The Extra Pass: 2013-14 Eastern Conference All-Star reserve picks; plus Thursday’s recaps

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The 2013-14 All-Star game in New Orleans is still 30 days away, but the starters will be announced January 23rd and the reserves will follow on January 30th. There’s only a few days of voting left, and since I’m not good with hashtags or 140 character limits or following directions, I thought I’d put my ballot here instead.

For the sake of this particular exercise, we’ll defer to the last balloting returns for the starting lineup in the Eastern Conference. There’s no use fighting the machine, y’all — we have to roll with the fan vote. Here’s how the last results looked:

East Starters (Fan Vote)

Backcourt: Dwyane Wade, Kyrie Irving

Frontcourt: LeBron James, Paul George, Carmelo Anthony

With those players as the starters (not the worst you’ve done, fans), let’s get to the reserves. In case you’re unfamiliar with the format, the reserves include two backcourt, three frontcourt and two wildcards to fill the 12-man roster.

East Reserves

Backcourt: John Wall and Lance Stephenson

This is a surprisingly loaded position given the general ickyness of the Eastern Confernece.

Wall should be a shoe-in, as he’s averaged career-highs in points (19.7) and steals (2.0) while leading the conference in assists (8.6). It doesn’t hurt that his biggest flaw is finally being covered up a bit, either, as he’s shooting a halfway respectable 32 percent from behind the arc. The Wizards have been truly awful when he’s off the court this year, for what that’s worth. He deserves his first appearance.

Stephenson, meanwhile, has been an absolutely electric playmaker for the Pacers (5.3 assists) and a constant triple-double threat. Considering there are only two elite teams in the conference, it would be awfully tough to ignore Stephenson during his dynamic campaign, even if the reputation hasn’t come with the improved production quite yet. His flashy style of play is perfect for this setting.

Frontcourt: Roy Hibbert, Chris Bosh, Andre Drummond

You could probably just mash the rosters of the Heat and Pacers together and roll the ball out there, right?

Hibbert doesn’t put up big lines every night, but he leads the conference in blocks per game (2.6) and he’s the anchor of the best defensive team we’ve seen in quite some time. It would be a crime if he’s left off because he’s not a big scorer. Very few players make as big of an impact on the game as he does.

Bosh is absurdly consistent — just look at his per 36 minute scoring numbers in his last four seasons in Miami:

2010-11: 18.5 PPG
2011-12: 18.4 PPG
2012-13: 18.1 PPG
2013-14: 18.4 PPG

Point being, not much has changed. He’s solid, if unspectacular, but he’s crucial to everything Miami does. Bosh’s All-Star appearance streak (eight straight going into this year) isn’t going to be interrupted, especially without anyone really knocking down the door for his spot.

Drummond may be the surprise pick of the bunch, but he’s just been so dang productive. The second-year big man leads the league in offensive and total rebounding percentage, he’s first in the East in field goal percentage, third in blocks and behind only James, Anthony and George in PER in the East. It’s early, of course, but he’s more than earned his spot.

Wildcards: Arron Afflalo and Joakim Noah

Afflalo is still my pick for Most Improved Player in the league, even if he’s slowed down a bit as of late due to injury. Orlando’s ineptitude may hurt his chances, but virtually no one scores nearly 21 points per game as efficiently as Afflalo has this season. He’s never been an All-Star before, but with career-highs in nearly every statistical category, this is definitely his best shot.

I wouldn’t be able to forgive myself for leaving Noah off my ballot. Somehow, despite everything, the Bulls still have the second best defense in the league in terms of efficiency, and it’s Noah making that happen. With overall numbers very similar to his All-Star campaign last year, Noah should just squeeze in as a hat-tip to his undying effort, even in a clearly lost season.

Just Missed The Cut

Michael Carter-Williams is facing an uphill battle, as he’s on a bad team and he’s a rookie. Still, 17.6 points, 7 assists, 5.9 rebounds and a conference-leading 2.7 steals a night is no joke. Yes, the pace helps the raw numbers, but the degree of difficulty MCW is facing as a top-option for opponents to key in on in a point guard heavy league should be factored in as well. It’s unlikely he gets named, but he’s played well enough to be a reserve.

It was awfully hard to leave DeMar DeRozan off my ballot, especially since he’s come on so strong as of late with Rudy Gay out of the picture. DeRozan’s raw numbers (20.3 PPG, 4.3 RPG, 3.5 APG) aren’t all that dissimilar to Afflalo’s (20.8 PPG, 4.4 RPG, 3.9 APG), but DeRozan’s true shooting percentage of 51.3 percent can’t touch Afflalo’s 58.6 percent mark. Is Afflalo’s efficiency enough to account for the fact that DeRozan plays for a team with a winning record (!) in the East? Maybe, maybe not. I won’t be too upset either way — it’s a tossup between those two.

