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.

Report: Celtics’ Marcus Morris to miss “extended time” to let knee heal

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Marcus Morris missed the Celtics’ first eight games of the season in an effort to get healthy. Upon his return he’s been solid, first as a starter, then coming off the bench, but his left knee continued to be an issue.

Morris was out Sunday when the Celtics beat the Pistons, and he’s going to miss more time trying to get a troublesome left knee right, reports Shams Charania of The Vertical at Yahoo Sports.

How much time is “extended time?” Probably at least a couple of weeks.

Morris has averaged 12.1 points and 5.5 rebounds a game this season, with a true shooting percentage of 52.5, which is right around the league average.

This could mean more run for rookie forwards Semi Ojeleye and Daniel Theis, both of whom have played well in limited minutes.

Tristan Thompson expected to return to Cavaliers Tuesday, come off bench

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INDEPENDENCE, Ohio (AP) — Cleveland Cavaliers center Tristan Thompson could play for the first time since Nov. 1 on Tuesday against Atlanta.

Thompson has been sidelined with a strained left calf. The team initially said Thompson would be out for up to four weeks, but he said Monday that timeline was inaccurate and that his injury was more serious. Thompson did not divulge any other details about the injury.

Coach Tyronn Lue says Thompson will not start when he returns, meaning Kevin Love will remain at center. Thompson says he’s fine with a reserve role and made it clear he’s willing to do whatever Lue needs.

The Cavaliers have won 14 of 15 and their defense has improved dramatically over the past month.

Thompson says he’ll have the same mindset on the floor as always and “just be myself. Being myself has worked out pretty well for me.”

 

Hornets’ center Cody Zeller out six weeks following knee surgery

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Charlotte just cannot get over the injury bug this season, and we found out last week it had struck again.

Now we know how severe the damage is, as first reported by Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN (and since confirmed by the team).

Ouch.

Zeller has been solid off the bench behind Dwight Howard this season, averaging 7.2 points and 5.5 rebounds in just under 20 minutes a night. He plays around the basket, 75 percent of his shots come at the rim, but his efficiency has dipped a little this season and he is shooting just 50 percent inside the restricted area.

The Hornets had to start the season without Nicolas Batum, and Michael Carter-Williams has missed time as well. On top of that, coach Steve Clifford had to take a leave of absence from the team for personal health reasons. Stephen Silas has stepped in to replace him.

Report: LiAngelo, LaMelo Ball have deal to play professionally in Lithuania

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This feels like a publicity stunt. Whatever the under/over is on how long it will last, bet the under.

That said, the two younger brothers of Lonzo Ball — LiAngelo, 18, and LaMelo, 16 — have reached a deal to play for a team in the highest level of the Lithuanian league. The story was broken by Adrian Wojnarowski and Jonathan Givony of ESPN (before the signing became official).

LiAngelo and LaMelo Ball are in serious discussions to sign professional basketball contracts with Lithuanian club Prienu Vytautas, sources told ESPN.

The club plans to decide in the next 24-to-48 hours whether to finalize agreements with the two American teenagers, sources told ESPN.

If signed, the franchise has hopes that the Balls – including their father LaVar — could be a marketing boon for the fledgling franchise, sources told ESPN.

Shams Charania of The Vertical at Yahoo Sports reports the deal is done.

Lithuania is a hoops-mad Baltic country of an estimated 2.9 million people who has three players currently in the NBA — Jonas Valanciunas, Donatas Motiejunas, and Mindaugas Kuzminskas — and has put 11 players in the league total, including Zydrunas Ilgauskas, Arvydas Sabonis, and Sarunas Marciulionis. You might remember the Lithuanian National Team wearing Grateful Dead inspired uniforms and taking the bronze medal in the 1992, 1996, and 2000 Olympics.

This is a country that takes its basketball seriously, and the Balls are a traveling circus and reality show. The Lithuanian league doesn’t have NBA-level players, but they guys they suit up have a real feel for the game and play a disciplined style. This could be a real culture clash, the kind of thing that ends quickly and spectacularly poorly. Here is some insight into the team from FIBA’s Lithuanian hoops writer.

Don’t expect the Ball children to play much, especially not at first.

The pay at this level is reportedly north of $1,500 a month, but that could be higher if the brothers are seen as a draw. With the report of the tight financial squeeze, this is likely a gambit on the coach’s part to boost revenue (in Europe, coaches are the CEOs of the organization, much more akin to the power top college coaches have than an NBA coach).

This is a league where men play and the game is taken seriously, it has produced not only Lithuanian players but Boston Celtics center Aron Baynes played there. This team apparently does not run the (suprisingly standard in Europe) two-a-day practices on non-game days, but their practices are longer and harder than most American versions. There are a lot of quality players — former American college/D-League guys, as well as good Europeans — who would love a shot like this. Who deserve a chance like this. If the younger Ball children do not perform and do not take this seriously, it will turn on them quickly.

LiAngelo Ball had gone to UCLA to play basketball this season, but after being suspended for shoplifting in China, his father LaVar pulled him out of college, designed a “Gelo 3” signature shoe for his son from the Big Baller Brand, and started looking for a professional contract. I’m not sure LiAngelo belongs at this level. As one scout told me last summer, LiAngelo was only at UCLA because Lonzo was a top recruit and LaMelo had a lot of potential. That scout wasn’t sure LiAngelo could stick in Europe.

LaMelo is a generally highly-rated recruit with NBA potential, a guy with crazy shooting range for a high-school Junior and good handles, but scouts had a lot of questions about his defense and most of his game outside of just shooting. LaMelo put up 70 points in an AAU game, but he cherry-picked the entire time, and the sense is there is a lot of that in his game. His father LaVar pulled LaMelo out of Chino Hills High School this season after a new basketball coach said he was going to push his guys to play within a system on both ends. How well LaMelo adapts to a very different culture on and off the court at his age is a big question.

Maybe this works out. Maybe the Ball children are more mature in personality and game than I think, maybe this is the financial boost that Prienu Vytautas needs and it works for them. It’s possible. I just don’t expect it.