First Cup: Tuesday

  • Michael Lee of The Washington Post: The Washington Wizards are off to their worst start in franchise history, and with each loss Coach Flip Saunders and his players find it harder to explain or excuse the struggles. They are the third-youngest team in the NBA, with an average age of 25.02, and eight players on the roster have fewer than three years of experience. But while youth and inexperience have contributed to the Wizards’ 0-8 record, several scouts and league executives believe the problems run much deeper than the usual bumps that come from rebuilding. The Wizards, they argue, suffer from a lack of overall talent and a toxic culture of losing that has prevented the growth of their developing players. ... An Eastern Conference assistant general manager echoed that the Wizards need to establish a culture of accountability and high character to deliver a successful rebuild. “No team in the league, if the environment was good, would be 0-for-the-season,” he said. “Whatever the optimum each guy has, it’ll never be realized when it’s dysfunctional. The talent on that roster can’t win. You can’t win with Andray Blatche. I don’t care what anybody says. He has talent. He has some talent. But tell me where he’s won. . . . John Wall is a young player. Where’s the veteran leadership for those guys? Gilbert [Arenas] was the former example. What kind of example was that?”

  • Craig Stouffer of the Washington Examiner: Flip Saunders doesn't fear for his job, and both he and the Wizards seem determined to stick to the painful process of trying to rebuild with him as coach. But outside of Verizon Center, there is a growing sense that the only way for the NBA's most woeful franchise to break free of the losing culture that has engulfed it is through change. "Those guys need a new voice," one NBA agent told The Washington Examiner via text during the Wizards' 92-73 loss to Minnesota on Sunday, which extended a franchise-worst start to the season to 0-8. "Looks bad. Time for Flip to go," another agent said. ... The reality is that one of the biggest obstacles to parting ways with Saunders is the Wizards' financial obligation to a coach who is in the third season of a four-year, $18 million contract. Wizards president Ernie Grunfeld's contract expires at the end of this year. "If they had their way," the third agent said, "they would go the whole season without a change because any way you look it, they're duplicating another half a million or more in salary. They may not have that choice."

  • Rick Morrissey of the Chicago Sun-Times: The producer held up a hand. “Rule No. 1 in Hollywood: If you can get Schwarzenegger, you get Schwarzenegger,’’ he said. I was reminded of this the other day when Magic center Dwight Howard reiterated his desire to be traded. If you’re the Bulls and you can get Howard, you have to get Howard, right? You’ll notice the previous sentence is a question, not a statement. That’s because I’m conflicted. Columnists aren’t supposed to be conflicted. I am. I like this Bulls team. A lot. I like the idea of building something from scratch, meaning the draft, and not from scratch, meaning money through mega-free agency. This team is the anti-Heat. Miami bought LeBron James and Chris Bosh to go with Dwyane Wade. The Bulls drafted Derrick Rose, Luol Deng and Joakim Noah. That doesn’t make the Bulls nobler. The system embraces both approaches. But there’s something almost quaint about an NBA team that was built the way the Bulls were built and that plays as hard as the Bulls play. That’s nice. But we’re talking about Dwight Howard here! Howard and Rose on the same team! And there you have the raging conflict inside your friendly neighborhood columnist as he watches the Bulls thrash the lowly Pistons by 24 points on a Monday night in January. I’d like to see how far this team could go as constituted, especially with Carlos Boozer playing as well as he did against Detroit (23 points, eight rebounds). Then again, I’d like to see Howard in a Bulls uniform.

  • Frank Isola of the New York Daily News: Amar'e Stoudemire used to lead the Knicks in scoring. Now he leads them in most intriguing trade scenarios. Stoudemire, whose name surfaced last month in reports involving Chris Paul and the New Orleans Hornets, is also being mentioned as a possible partner in a trade to Orlando for Dwight Howard. “I don't worry about that stuff,” Stoudemire said on Monday. Howardreiterated to the Orlando Sentinel on Sunday that his goal is to play in a large market and has identified the Lakers, Mavs and soon-to-be Brooklyn Nets as prospects. The Knicks would make sense except for the fact that it is unlikely the Magic would do a deal for Stoudemire, an Orlando native, because his contract is not insured. “Amar’e is an unbelievable player but his name hasn’t come up,” said one Orlando official. ... But if the Magic elect to trade its franchise center before the March deadline, the Lakers may be the best option because they have Andrew Bynum. Bynum does have a history of injury problems but there is talk of the Lakers trying to work the same three-team deal with the Magic that they nearly pulled off with the Hornets for Paul. The trade would include the Lakers’ Pau Gasol heading to Houston and the Rockets sending Luis Scola, Kevin Martin and of course Bynum to Orlando for Howard. Unless Howard changes his mind, something he is known to do, the Magic will probably following the lead of Denver and Utah, which separately traded Carmelo Anthony and Deron Williams last season rather than running the risk of both leaving via free agency the way the Cavs lost LeBron James and Toronto lost Chris Bosh.

