Monthly Archives: December 2011

Lion Face/Lemon Face 12/30/11: Starring Derrick Rose’s Gravy Recipe

Happy New Year’s Eve! There were lots of games on, and lots of wins and winces. So to start your NYE off right, let’s get to recapping the games of Eve’s eve. 

Affleck? Damon? 


Lion Face: Derrick Rose

It’s like Derrick Rose took every critique I’ve ever had of his game, put it in a pot, simmered it until all of the misguided hate and skepticism was withdrawn, made an ambered color roux, added the hater broth he just simmered, and reduced it into the most incredible hater gravy.

“Oh, he doesn’t know how to get his teammates involved early.” 10 assists in the first half.

“He’s not really that efficient of a scorer.” 8-14 from the field.

“Can he shoot the 3-ball?” 3-4 from behind the arc.

“He doesn’t get to the line enough, and it’s sad because he should get there like, 10 times a night” 10-11 FT

You should try this gravy. It’s unbelievable.

Lemon Face: Blake Griffin developing bad habits.

Okay, this is being nitpicky despite an incredible offensive performance by Griffin, but I did not enjoy Griffin’s dribbling display, especially during one possession where he had the ball near the free throw line, proceeded to dribble backwards between his legs to the top of the key where he took a contested 20-footer. His play is giving me déjà vu – Kris Humphries used to shoot turnaround fadeaways after a few made baskets. It was the dumbest thing. I love that Griffin is expanding his game, but more than a few of his possessions looked like a needless exhibition of skills he still needs to refine.

Lion Face: Jeff Teague

Having a quick penetrating guard is very, very useful. Teague had himself an efficient game (22 points, 9-12 FG – basically Greg Monroe’s line) that was played entirely in a half-court offense. Watching footage from Synergy Sports Technology, Teague only attempted one jump shot in the game. The other 11 attempts were either layups or runners. The Hawks are still obsessed with the long 2, but Teague appears to be the remedy. And the effects haven’t been this apparent since last season’s playoff series against the Chicago Bulls. Oh, he did point guard-y things too, like a sweet dump-off pass to a trailing Josh Smith in transition.

Lemon Face: Rodney Stuckey

Rodney Stuckey’s 1-11 shooting night in a nutshell: During one possession in the first quarter, Brandon Knight is trapped in a corner with five seconds left on the shot clock. Knight heaves it over to Stuckey, who, with one second left on the clock, hadoukens the ball over the backboard.

Lion Face: Andrea Bargnani


Andrea had it going the entire game (30 points, 11-18 fg). The defense has to respect his shot, but also his driving ability because of his sneakily explosive first step. When he initiates that dribble motion, defenses are forced on their heels which gives him just enough space to stop, rise and swish. Despite all of the punchlines regarding his historically terrible rebounding numbers, he’s still a legitimate offensive dynamo. Maybe his skills are God-given, maybe it’s a result of hours in the gym. For me, I’d prefer to believe it’s all due to Primo Pasta, and his deliciously awkward endorsement commercial.

Lemon Face: The New Orleans Hornets

They took 90 shots to score 78 points. They clanked the rim so many times, their offensive rebound count was a little more than half of Phoenix’s total rebound number. And when they got the rebound, they missed some more. They missed so much, Channing Frye had 16 rebounds. Do you know how hard that is? For Channing Frye? For the Hornets to shoot below 30 percent for the game? This lemon is so sour.

Lion Face: Derrick Favors

Holy crap, THIS is what you look like when you’re not in foul trouble? Never get into foul trouble again, Derrick! You are relentless! You have a jumper (!!!)!  You were great! Now let’s work on some consistency, because we can all get used to Derrick Favors that brings home 20-11 every game.

Lemon Face: Paul Millsap


Just one of them days for Millsap. He was getting good looks; shots he would normally convert. He was just really, really off. The Jazz eek out the win, though, and his struggles were well masked by the two sophomores in Favors and Gordon Hayward.

Lion Face: Ian Mahinmi

I’m really enjoying these games in which random Dallas big men step up for some seriously good games off the bench. Ian Mahinmi was an absolute monster in less than 29 minutes, going perfect from the field and finishing with five rebounds and two blocks. Reminded me of the first game he played in his second year with the Spurs.

Lemon Face: Brian Cook

Brian Cook played for 17 minutes and had five fouls. He was the primary backup for DeAndre Jordan who was in foul trouble all game. That is the most depressing sentence I’ve ever written. Chicago’s depth in the frontcourt was just too much for the Clippers to handle. They need to throw all the money they have in Kyrylo Fesenko’s direction. The team won’t last another two weeks with Brian Cook as their backup center.

Lion Face: LeBron to Wade game-winning alleyoop


This team…

Lemon Face: Wayne Ellington

Wayne Ellington is terribad. Ellington has no business shooting more than everyone on the team not named Kevin Love. He has no business shooting 13 shots – shooting (and missing) his last five shots with less than seven minutes remaining in the game( including two shots, one at 33 seconds left, and the last shot to win/tie with 4.7 seconds left). But he did. He did.

Lion Face: Greg Monroe’s offense

This was the game we were waiting for. Monroe showed off a little bit of everything in his offensive repertoire last night – a face up jumper, a hook shot, smart cuts to the basket, scoring off his own misses – en route to 22 points on 9-12 shooting. He’s got great vision for his size, and at this point, it can probably be argued that he’s the best passer on the team. He put it all together against the Celtics, and for those rooting for his next major leap forward, this was a fantastic sign.

Lemon Face: Greg Monroe’s defense

Unfortunately, basketball is a two-way game, and as good as Monroe was at scoring and getting his teammates involved, he was just as bad defending. Jermaine O’Neal in his sad, sad, old state of existence should not be able to score 19 points on anyone, let alone one of the Pistons’ centerpieces. Brandon Bass plays a brisk 22 minutes and comes away as the second leading scorer (behind O’Neal) for the Celtics. Yeah. Monroe might be a defensive liability. Unfortunately, 2004 Ben Wallace isn’t walking through that door — and it’s kind of sad when you’re forced to give 2011 Ben a go because your burgeoning star can’t get it done.

