same fans will want to see their team get a win after starting the season 18-0.

The fact is the Sixers play harder more consistently than the Lakers, but they haven’t been able to close out games. Miami needed a big comeback to beat them, Boston only won by four, the Grizzlies had to come from behind as well, and Houston beat them by two. Brett Brown has his charges putting out the effort, and they are desperate for a win.

The problem is late in games, when other teams tighten up their defense, the talent gap shows and the Sixers cannot hang on. Their advantage now is that the talent gap with the Lakers is much smaller — the Lakers have shooters (Kobe, Lou Williams, Nick Young) but not ones who take smart shots. You can defend the Lakers late.

Is that enough to get the Sixers their first win of the season?

If so, that is a rough way for Kobe to start his farewell tour.

Five Takeaways from NBA Monday: Why do Rockets often lack energy?

Dwight Howard, James Harden, Arron Afflalo
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This season the Eastern Conference has been deeper and a little better than the West — and that was on display Monday night when the Bulls beat the Spurs, and the Hawks beat the Thunder. Two wins showing the East is for real. Pistons fans told me on Twitter they should be in the Monday night big win mix also, and while I like Detroit (check out our discussion of them in the latest PBT podcast) beating Houston is no longer impressive. Our man Dan Feldman was at that game in Detroit and wrote this first takeaway from that game — what is wrong with Houston’s energy level?

1) Why have the Rockets so often lacked energy this season? “Talking about it is not going to do nothing,” Dwight Howard said. “There’s no Xs and Os that we can draw up. Talking about it in meetings is not going to do nothing. We’ve just got to go do it. We haven’t so far, and something has to change.”

“That’s a good question,” James Harden said in his entire answer, effectively ending the interview after a 116-105 loss to the Pistons dropped Houston to 7-11.

For what Howard provides in vague frustration and Harden in mystery, Rockets interim coach J.B. Bickerstaff believes he has uncovered what ails his team.

Bickerstaff pinned much of Houston’s defensive regression on its offensive finishing. As he explained, when the Rockets get all the way to the rim and miss, it’s too easy for opponents — with a Houston player under the basket and a loose ball getting kicked out — to run for easy shots.

The Rockets are attempting 39.2% of their shots in the restricted area, up from 34.7% last season. But they’re shooting just 58.6% there, down from 60.4% last season. Those extra misses at the rim have added up. But Bickerstaff believes his team will regress up to the mean.

“We play a certain style of basketball that we believe works,” Bickerstaff said. “It’s worked for us in the past. We’ll continue to play that way. We’ll continue to be aggressive getting to the paint, getting to the rim. We’ve just got to be stronger in our finishes, and things will change for us.”
—Dan Feldman

2) Bulls execute better than Spurs down stretch (you read that right), pick up big win. With two of the top six defenses in the Association coming into the game, you had to expect San Antonio/Chicago was going to be ugly, gritty, and come down to execution in the clutch. Let’s be honest, that sounds like a recipe for a Spurs win. But on Monday night all those things went the Bulls way — Chicago didn’t score a field goal the final six minutes of the game and still won 92-89. The pairing of Pau Gasol and Nikola Mirotic played better defense than we’d expect, and the Bulls as a team kept the Spurs from looking Spursian — San Antonio was 2-of-14 from three and seemed to rely more on beating guys one-on-one (specifically Kawhi Leonard and Tony Parker) than most games. The Bulls offense late is too much Derrick Rose and he can’t carry a team like he once did (although Butler couldn’t do much do to Leonard’s defense). But it was enough for one night — this was a huge home win for the Bulls.

I have been hesitant to buy into Chicago this season as the potential second best team in the East, they look like the same old Bulls to me. However, the bottom line now is they are 10-5 and have beaten the Spurs, Thunder, Cavaliers and Pacers. That has to get you into one of the top tiers.


3) Atlanta’s team ball beats Westbrook/Durant Thunder for a day. It’s not as simple and clean as that headline makes it sound, but this game had that feel. The Hawks looked like Spurs northeast on Monday night, with ball movement that had them shooting 57 percent in the first quarter and opening up a double-digit lead. Then as happened all game one of the Thunder stars would spark a run — sometimes Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook other times — and the game would be tight again. It went back and forth like that all night. It was Westbrook who had the fourth quarter push (17 of his 34 in the final frame) to make things interesting, but Jeff Teague finishing in traffic late (he ended the night with 25) and Kent Bazemore making the defensive play of the night was enough. Big win for the Hawks.

4) Stephen Curry game winner keeps Warriors perfect. The Utah Jazz play big, their success is based around a front line of Derrick Favors and Rudy Gobert (two bigs who are quick), and they were not going to go small and try to match up with the Warriors. Good for them. The Jazz were going to be the Jazz and go down swinging, and Favors had 23 and Gordon Hayward had 23. And it was not enough. Draymond Green was Mr. Energy. And when the game was on the line late, Curry could create the sliver of space he needs to knock down the game winner to make Golden State 19-0.

5) DeMarcus Cousins is back, drops 31 on Dallas and Sacramento gets the win. The Sacramento Kings with DeMarcus Cousins in the lineup are 6-5 on the season and a dangerous team. It’s the 1-7 without him that holds them back. Cousins had 16 fourth quarter points (31 points, nine rebounds and six assists on the night), and that combined with some impressive defense down the stretch got the Kings a much-needed win. That defense late has to be the most heartening thing for Kings fans — they have been bad on that end of the floor. A little Cousins and a little defense and suddenly things look much better in Sacramento. Now they just have to do it consistently. And keep Cousins healthy.