A lot of the air went out of the Hawks’ balloon when Al Horford went down for the season, but Paul Millsap is undoubtedly one of the best active players to never be named to an All-Star game. With a career high in points (17.4) and some surprising three-point range added to his already varied arsenal (1.1 3PM, 39.4 percent), Millsap might get some of that same “last man standing” and veteran love that Noah will, even if Drummond is the superior choice statistically.

Al Jefferson deserves some sort of reward for being a part of the 7th ranked defense and keeping the Bobcats in the playoff picture, but it’s probably not an All-Star selection. Watch out though — he’s a big name that opposing coaches plan for heavily, which will at least put him the conversation.

—DJ Foster

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Nets 127, Hawks 110: Joe Johnson put up 26 points in the first half to carry the Nets, then Brooklyn started the second half on an 11-2 run and Bob’s your uncle they had an easy win. Credit Paul Pierce who was making the right pass with the ball in the first half then put up 10 points in the third as the Hawks tried to crack down on Johnson (who also moved the ball well when the defense focused on him). Jeff Teague led the Hawks with 16 points but on 4-of-13 shooting. Basically the Nets dominated the NBA’s annual game in London, which Sir Paul McCartney was at — that’s his second Nets game this season, I hope someone got him a T-shirt.

Pacers 117, Knicks 89: Carmelo Anthony kept the Knicks close for the first quarter with his 18 points (he finished with 28) plus the Knicks did a good job of getting out in transition and getting their shots up before the Pacers set their defense. Then in the second quarter it all changed — the Pacers started attacking rather than settling for jumpers, their made shots let them get back and set their defense, and the Knicks didn’t shoot above 39 percent in any quarter the rest of the way. Plus, Lance Stephenson happened — he had 13 points in the second quarter on his way to 28 in the game

Thunder 104, Rockets 92: Houston put up 73 points, hit 12 threes and seemed to do no wrong in the first half, led by James Harden’s 16. Mostly it worked because of the threes. I’m not sure what team came out of the locker room after the break, but it wasn’t the same one — Houston shot 19.4 percent overall and scored just 19 points. Houston is a roller coaster, where Kevin Durant is a steady rock and poured in 36. Serge Ibaka was key with 21 points, 15 rebounds and five blocks.

—Kurt Helin

Grizzlies’ Mike Conley out at least two weeks with sore heel, Achilles

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Injuries are already starting to shape the playoff chase in the West — Rudy Gobert is out for at least a month in Utah, and the Clippers have lost six in a row as they battle injuries to three starters.

Now add the Memphis Grizzlies to the mix.

Mike Conley, the point guard who, along with Marc Gasol, is crucial to Memphis’ success, will be out at least two weeks to rest a sore left heel and Achilles, the team announced Friday. He could be out longer, Conley has had issues with this Achilles before, the team will want to be cautious, and by far the best treatment is rest.

Conley averages 17.1 points per game, is a great floor general running the offense, and is a quality defender at the point.

Memphis is 7-7 on the season and tied with Oklahoma City for the final playoff slot in the West, but the Grizzlies have dropped six of their last eight. What’s more, they are entering a gauntlet part of the schedule without Conley: Their next game is against Houston, then Portland, and in the next 10 they have the Nuggets, Cavaliers, Timberwolves, and Spurs (twice). The danger is they fall far enough back from the playoff chase they struggle to catch up again.

Expect to see a lot more Tyreke Evans, who has been strong as a sixth man but now will have much more asked of him. Also, more playmaking duties will fall to Gasol, working out of the elbow, and both Chandler Parsons and Mario Chalmers will get the ball in their hands. The question is what do they do with it.

Stephen Curry, was Warriors/Celtics a Finals preview? “Very, very likely, right?”

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The Golden State Warriors remain the prohibitive favorite to win the NBA title.

Thursday night, the Boston Celtics earned some validation that they belong in the conversation. Using a stymieing defense that threw off the vaunted Warriors offense, Boston came from 17 down in the third quarter to beat the Warriors.

With the Cavaliers stumbling out of the gate, does this make the Warriors/Celtics game a Finals preview? Stephen Curry (who was 3-of-14 shooting with four turnovers on the night) said yes, as you can see in the NBC Sports Bay Area video above.

“Very, very likely, right?” Curry said. “They’re playing the best right now in the East. Obviously, they need to beat Cleveland, who’s done it three years in a row. We’ll see, but I heard the weather’s great here in June.”