Lion Face: Ricky Rubio

Doubters have taken notice. We are all witnesses to Rubio’s prowess. In only his third NBA game, he was four rebounds away from a triple-double after playing only 30 minutes. We know he can’t shoot, but hey, he’s shooting 61.5% from the field taking shots when he needs to, and making crafty passes when he doesn’t. He made Anthony Randolph look like a competent NBA player against one of the best defenses in the league. That alone says everything you need to know about the guy. He makes his team better when he’s on the court, and doesn’t do very much to hurt it. …Minnesota can live with the terrible shooter shooting infrequently – especially if he maintains his current clip.

Lemon Face: Glen Davis

Big Baby went 3-12. In the same night, Brandon Bass went 7-11. When does this trade start looking fair?

Lion Face: Memphis’ Starting Frontcourt

Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol combined for 43 points on 17-22 shooting and 17 rebounds, probably the polar opposite of what happened on their opening game against the Spurs. This is how Memphis is going to win games. Dump it into capable hands in the post, and good things will start happening.

Lemon Face: Wizards Starting Backcourt

John Wall and Nick Young combined for 2-19 shooting, each contributing one made field goal each. Also, Jordan Crawford took 20 shots off the bench and scored 24 points to lead the Wizards in a blowout loss. Of course he did.

Will A Very Kyle Lowry December Turn Into A Very Kyle Lowry Year?

Photo by Harry Willis on Flickr

Previously famous for its wintry weather, December has become a month week of basketball revered in the minds of basketball fans. With that month shortened drastically due to basketball/money/pride/email reasons in 2011, games are both more frequent and sloppy. Amidst all of the unrefined but incredibly fun basketball we’ve already seen this year, a new point guard hero has awakened in the West. Some might argue this awakening happened last season, but its full realization appears imminent. This is December basketball. This is Kyle Lowry.

I don’t want it to seem like I’m delving into hyperbole and overreacting to small sample sizes, though I almost certainly am. But perceived improvement is easy to rave about, and in the early season, hope springs eternal. Kyle Lowry has more than earned that hope in the span of two games.

It’s hard to compare Kyle Lowry’s current play in the league to anyone not named Kyle Lowry. He’s always been a terrific defender, but never particularly distinguished himself offensively in a league full of strong offensive point guards. For a significant period of time, Lowry was simply known as the best backup point guard in the league, coming off the bench and providing blistering defense and a consistently acceptable all-around game. That role changed last year, likely for the long-term, as Lowry assumed the starting role and his rightful place in the hearts of bloggers everywhere. After the Rockets traded Aaron Brooks to the Suns, Lowry became a clear key staple to the Rockets’ ever-changing future. He claimed the job forcefully, continuing to play sterling defense and put up career-best averages of 13.5 points, 6.7 assists, and 4.1 rebounds, along with the second-best of his career (16.5) and an improved three-point percentage, an important facet in his continued offensive development.

But 2010-2011 Kyle Lowry was the equivalent of Mike Bibby compared relatively to what we’ve seen thus far from 2011-2012 Kyle Lowry. The sterling defense we’ve come to expect Lowry is still expectedly there, but it’s now accompanied by the offense of a young Oscar Robertson elite PG. I’m not primarily focused on the statistics he’s created thus far, though they’re awe-inspiring (near triple-double numbers, a 35.2 PER). No, where Lowry has really improved is control and maintenance of the flow of an offense. Instead of searching constantly for a shift of role and learning how to run an offense, Lowry has progressed into a player initiating terrific ball movement and understanding of court positioning. Where he once chose the first option or simply kicked out the ball to Kevin Martin for a forced, difficult 3, Lowry is now seemingly capable of checking multiple options and finding the highest percentage option within an immediate time frame. This is an ability possessed by all great point guards, but not one associated with Lowry in the past. He delves fully into a defense, absorbs its spacing, and attacks with incredible intelligence.

An increasing thought I’ve been consumed by is the rise of great young point guards in the Western Conference. HP’s own Danny Chau discussed Ty Lawson’s emergence as a veritable efficiency Cloverfield monster, and Stephen Curry’s offensive repertoire is set to make the jump everyone expected it would last year. Kyle Lowry belongs in this group. Even as he assumes the leadership of a Rockets’ team uncertain of its own identity, Lowry stands to become the complete and varied player KLOE (Kyle Lowry Over Everything, as often mentioned by Zach Harper) supporters always thought he could be. He passes, he scores, he defends, and he wins over hearts and minds. That’s Kyle Lowry’s mantle to claim, and he possesses the tools to reach that level.

Kyle Lowry (now 25 years old) bears an unmatched responsibility comparatively to other young point guards, namely because how central he’ll be to his team’s success. The Rockets no longer play in your grandfather’s Western Conference (I don’t know how or why your grandfather would have his own Western Conference). There are no looming giants to deny the Rockets a playoff spot, and tangentially, a significant playoff run. This is a year of parity in the Western Conference. Other than the favorite Oklahoma City Thunder, a team that possesses weaknesses less exaggerated than other Western Conference teams, no other clear stalwart contenders exist. For once, there is no looming Lakers’ giant to inevitably lose to, the Mavericks may not be what they once were, the Blazers, much like the Nuggets, are very talented but without juggernaut capability, and the Clippers are certainly still a far cry from dominance. The opportunity exists for the Rockets, and other relatively young rosters, to assume a strong position in the indeterminable playoff race of a truncated season.

But without a breakout season from Kyle Lowry and the continuation (to a lesser extent) of what we’ve already seen, the Rockets’ experiment will likely finally die and the word “rebuild” will be floated often this offseason, after an incongruous failure of an easily beaten seventh (or eighth) seed Rockets (or simply no playoff berth at all). While this isn’t a top-heavy Western Conference, it certainly doesn’t lack depth. The Rockets must be wary of that depth.

