Top 10 free agents when the lockout ends

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On December 9th, assuming the deal is approved by both sides, players will re-enter training facilities for the first time since last spring to being working towards the NBA season. At the same time, NBA free agency for the 2011-2012 season will open, and all hell will break loose as teams scramble to sign their guys and whatever players are available. With that in mind, here are the top 10 free agents this season.

1. Nene, C, Nuggets, UFA: Nene is a veteran without being too old, a dynamic defender while having scoring ability, a tough competitor without an injury history, and a locker room leader who can also produce. The Pacers, Heat, and Nuggets are expected to vie for his services.

2. Marc Gasol, C, Grizzlies, RFA: Gasol is restricted, and every indication is that the Grizzlies plan to re-sign him. If he hits the open market he’ll attract a swath of offers. He’s the most versatile center available, with great perimeter defense, passing, low-post scoring, and basketball IQ. He’s coachable and liked by teammates, and tougher than his more gifted brother. Memphis losing him would be devastating, but OKC and New York are both expected to express interest.

3. David West, PF, Hornets, UFA: An aging former All-Star coming off knee surgery. Yikes. But West is consistent, reliable, and provides a scoring punch to any team. Indiana is expected to make a strong push for West, to pair him with Darren Collison. His strongest attribute is the mid-range jumper off the pick and pop, which shouldn’t be affected by age, but if anyone needed that decrease in contract years, it’s whoever signs West.

4. Tyson Chandler,  PF, Mavericks, UFA: World Champion defender and elite center in a league weak on them. Chandler was the difference for the Mavericks last season and his impact was what lead them to the title, in part. If the Mavericks let him get away, expect half a dozen teams to pull for him, including offers which don’t make sense given his age and injury history. But he’s still one of the biggest impact players in the class.

5. Thaddeus Young, SF, Sixers, RFA: The Sixers are unlikely to let Young out of their sights, but given their cap space, if they for some reason don’t clear Andres Nocioni off their cap via amnesty, they could be tight on funds for him. Young has become a versatile combo forward who is able to play more power forward the older he gets. He would be a premium free agent if he leaked to the market, given that he’s only 23.

6. J.R. Smith, SG, Nuggets, UFA: Assuming Smith returns from China via some shady “release” arrangement, he’s going to be the best shooting guard on the market. A sixth-man-of-the-year candidate with range and athleticism, the Bulls would very much like a crack at Smith but he may be too expensive. The Nuggets will be in a bind to re-sign him given their need to also re-sign restricted free agent Aaron Afflalo. The Knicks may also be in the market for Smith.

7. Jason Richardson, SG, Magic, UFA: This year’s likely ring-chaser. Richardson is 31 with declining athleticism and coming off a poor showing in the playoffs. But he’s a veteran who can hit from range, defend decently and contribute to a veteran squad. The mid-level playoff teams should be very interested in his services, but if he decides to take less to get the ring, he could be a game changer in this market.

8. DeAndre Jordan, C, Clippers, RFA: Jordan is the perfect partner to Griffin, able to rebound and clean up after the attention paid to the ROY. The Clippers shouldn’t let him out of the stable, but if they do there will be a fleet of suitors. He’s still raw, still young, and has added a huge amount of bulk and strength to go along with his length and athleticism. Jordan could be the steal of this class.

9. Glen Davis, PF, Celtics, UFA: Big Baby is expected to be sacrificed to the market by the Celtics in an effort to clear room both for Jeff Green and 2012. He’s a great defender who has learned a ton in Boston, but too often gets his head screwed on wrong on offense, thinking he’s a mid-range shooter like KG when he’s a pure mash-and-dash guy. He could wind up with a head-scratcher deal.

10. Jeff Green, PF, Celtics, RFA: As opposed to Green, who undoubtedly will end up with a head-scratcher deal. Green doesn’t excel in any particular area, isn’t a great shooter, rebounder, defender, scorer, passer, or glue guy. He’s athletic and young, and has the potential to do a lot of things well, and that will drive his value up and the Celtics seem intent on paying the inflated market value for him.

LeBron James, Cavaliers hope to even series with Pacers

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INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — LeBron James has been in this playoff position before, just not in the first round.

With Cleveland down 2-1 to the Indiana Pacers in the first round, James was asked if Game 4 in Indianapolis Sunday was a must win.

“It’s the postseason,” said James, who is 10-0 in his career in first-round playoff series with Cleveland and Miami. “Every game is a must win. You want to come in and play well and win no matter what. No matter if you have home-court advantage or if you’re starting on the road, that’s the mindset you have to have. I felt like (Friday) was a must win. We didn’t win, obviously, but it’s the same mindset on Sunday.”

James, who scored 28 points, grabbed 12 rebounds and delivered eight assists in a 92-90 road loss Friday night, rejected what he felt were reporters’ attempts to ask if the other players needed to do more.

“You guys think I’m going to throw my teammates under the bus? I’m not about that,” James said. “Guys just, we have to be better, including myself. Had six turnovers (Friday). I was horrible in the third quarter, couldn’t make a shot. If I had made some better plays in the third quarter, the lead doesn’t skip.”

The Pacers cut a 17-point halftime deficit to six points in the third quarter and finally took their first lead in the fourth quarter.

“We know we all gotta play better as a collective group, no matter who it is,” James said. “We got production to start the game and in the second half there wasn’t much production. We still had a chance to win. We’ve got to regroup and figure how we can be better in Game 4.”