The weather in Boston is great for a short window in the spring, then the humidity kicks in. But that’s not the point.

I came into this season thinking the Celtics were a year away still, and when Gordon Hayward went down it strengthened that belief. But this team is a contender now — they are far better defensively than expected, and young players Jaylen Brown (22 points against the Warriors) and Jayson Tatum have stepped up more than expected. Kyrie Irving and Al Horford have developed a fast chemistry. And Brad Stephens is proving he is in the very upper echelon of NBA coaches.

It’s not even Thanksgiving, talk of the NBA Finals is premature. Curry is right, the Celtics still have to go through LeBron James and his Cavaliers to reach the Finals, which will not be easy.

Still, June basketball in Boston seems like a real possibility again.

Report: Momentum building toward ending one-and-done rule

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“My sense is it’s not working for anyone. It’s not working certainly from the college coaches and athletic directors I hear from. They’re not happy with the current system. And I know our teams aren’t happy either in part because they don’t necessarily think that the players are coming into the league are getting the kind of training that they would expect to see among top draft picks in the league.”

NBA Commissioner Adam Silver said that during the NBA Finals last year about the one-and-done rule for players trying to enter the NBA — they can’t be drafted by NBA teams for one season after their high school class graduates, so the best players go to college for one season (and most go to classes for less than that). As Silver said, nobody really likes the system, but it was the compromise struck between the owners (who would like to raise the draft age to 20 or higher) and the players’ union (who want the draft age at 18, as soon as guys come out of high school).

However, momentum is building to change the rule, something we have written about before and now is gaining more traction, reports Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN.

With momentum gathering to reshape the one-and-done draft entry rule, NBA commissioner Adam Silver and NBPA executive director Michele Roberts met with the new Commission on College Basketball in Washington on Thursday, league sources told ESPN….

Nevertheless, there’s a growing belief within the league that Silver’s desire to end the one-and-done — the ability of college basketball players to enter the NBA draft after playing one year in college — could be pushing the sport closer to high school players having the opportunity to directly enter the league again. For that change to happen, though, the union would probably need to cede the one-and-done rule and agree to a mandate that players entering college must stay two years before declaring for the draft.

While the NBA and players’ union will talk to the NCAA about their plans, ultimately the college body has no say in what the NBA draft and eligibility rules are.

The best players of their generations came straight to the NBA out of high school — Kobe Bryant, LeBron James, Kevin Garnett, and others —  however, what bothered owners were the misses in the draft. There were busts, and owners/GMs want to reduce as much risk as they can in the draft (even though there are busts on guys who they saw plenty of in college, hello Michael Olowokandi).

NBA teams are now better suited to develop players than they were a couple of decades ago — every team has an assistant coach focused on just that. The best teams in the NBA right now — Golden State, Boston, San Antonio — are the best at developing players. That’s not a coincidence, and it has teams copying (or attempting to) what the successful ones do. Combine that with the growth of the G-League and teams growing their understanding how to use it, and they are better positioned to draft a player out of high school and develop him over time than they ever have been.

 

There are still a lot of questions and hurdles. If a player declares for the draft and has an agent, but isn’t drafted (or even isn’t drafted in the first round, so no guaranteed contract) will he have the option to come to college for two (or three) years anyway? Will the NCAA allow that? And Silver has talked before about the changes in the draft needing to reflect changes in how we develop players down to the AAU level, which is its own complex set of problems.

It’s not moving quickly, but these are steps in the right direction. One-and-done doesn’t work well for anyone. The college baseball style rule (go straight to the pros or spend three years in college in that sport’s case) isn’t perfect, but it’s better than the system in place. There seems to be momentum toward change. Finally.

Watch James Harden, Rockets drop 90 on Suns — in first half

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This game had all the drama of The Last Airbender. Which is to say none. It was essentially over when the Rockets went on a 21-6 first-quarter run — unlike Boston in the earlier Thursday game, Phoenix isn’t built to come back against elite teams.

When the 15-1 Rockets run came at the end of the first quarter, it was clear Houston could do what it wanted on offense, and by half the Rockets put up 90 points. The Rockets were putting on a show (and eventually won 142-116).

James Harden had 33 points on 12 shots in the first half (he finished with 48 points for the night). Ryan Anderson hit four threes on his way to 18 before the break. Eric Gordon had 10. As a team, Houston shot 62.2 percent, and 60 percent from three in the first half. They got to the line 25 times. I could go on, but you get the picture.

If you want more highlights, here is Harden’s 48 for the night. Enjoy.