Watching and enjoying the ascension of a once unlikely player and team is a beautiful thing. Lowry and the Rockets have the capability to make that final unlikely leap, to splash in the pond instead of flying above the playoff waters. Kyle Lowry can become a great player. This is clear every passing minute he defines his offensive abilities on the court. Can the Rockets become a great team? Maybe, maybe not. A rotation of Lowry, Kevin Martin, Chase Budinger, Luis Scola, defensive stalwart Samuel Dalembert, Courtney Lee, an improving Terrence Williams, Patrick Patterson, Goran Dragic, and a possibly blooming Jordan Hill is nothing to be trifled with. It’s a team without a true star, but the same can be said for the Rockets’ fellow deeply talented squad, the Nuggets. Just as Ty Lawson appears ready to seize the reins of a team and offense, so does Kyle Lowry. If Lowry finally seizes those reins firmly and confidently, the Rockets will not be sent away easily in April and May. Rockets’ teams have the past have come and gone, easily replaced and re-stocked by clever GM Daryl Morey. The same could be said of this team by midseason. But, while fading into NBA oblivion is common, surprising an entire league is unique in itself. And what is Kyle Lowry if not unique?

Paroxysm At Gametime: Raymond Felton And The Blazers’ New Velocity

Photo by istargazer on Flickr

Paroxysm Gametime merges HP’s usual theoretical and philosophical meanderings with actual game coverage. In our first installment, Scott Leedy was on the scene at Nuggets-Blazers at the Rose Garden to find out why all of a sudden, the Blazers actually are faster for once. 

Raymond Felton has seen a lot change in the past year. Last summer Felton signed as a free agent with with New York only to be traded to Denver as a part of the Carmelo Anthony deal.  Then on draft night he was sent to Portland as part of a package for Andre Miller. The chaos of moving from city to city stands in stark contrast to stability of his early career. Felton played high school ball in South Carolina and attended the University of North Carolina where he won a national championship. He was then drafted by the Charlotte Bobcats and spent the first 5 years of his career there.   While the transitions haven’t been easy Felton is taking it all in stride.

“It’s not been hard,” Felton said Thursday prior to the Blazers’ win over Denver Thursday night. “It’s a part of the league, anybody can get traded. This is a business and I learned that. It really doesn’t bother me at all.”

But Portland’s new point guard does concede it was always good being closer to home. “Home is home. You see family all the time. You’re just in your comfort zone. So being all the way out west, is different”.

Still, Felton feels as though he’s found a new home in Portland. “Other than the fact that it rains a lot,” Felton says with a laugh..

On the court Felton has allowed the Blazers to play a much more aggressive and fast paced game, predicated on pushing the tempo. Nate McMillan’s teams have always had a reputation of being incredibly slow paced and deliberate; always ranking near the bottom of the league in pace. While it’s only been three games, according to John Hollinger of ESPN the Blazers rank second in the league in pace. Much of this has to do with Felton’s speed and skill set, but also what Felton believes to be a shift in philosophy.

“[We're] trying to change the team. Instead of being a half court team and one of the lowest scoring teams in the NBA, we want to push the tempo. If we get a turnover, or a rebound, all the [other] guys gotta do is spot up and be ready. I’ll get it to them… I’m [going to] make the right play”.

Certainly Felton has no shortage of offensive weapons, the most important being LaMarcus Aldridge. Felton raved about Aldridge Thursday, saying, “He does everything. He’s a big man that [has] great hands, he can play with his back to the basket, and put it on the floor to get his own shot”.

Aldridge in turn spoke on the benefits of playing with his new disher. “He makes it easy,” Aldridge said. “I just pick and he gets me the shot. I have to read it but when you have a good guard who knows how to run the pick it roll, they make it easy”.

With Felton and Aldridge the pick and roll is bound to be an extremely effective play for the Blazers. As Felton describes it, “The big man can’t try and stay with me and get back to Lamarcus on the pop out… So I really only have to worry about one guy; the guy in front of me. If he keeps coming I’m going to throw it to LaMarcus. If not, I can take him one-on-one and attack, not necessarily to get my own shot but to get someone else a shot.”

Despite missing all of training camp and playing only a few games together, Felton had Aldridge have already developed a good rapport. Felton noted, “For it only being game three, we’ve got a great continuity with each other and it’s going to get better.” That’s a scary thought for opposing defenses.

For both Felton and the Blazers the transition from a slow-paced offense to a more up tempo style doesn’t come without headaches. On Thursday night the Blazers turned the ball over 25 times. Higher turnover totals are certainly part of the territory of a more aggressive offensive style but coach Nate McMillan thought it got “too fast” at times and Felton said” we gotta work on [taking care of the ball], I gotta work on [taking care of the ball]“. But this is a very talented Blazers team that has somehow garnered little attention or praise.

For Raymond Felton that’s just the way he likes it.

“That’s cool,” Felton said of there being little hype around the team. “Don’t even talk about us. Keep it just the way it’s going I wanna stay right under the radar”.

Sorry Raymond but this team is too fun, too exciting, too completely and totally awesome; the talking starts now.

Author’s Note: Special thanks to Ben Golliver of Blazersedge for showing me the ropes. You can read his repot from the game here.

Lion Face/Lemon Face 12/29/11 – Buzzer Beaters And Abraham Lincoln’s Message To Kings Fans

Lion Face: James Harden

In a game decided and then re-decided in the closing seconds, Harden posted a +22 (alongside Nick Collison’s +16) in 35 minutes. While many focus on the rift, imaginary or not, between Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant, another point of contention for Thunder observers is Harden’s absence in the starting lineup. If he gets starter minutes, though, does it really matter?