Cleveland coach Tyronn Lue said the Cavaliers were limited because George Hill‘s back “locked up” in the second half. Hill played only nine minutes in the second half, scoring two of his 13 points. Lue used James and Jordan Clarkson rather than backup point guard Jose Calderon in the fourth quarter. If Hill can’t go Sunday, Lue said he will likely start Calderon.

Hill had an MRI on Saturday, but the results weren’t back. He is listed as questionable for Game 4 with back spasms. Hill was hurt during Game 1 when Trevor Booker set a back screen and felt stiffness before Game 2, but played 20 minutes.

For the Pacers, Bojan Bogdanovic was the difference maker, scoring 15 of his team-high 30 points in the fourth quarter. Bogdanovic struggled shooting the first two games of the series.

Bogdanovic, who made 7 of 9 3-pointers, kept his focus after two quick fouls in the first quarter and had to leave briefly in the fourth when he picked up his fifth foul. The seven 3-pointers tied a franchise playoff record, also held by Reggie Miller twice, Chuck Person and Paul George.

“I thought it was going to be another poor performance from myself, but in the second half I started hitting shots and started feeling (much) better and I think a did a great job (Friday night),” the Croatian forward said.

Bogdanovic said he was most pleased with his defense against James.

“Everybody thought before this season that I cannot play defense,” he said. “I don’t say that I am playing great defense, but I am working hard at trying to make it tough for each offensive player that I am guarding.”

Bogdanovic said he tries to push James so he catches the ball far from the basket.

“Against those type of players you just try to stay aggressive on them,” Bogdanovic said.

Pacers coach Nate McMillan was impressed with his ability to produce both ways.

“You’re taking a pounding if you’re on the defensive end of the floor if you’re guarding LeBron,” McMillan said. “But offensively he found some energy. He got some good looks and he knocked them down.”

The Pacers came back to win eight times during the regular season after being down 15 or more points.

“We’ve been resilient,” guard Victor Oladipo said. “We made an adjustment in the second half and it helped us. But it’s only one game; I’m looking forward to Sunday.”

Rumor: Portland coach Terry Stotts could lose job after being swept out of playoffs

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Regular season: Terry Stotts was mentioned as a Coach of the Year candidate after leading the Portland Trail Blazers to 49 wins and the three seed in the West, led by a top 10 defense.

Playoffs: Portland was swept out of the postseason in the first round by Anthony Davis.

The latter part of that is going to lead to some real soul searching and changes coming to the Trail Blazers. That could include Stotts losing his job, reports Marc Stein of the New York Times.

There is plenty of blame to go around for Portland’s quick exit from the postseason, Stein is right that it’s not all on Stott’s shoulders. In fact, I would argue most of it is not.

However, this is the third time in four years Portland is out in the first round, and it leads to the question “what is it about their style that makes them so defendable and beatable in the playoffs?” This is a little like Toronto in recent years, where despite a lot of talent they were predictable and therefore defendable in the postseason. How much of that falls on Stotts vs. the roster he has to coach?

After a period of reflection in Portland, there are going to be changes in the wake of this sweep. Stotts’ job will be part of that discussion, no matter how good a job he did. The question for Blazers management is, if not Stotts then who is next? Who are they getting that’s better?

That said, if Stotts were to be let go he would hand on his feet very quickly.

After Ricky Rubio’s triple-double, Russell Westbrook promises to “shut that s*** off”

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Ricky Rubio outplayed Russell Westbrook Saturday night in Utah and now the Jazz are up 2-1 in that series.

Rubio did his damage from the midrange — he was 5-of-5 between the key and the arc — on his way to 26 points, to go with 11 rebounds and 10 assists. All series the Thunder have dared Rubio to shoot and to beat them, Saturday he did. It was a stark contrast to Westbrook’s 14 points on 17 shots Saturday with eight turnovers.

When asked about Rubio’s big night postgame, Westbrook was looking ahead to Game 4 and using a little NSFW language (hat tip to Ben Golliver of SI, who loves him some playoff podium video).

There you have it, a personal guarantee.

Rubio struggled some in Game 1, taking 18 shots and mostly the ones the Thunder wanted him to. However, after that he has been better at getting to his spots and taking the shots in rhythm, and it’s worked — he’s averaging 20.3 points, 8.3 rebounds, and 8 assists per game this series. OKC has been focused on making life difficult for rookie Donovan Mitchell (with limited success) and it’s freed up Rubio to make plays.

More than just slowing the Spanish point guard, Westbrook and the Thunder need to figure out how to get their offense back on track against a Jazz defense that was best in the NBA once Gobert got healthy last season. Oklahoma City lost Game 2 when their big three — Westbrook, Paul George, Carmelo Anthony — went 0-of-15 in the fourth quarter. In Game 3, OKC averaged 100 points per 100 possessions (well below their season average of 110.2) and Westbrook shot 29.4 percent. Do that again in Game 4 and it will not matter what Rubio shoots, what matters is the Thunder could be looking at a 3-1 deficit. The Thunder need to even this series before it heads back to Oklahoma City.

Gregg Popovich will not coach Game 4 following death of his wife, Erin

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San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich will not be on the sidelines again for Game 4 Sunday following the death of his wife, Erin, to a lengthy illness.

Ettore Messina will again coach the Spurs.

Popovich also missed Game 3. His San Antonio Spurs are down 3-0 to the Golden State Warriors in the first-round matchup. None of that matters compared to the loss of a woman he loved and was married to for four decades.

Erin Popovich’s passing has cast a pall over the series, especially with Warriors coach Steve Kerr being very close to the Popovichs dating back to his playing days with the Spurs.

The reaction and sadness about Erin’s passing has reached well beyond this series.

Our thoughts are with the Popovich family in this difficult time.