But this Lion Face isn’t a product of Harden’s performance; rather, it’s recognition that there may not be a cooler cat in the game today. Check Harden’s reaction on Durant’s game-winner (h/t to Royce Young):


Nothing. Nada. In a tempestuous sea of celebration, Harden was the bearded eye of the hurricane.

Lemon Face: Lamar Odom

Photo by bbheart via Flickr

Suffice to say Mavericks fans thus far view Odom’s tenure in Dallas the same way a feng shui expert might look at a padded cell. That might be an affront to empty rooms and neutral impact, in fact; Odom went 2 for 11 from the field last night, missed 4 three-pointers, and has a -.294 WS/48 on the season.

Lion Face: Dwight Howard

Yes, it came against the Nets. Yes, Deron Williams six turnovers might have been really subconscious attempts to get Howard the ball. Sure, things become infinitely easier when you’re playing 6 players against 1.8, especially if you’re a physical behemoth. But a 35% bTRR (basketball-reference Total Rebound Rate) and 67 DRtg is an impressive showing no matter how you slice it.

Lemon Face: Brook Lopez’s physiology

KNOCK IT OFF. #FreeBrookLopezFromHimself

Lion Face: DeMarcus Cousins

Cousins had a rather Cousins-y night. He shot 25% from the field, though he managed a free throw attempt for every two field goal attempts and made 7 of his 8 freebies. He grabbed 12 rebounds for 24.8% of the total misses while he was on the court – including equal effort on the offensive and defensive glass – yet he fouled out again.

And I don’t really care about any of that, because he did this to Joakim Noah:


Nice help defense, Chuck Boozer.

Lemon Face: Overreacting to losing to the Bulls

Kings fans, you’ve played three playoff teams so far. You’re 1-2 after those games, which isn’t shabby at all. Most importantly, the Bulls – the most recent team to vanquish your fair team – are really, really good. Cream of the crop in this amazing league of basketball we all love so much. So here’s a tip:


And if you don’t want to listen to Abraham Lincoln, then I beseech you – listen to Tom Ziller.

Lion Face: Anyone who watched Lakers/Knicks in its entirety

Who knew that two of the marquee teams could play such a snoozefest?  The Lakers are still feeling things out themselves. Fortunately for Los Angeles, Kobe Bryant is still Kobe Bryant, and he’s capable of surprising even himself. He was easily the most fun player to watch in a game that seemed to last forever.

Some will interpret that as a dismissal of Carmelo Anthony and his abilities as a scorer. Make no mistake, Anthony is one of the most thrilling offensive players in the league and a joy to watch. However, there are two related variables working against him. First, a Knicks possession isn’t simply an opportunity to watch the offense operate around and through their small forward. It’s a grand jury panel, ready to indict coach Mike D’Antoni, Carmelo and Amar’e Stoudemire for their inability to figure this all out and have the two stars play nice together. It’s hard to watch the Knicks play offense without a sense that there’s both something missing and too many of the same piece, an overlap between. And without a point guard, it’s just hard to watch the Knicks play offense.

Lemon Face: Amar’e Stoudemire

With that said, a player of Stoudemire’s caliber missing 13 for 17 from the field gets a lemon face. It’s a rule that I have.

Lion Face: Kevin Durant

All of them. All of the lion faces ever. Better luck next time, former slam dunk champion who shall not be named and thought he had won the game for his team.


Ty Lawson Is A Brutally Efficient Offensive Player

Ty Lawson is a brutally efficient offensive player.

How efficient? Currently, Lawson’s field goal percentage (61.9) is good enough to land him in the top-5 among players a foot taller than he is. While this number will surely regress towards the mean, Lawson has been a “50-40″ shooter ever since arrived in Denver. His TS% is in elite company with percentages in both rookie and sophomore years teetering around the 60% mark (similar to players like Chris Paul, LeBron James, and Kevin Durant).

How brutal? After observing all of Lawson’s shot attempts with Synergy Sports Technology:

  • 56.1 percent (23 of 41) of Lawson’s attempts have come from layups or short runners.
  • Of the 41 shots he’s attempted in the three games thus far, only 18 were jumpshots.
  • 12 of those 18 jumpers were from 3-point range, where he is shooting 42 percent (5 of 12).
  • And of the six jumpers that weren’t 3-pointers, only two of them were from beyond 18 feet.

This is all incredible, especially for a player who stands at around 5’11”. Few can match his burst of speed after a hesitation dribble, and even fewer can match his top end speed racing down the floor in transition. Defenders are forced to give him space to account for his quick penetrating ability, which unfortunately means giving him space usually reserved only for Rajon Rondo.

Over at Heat Index, Tom Haberstroh discusses the efficiency taking shots at different areas of the court in relation to LeBron and Wade’s intriguing lack of 3-point attempts. Haberstroh denotes the three most efficient shots on the court: the free throw line, at the rim, and the 3-point line. Considering shots at the rim and 3-pointers make up about 85 percent of Lawson’s attempts thus far, Lawson isn’t just playing at an unconscious level — like, say, Nick Young has for his entire life — Lawson is making a concerted effort to take the right shots, and it’s working.

Of course, manipulating small sample sizes this early in the season usually doesn’t bode well for observing the season at a larger scope. However, looking at Lawson’s stats from the past two years, he’s always been a player with fantastic percentages for his position and size. The Nuggets have had two impressive offensive outings against the Mavericks and the Jazz, and a miserable one against the Blazers. But one constant in all three games was Ty Lawson’s ability to create for himself. While the team will continue to be an offense-by-committee simply due to their depth, Lawson’s emergence and continued development as a reliable go-to scorer can make a big difference come playoff time.

15 Footer – Coronation Nightcap

Author Illustration

MVP: Most Valuable Pacer (Cavaliers at Pacers, 7:00 PM EST)

The lone holdover from the last time Indiana started off a season 3-0 is Danny Granger, circa 2007.  Dan Gilbert’s golden boy comes to town to try and spoil the sudden Central Division leaders in the clubhouse, and Kyrie Irving is likely Cleveland’s best shot a it — five Pacers are averaging double figures and PERs of at least 16.9, with Darren Collison lurking not far behind. While Indy lacks a powerhouse PF that may plague them down the line, the current David West will have no trouble with the old David West, A.K.A. Antawn Jamison.

Where every game is the same? (Magic at Bobcats, 7:00 PM EST)

Charlotte has played two games. Each contest has featured a 96-95 score and a Boris Diaw contract-year near-triple-double. I know, right? Who cares what Charles is peddling, makes you want to go on the Krispy Kreme diet, doesn’t it? And Dwight Howard isn’t even the best player on either one of these teams this season thus far. If dunking and donuts aren’t your cup of tea, there’s breakout years well underway for a number of other players including Ryan Anderson, Gerald Henderson and DJ Augustin. Oh, and that Kemba kid is a-okay too.

If you thought the Utah Jazz were bad… (Net at Hawks, 7:30 PM EST)

…you should have seen what Atlanta did to the New Jersey Jazz the other night (the Nets’ roster features four former Jazzmen, and could soon be five should Andrei Kirilenko join this frazzled foray into mediocrity). Through two games the Hawks have been the stingiest defense in the NBA with a top five offense, so the most you can hope for from the Brooklyn-bound, presidential-hopeful-absentee-owned Nets on their fourth game in five nights are some spectacular ankle-breakers from a surly Deron Willliams on poor Jeff Teague.

The fight for the right to suck less (Pistons at Celtics, 7:30 PM EST)

You know your season has gone horribly wrong when Keyon Dooling is your fifth-best player. Nevertheless, and despite Detroit’s Dark Knight busting loose in a big way, Boston should be capable of turning around a sullied season when the Motor City comes puttering into town. There isn’t much more to say about these two seasons thus far than this…

Hired guns (Suns at Hornets, 8:00 PM EST)

A winless team with a premiere point guard goes high noon for the second time in three games with the team that just forcibly dealt one. New Orleans has been a pleasant surprise while Phoenix looks like it forgot to set the alarm clock the first day back to work after a three-day bender on Bourbon Street. Raise your hand if you had Jarrett Jack with a 30.2 higher PER than Steve Nash coming into this one. That’s what I thought. That the Suns’ only hope of salvaging a season could rest with a Redd moon rising doesn’t inspire much besides an urge to crochet and yell at kids on lawns.

Respectability runs headlong into a wall (Heat at Timberwolves, 8:00 PM EST)

Minnesota is not only watchable and fun, but better than they have been in years thanks to the Rick and Ricky show. Adelman brings legitimacy to a trainwreck Kahnwreck while Cinnapup Rubio (ask Zach Harper) brings a court vision and facilitation ability not seen in Minny since maybe ever. Try and forget that David Kahn is 3,867,452-1 at picking point guards for his roster and just enjoy this one even as the Miami Mob rolls right over ‘em on their way to 4-0.

The Southwest is stacked (Rockets at Grizzlies, 8:00 PM EST)

The first of four burns between these division dominoes likely leaves one of these two teams a mere step up the cellar stairs by evening’s end. Daryl Morey was unable to capture a super-squad while Memphis has been unable as of yet to recapture last season’s magic while attempting to reincorporate Rudy Gay into team chemistry, a prospect so far akin to trying to wheez the juice back into the Slurpee machine at the mini-mart after a Pauly Shore tutoring session. Luis Scola’s played well, but Marc Gasol’s arguably played even better. The Grizz are just too deep for Houston to keep this close for long unless KevMart busts out of his slump in a big way.

The fall of ’69 (Raptors at Mavericks, 8:30 PM EST)

• The last time a defending champion started 0-4 this was the number one single

• The average cost of a new house then was less than the average cost of new car now, $15,500

• The average cost of a new car then was less than the average cost of NBA season tickets now, $3,270

• One of the best-selling cars of all-time made it’s debut

• The last time Toronto won at Dallas was…

…late last December?!

Things for Andray Blatche to do in Milwaukee (Wizards at Bucks, 8:30 PM EST)

Need I say more?

How to look like a contender, play Utah (76ers at Jazz, 9:00 PM EST)

What in the world has gotten into Spencer Hawes? I feel safe saying he’s never come closer to a triple-double than he did against Portland a few nights ago. This will be a battle of the deepest backcourt in the NBA versus one of it’s deepest frontcourts. Philadelphia is legitimately better this year than last now showing both top ten defense and offense while the Jazz are bottom three in both ratings, and if Al Jefferson continues his Swiss cheese ways on the defensive end Spencer Hawes could be looking like a real NBA player for the first time in his career. Maybe one of the funnest matchups to keep an eye on in Utah’s home opener will be tweeners Paul Millsap and Thaddeus Young trading shots.

And speaking of ‘contenders’ (Bulls at Clippers, 10:30 PM EST)

The over/under on how many times you hear “This team could be a contender come spring” is set at 20. Per quarter. Nevertheless, it will be a blast to watch. You can bet on it. There’s already one MVP in it and two more that stand pretty good odds to challenge for the award in the future — Chris Paul already has, and Blake Griffin is the right type in the right size market, with a little more experience. If you miss this one you could be kicking yourself for a week.

15 Footer, Starring The Dwight Howard Love Triangle

Photo via @wilk3sy on Flickr.

This won’t be awkward at all (Nets at Magic, 7:00 PM EST):

If you watch this one, be prepared for a lot of talk about Dwight Howard’s future. Deron Williams is all but begging his front office through the media to get him more help at this point, and it couldn’t be more obvious whom he’s talking about. The Magic fans won’t be terribly appreciative of this spectacle, and neither will Williams’ teammates, who can’t possibly take his comments as anything but a diss, despite his best efforts to couch them in “My guys are great role players but I WANT MOAR STARZZZZZ!”-type qualifiers. I guess there’s a basketball game between these teams tonight also, but don’t expect anyone to talk about it tomorrow. The Magic are pretty mediocre and totally uncertain about the future because of the Howard situation; the Nets are truly bad, and with Brook Lopez hurt, expect lengthy stretches of Johan Petro guarding Howard, which…yeah. Actually, here are the real winners of this game: Dwight Howard fantasy owners.

Too old? (Spurs at Rockets, 8:00 PM EST):

The Spurs have been written off all offseason as too old, too broken-down. But they’ve blown out the Clippers and Grizzlies, two teams everyone loves to mention with the contenders. The Spurs’ fortunes rest on their ability to manage the minutes of their aging stars, and the convincing nature of their two season-opening victories has allowed them to do just that. The Rockets match up pretty well against them, however, with Kyle Lowry facing off against Tony Parker, Kevin Martin vs. Manu Ginobili, and Luis Scola vs. Tim Duncan. This should be a good one.

The Hangover, Part III (Mavericks at Thunder, 8:00 PM EST, TNT):

The burning question of the young 2011-12 season: what the hell is going on with the Mavs? Some growing pains (or at least transition pains) were expected as the defending champs try to adjust to life without Tyson Chandler and with Lamar Odom. Odom hasn’t been good in Dallas’ first two games, but the blame can’t be placed on his shoulders. The team as a whole hasn’t just looked off, they’ve looked awful, and they’ve been rewarded for their efforts with two blowout losses at the hands of the Heat and Nuggets. Their quest to quell doubts about their ability to repeat doesn’t get any easier tonight. Yesterday’s (probably overblown) Durant-Westbrook altercation notwithstanding, the Thunder have played like the contenders everyone expected them to be. This game should tell us a lot.

Jimmer! (Oh, and Derrick Rose, I guess) (Bulls at Kings, 10:00 PM EST):

Speaking of playoff-condending teams that have looked a bit off coming into the season, the Bulls visit Sacramento and attempt to get back on track after a loss to the Warriors on Tuesday. The Kings are good—not “make the playoffs” good, but “they have some guys who are a pain for good teams to deal with” good. DeMarcus Cousins has impressed early, and the Bulls’ perimeter defense will be tested tonight by Marcus Thornton, Tyreke Evans, John Salmons, and most importantly, JIMMER!

Dre Day (Nuggets at Trail Blazers, 10:00 PM EST):

The only game on tonight’s docket between two undefeated teams. Blazers-Nuggets is usually a fun matchup regardless, but both teams have looked significantly better in the early going of the season than most people predicted. Two polarizing Blazers, Andre Miller and Rudy Fernandez, return to the Rose Garden tonight. New Blazers point guard Raymond Felton faces off against a Nuggets team rebuilding around the rest of the pieces he was traded there with. Also, Gerald Wallace.

Evil big markets (Knicks at Lakers, 10:30 PM EST, TNT):

Two prospective contenders, two of the markets most vilified over the five-month lockout, two sets of questions. The Lakers opened the season with close losses to the Bulls and Kings before blowing out a terrible Utah team; this is their fourth of five games without a suspended Andrew Bynum. The Knicks pulled out an opening-day win against the Celtics but were beaten pretty handily last night in Oakland. Neither team is particularly deep at the moment, which can only mean one thing: Troy Murphy! Mike Bibby! It’s the Knicks and Lakers on TNT!


For Spurs, Graceful Aging Will Depend On Young Legs

Photo from halfrain via Flickr

Apart from being a playoff re-match and a season opener, Monday’s Spurs-Grizzlies game was also the much anticipated debut of exciting rookie/savior of humanity Kawhi Leonard.

Billed as an athletic defender with contagious high-energy and virtually nothing to offer offensively, Leonard shockingly displayed athletic defense with contagious high-energy and virtually nothing to offer offensively. But though it seems (after just 13.5 minutes, plus another 20 against the Clips Wednesday, it should be noted – this is even more premature than a Laker Lamar Odom trade) that Leonard is who we thought he is, he offers a plethora of intriguing options for a Spurs squad whose bench unit has become quite predictable. Andrew McNeill had an excellent take about the new, Kawhi-laden Spurs rotation over at 48 Minutes of Hell:

Instead, the Spurs rotated three players at the small forward position on Monday night, starting richard Jefferson and bringing on Leonard as a substitute. In the second quarter, James Anderson entered the game for Jefferson. Coach Pop also played Jefferson alongside Leonard for stretches in the second half.

If anything, this gives the Spurs flexibility with their lineups. You have three players splitting time at the same position, who can all share the floor together if need be (Anderson at the 2, RJ at the 3 and Kawhi at the 4). Having all three players comfortable with a variety of situations safeguards the team in instances where foul trouble is an issue or, as should be the case this season, rest is needed for fatigue or injury. Playing Anderson at the 3 also allows for room when Gary Neal returns to the lineup.

via Looking at the Spurs’ rotation after one game.

Flexibility is always a good thing to have, specifically in the case of the Spurs, who were ultimately knocked out of the playoffs because of their inability to adjust to a very specific style of play. By adding the rookie Leonard and two de facto rookies in James Anderson (whose rookie season was thrown out of rhythm due to injury) and Tiago Splitter (whose rookie season was thrown out of rhythm due to a reluctant Pop), the Spurs are banking on the ability of younger legs to make that switch. Despite the rarity that is youngsters getting big minutes for San Antonio, the current roster make up pretty much ensures that these folks get some burn.

The big knock against the young trio is offensive ineptitude. While Anderson has definitely shown that he can spot up from behind the arc and may even have potential as a tunnel-vision slasher, Leonard and Splitter’s offensive abilities can be pretty neatly summed as mobile rebounders/pick setters who can make shots under the rim and not much more (though we are hopeful that reports of Leonard’s offseason work on his jumper are more than your typical “best shape of my life” banter).

However, if last season is any indication, the Spurs don’t need too much offense from their second unit. Between shooters such as Neal and Bonner, the still fearsome three-pronged attack of Tony-Manu-Timmy, DeJuan Blair’s offensive rebounding chops, and whatever they  can get from Jefferson and the youngsters on a given night, the Spurs are (or, at least, hope they are) more or less set, scoring wise. Remember, even though it’s tough to think about San Antonio as a defensively challenged squad, but last year’s team finished 2nd in the league in offensive efficiency vs. 11th in the league defensively.

Even though said offense declined over the course of last season, inconveniently reaching its low point against Memphis, the Spurs are clearly willing to take a hit on that end of the court if it means tightening up the screws on defense. And the defense was clearly lacking against Memphis as well, with just one Tim Duncan not duplicate  enough to guard two elite big men (though I would give anything to see Timmy try and deal with the Z-Bo/Gasol combo on his own in his prime).

While offensively, trading in Hill’s total package (a gifted, if not elite, offensive player who can both create for himself and complement others) and the retiring Antonio McDyess’ reliable 15 footer for Anderson’s hopeful scoring chops and the Leonard/Splitter brickfest is quite hurtful, it gives the Spurs an entire new dimension defensively. Splitter immediately becomes the Spurs’ secondary defensive big, the only other player on the roster who even begins to approach Duncan’s size and mobility (yes, mobility, even at his age). Just throw out the name “Matt Bonner” on a Spurs message board if you don’t know how important that is. Leonard, on the other hand, was created straight from the Shawn Marion/Gerald Wallace mold, with alien arms and hands to go with scintillating athleticism and a burning passion for stopping other players from scoring. Two games and two comfortable wins in, the youngsters are already showing their worth, if you look hard enough.

During the second quarter against the Clippers on Wednesday, Tiago Splitter was guarding Blake Griffin in the post. Griffin passed out to Mo Williams, and set himself up for a re-post, but he never got the ball – Splitter pounced on the entry pass, left the ball in the hands of T.J. Ford, ran down the right flank and got the ball back an easy layup. Similarly, twice against Memphis, Kawhi Leonard sagged away from his designated man to pick off an unsuspecting Grizzlies driver and go off in the other direction.

While Kawhi missed both layups, the idea behind these three plays is vital – they’re the sort of athletic, transition setting defensive moves that the Spurs got too little of last year, especially from their frontcourt.  And they’re the sort of moves Leonard and Splitter make on the regular.

The Spurs can’t get anywhere without major contributions from the Big Three, whose decline is an entirely different story than what we are touching here ( if you are interested in that aspect of the 2011-2012 Spurs, I strongly recommend this brilliant Duncan-centric piece from Aaron McGuire regarding the Spurs’ offense and where it may suffer). But for all the death talk, these three players were the core of a 61 win team just one season ago. Father time sometimes offers up a slippery slope, but in one year increments, the Spurs can hold on.

Whether they want to do more, though, is contingent on their supporting cast, one that was revamped in a young direction that is intriguing both in its nature and in its direct contradiction with the Pop we thought we knew. As if Kawhi Leonard wasn’t fascinating enough.

The Charlotte Bobcats Refuse To Die. OK, They Refuse To Die Again.

Photo from joka2000 via Flickr

We’re somewhere between 2 and 3 games in to the season, which makes drawing conclusions quite a pointless affair. However, we need to talk a little bit about the Charlotte Bobcats, just to be sure they don’t slip back into oblivion before we manage to.

Somehow, despite knowing going in that they are expected to be horrendous at best, the Bobcats have refused to play the part. After pulling out a tight if disgusting win against the Milwaukee Bucks, facing the big bad Heat last night, the Bobcats started the game with an 11-0 run and leading for most of the game before bowing out to just too much Big Three. And while we’re not one’s to pump up the Bad News Bears narrative, something about Paul Silas’ merry band of misfits makes sense in a perverted, lottery-bound sense.

Sheer statistical dominance means we are obliged to start with Boris Diaw. Thrust into a starting center position to which he gives up several inches but exceeds by a few hundred pounds, Diaw started his season with two straight dominant all around performances. Diaw racked up 16 points, 16 boards and 8 assists (to go with 6 turnovers, but you take it), neatly complementing his 9-11-9 opening night. While Diaw is probably past the point in his career where he’s a nightly triple-doublt threat, we have seen this Boris before. Though we have lamented his devolution infinite times, that player lies somewhere beneath those layers of fat. Maybe, just maybe, all Boris needed was yet another contract year, in a sickening yet uplifting display of reverting to a previously set peak.

However, several years of watching basketball, 9 of them including Boris, have us somewhat skeptical of a miraculous cash-induced turnaround. Neither do we want to pay much attention to Corey Maggette unfortunately lounging about in Charlotte’s small forward spot. These are just the unfortunate remains of a veteran stripdown that is only mostly complete. What truly rocks our socks about this team is the way that it has embraced the essence of lottery-dwelling.

Too often, we see rebuilding squads ignore their youngsters for the sake of middling chumps, guys who coaches prefer because they’ve known their names longer, or because they make mistakes for the 100th time instead of the 3rd. Why, just right now, a few League Pass clicks away, Tyrone Corbin is stubbornly refusing to play thrilling lottery pick Alec Burks for the exciting likes of an inconvenient Josh Howard and a near comatose Raja Bell.

Silas is having none of that. Part of this is by necessity, of course – Charlotte has just 5 roster players above the age of 25 – but giving minutes to Byron Mullens in the NBA, in the year 2011, is something very few coaches would willingly do, even if the guy they’re keeping on the bench is DeSagana Diop,

And yet, there’s Byron, all frightened 7 feet of him, playing crunch time minutes against Miami – and doing stuff. Mid-range jumpers, fighting (and eventually losing out, but we’re optimists) for rebounds. He may still look like a confused skeleton, but for a measly 2 night sample size, he’s a confused skeleton that belongs.

Mullens is the most extreme example, just because he’s shown nothing in the past beyond being Byron Freaking Mullens, but this is going on throughout Charlotte’s roster. D.J. White continues to get credit after last year’s post-all-star stretch showed that he’s not just a per-minute wonder; Derrick Brown has yet to do anything with actual minutes, but he’s finally getting them; Kemba Walker is such a fearless fiend that if he asked me to take a 40 footer with Dwight Howard guarding him for the fate of the game, I’d be hard pressed to tell him he’s pre-destined to fail; and Bismack Biyombo may or may not be awful at basketball, but he also makes pogo sticks look like peppermint sticks without the peppermint. Neither of them is actually good, but all of them could be, and all of them are trying. More importantly, all of them are getting the chance to try.

But above all, we have the early buds of the potential evolution of D.J. Augustin and Gerald Henderson. Both players have had strong showings on an NBA-level before, and both come with their reservations – if we crowned Augustin for every bombastic showing gone awry we’d have more monarchies than an HBO fall lineup, and for all of Henderson’s heroics he’s still banking way too much on that long 2 rattling in.

But watching the game, seeing the confidence with which Augustin pulls up for 3s that has only occasionally been part of his arsenal, the calm in Henderson’s strut as he steps into a go ahead 3 with 12 seconds left against the Heat, one can’t help but feel optimistic about both players’ futures. The two aren’t doing things they shouldn’t be capable of – they’re just doing more of what we already knew they were good at, with just a bit of growth thrown in for good measure. Sample size be damned, isn’t that what improvement is all about?

The conclusions this article seemingly derives are about 2 months premature, if not more. This team is still 3-4 major pieces from even pretending to do something, even if everything we saw is sustainable and not even Mullens’ mid-range magic is a fluke. However, if two games ago the Bobcats were in Nowhere land, their two young guards have at the very least identified an actual highway with an actual destination.

Norris Cole Vindicates That Which Took Miami Too Long To Find Out

Photo from weston via Flickr

Last summer, Pat Riley pissed everybody off.

Most people were angry because of the way he packaged 2 of the 3 best players on the planet to go with an elite power forward, all free agents, with a flick of his wand. But those who didn’t find that particular coup offensive enough to hate the Heat and everything for which they stand were angry at the way things were handled after LeBron James declared where talents will be taken.

By connecting on a swing for the fences, it was clear that Riley transformed the Heat into a “win-now” team, and teams as such usually try to load up on helpful veteran players. Things like championship know-how and “HE’S BEEN THERE BEFORE!!” are vague, somewhat cliché quantities, but they sell to management and fans alike while helping out on the court when you’ve already played 90 games this year and all you want to do is spend Memorial Day in bed. When Pat Riley’s smug smile swiveled away from the Jim Gray on his screen and towards the Udonis Haslem and Mike Miller in his phone book, it was this thought that was prevalent.

But as he moved on from James Jones to Zydrunas Ilgauskas, from Eddie House to Juwan Howard, from Erick Dampier to Mike Bibby, the muffled sound of bench-filtered redundancy was heard throughout the land. There comes a point where more veterans and more smarts just can’t compete with honest-to-goodness talent, and while there was very little talent actually available, it sure didn’t seem as if Riley was intent on finding it. Actions like the waiving of Da’Sean Butler, an athletic forward who dominated at West Virginia before a torn ACL killed his draft stock, and Patrick Beverley, an undersized then-22-year-old point guard who may or may not be an NBA caliber defender and shooter weren’t mistakes, per se, but they showed a disturbing lack of vision. Sure, Juwan Howard might be better suited as a 12th man, but do you really need a 12th man? If you already won the jackpot, is it so imprudent to tack on a few convenient  low-risk high-reward wagers, just for kicks?

It’s hard to say that roster spots 8-through-12 were the Heat’s downfall in the 2011 Finals – that had much more to do with the baffling disappearance of roster spot 1 and the unfortunate injuries to roster spots 4 and 5. But by settling on known quantities, Riley set a ceiling to his year 1 upside. Sure, that ceiling was nearly too high to recognize, but it was an unnecessary limitation. The odds of Butler or Beverley contributing last June were slim to none, but under no conceivable scenario are they worse NBA players than the rotting corpse of Jamaal Magloire, and they sure have a better chance of being passable or more in 2014. I assume Riley doesn’t want his little experiment over by then.

Norris Cole won’t be over by then. Norris Cole won’t be over, ever.

The decision to play Norris Cole major minutes right off the bat wasn’t under Pat Riley’s jurisdiction. Similarly, Riley had no way of know that the Cleveland State product would play a major role in clinching a challenging match against a very good (albeit injured) team in just the second game of his pro-career.

But what Riley did in drafting Norris Cole – furthermore, in trading into the first round in order to draft him, thus guaranteeing him a pro contract instead of a potential repeat of the Butler-Beverley fate – is what he should have done all along. On a roster that is bound by salary cap law to include multiple minimum salary players, it is important to remember that not all minimum salaries are created equal. For every 15 year veteran who hasn’t been good since 2008 there is a second round draft pick with legit NBA game; for every scrub from the bottom of last season’s roster who is kept in the name of continuity there is a litany of D-Leaguers who are just waiting for a call up.

Riley could have easily stayed in the warm arms of the second round of the draft, predisposed on waiving whoever it is that he picks, and signed Jamal Tinsley to be his backup point guard, before finding out that Tinsley isn’t good anymore and moving to the next 34 year old with character issues. In fact, the 2010 version of Riley probably would have. But he didn’t, and though it’s very early returns we are looking at (Cole has had one average game, one great game, and one bad game so far), it seems that the benefits are ripe for the taking.

Hopefully, this can be a lesson both to Riley and to all other NBA GMs. Taking chances with youngsters – 2010 draft pick Jarvis Varnado’s rights are still held by the Heat and he’s playing very well for my own Hapoel Jerusalem, thank you very much – instead of scurrying the sewers for yet another stopgap is, at best, a wash in the short term, but can bring in the sort of long-term impact that your veteran know-how guy will be watching from his retirement home.