  • Jarry Zgoda of the Star Tribune: On Sunday, Timberwolves coach Rick Adelman remarked how well the basketball moved in a victory over the winless Wizards in Washington. Kevin Love, in a postgame comment he clarified as "just kidding," attributed that fluidity to injured Michael Beasley's absence. On Monday, Adelman was asked about Love's comment. "I think all the players, coaches and myself, we're all in this together," said Adelman, who said he wasn't aware of Love's comment. "To put our offensive struggles on Michael is not really very realistic. The whole team has struggled and everybody on this team, we all have to look at each other and ask how we're going to get better. Everybody has their own little quirks, and I can name a lot of guys who haven't moved the ball for a lot of reasons. Our turnovers, our guys are trying to do some things maybe they can't do. They have to learn what that is, and Michael is no different in that area. We've got to trust each other and know that we've got each other's back." ... Until his injury, Beasley had started the Wolves' seven games. Adelman was asked before Monday's game at Toronto whether he has considered converting Beasley to a sixth-man role that might better suit his, uh, offensive proclivities. "I've talked about that since the summer," he said, referring to internal team discussions. "Right now, we're just trying to get going in the season. That's something we've always talked about because we weren't sure how we were going to play. But it's something we're going to address. We're going to look at everything."

  • Colin Stephenson of The Star-Ledger: Deron Williams has been open about his frustration with the Nets’ struggles but he made a conscious effort to project more positive body language tonight against the Atlanta Hawks. Even though the Nets lost again — their eighth loss in 10 games and third in three games against Atlanta — Williams talked about some of the positives from their 106-101 setback at the Prudential Center. “We had a lot more fight today, so there’s a lot of good things we can take away from this game,” Williams said. “Hopefully, we can build on it for this road trip, and get some wins on the road.” But Williams wasn’t all that happy. He’s been frustrated with his own performance this season and he didn’t think he played well, despite posting a double-double — 15 points and 14 assists. “No,” he said, when asked if he was happy with himself. “Why? Because I had 14 assists? I was 6-of-17 from the field; I had six turnovers. So no, I’m not happy.”

  • John N. Mitchell of The Philadelphia Inquirer: In the future, it's not advisable for teams facing the 76ers to point to the Sixers' bench as a weak spot, because the bench will take it personally. Case in point: Monday's 96-86 win over the Indiana Pacers at the Wells Fargo Center. Word got to Sixers reserve guard Lou Williams - the methodology Williams did not reveal - that the Pacers viewed the group that calls itself "the field-goal unit" as the Sixers' weak link. Bad move. Williams, who finished with 13 points; Nikola Vucevic (11 points, eight rebounds); Thaddeus Young (12 points, eight boards, and four drawn charges); and Evan Turner (five points and five rebounds) proved to be the difference Monday night. They are the main reason the Sixers have won five consecutive games and are off to their best start since they opened the 2001-01 season by winning 10 straight. "Their game plan was to dominate our second group," Williams explained. "We kind of took offense to that, so I think we kind of came out a little juiced up more so than in other games, and we were able to sustain leads and kind of create some separation in the second quarter."

  • Bob Cooney of the Philadelphia Daily News: Last night, the Indiana Pacers were without leading scorer Danny Granger, as he was felled by a bout with food poisoning. It continued a strange trend of opponents missing games against the Sixers. The Utah Jazz were without starting forward Al Jefferson when it was announced just before game time that he had sprained an ankle. Golden State's high-scoring guard Monta Ellis was unavailable the next night while attending his grandmother's funeral. In New Orleans a couple of days later, Hornets starting forward Trevor Ariza was sidelined with a groin injury. Two nights after that, the Detroit Pistons were shorthanded when two starters were out, as Ben Gordon attended to a personal matter and Rodney Stuckey was sidelined with a strained groin. Then last night the Granger announcement came just before the game. In a season that is compressing 66 games into 123 days, strange things are sure to happen. This could be the first of many examples.

  • Mike Wells of The Indianapolis Star: It was anybody’s guess how the Pacers would play without leading Danny Granger (food poisoning) and sixth man George Hill (back) against the 76ers. The Pacers fell behind by double digits multiple times, did a good job fighting back to make things interesting, but they could never go on a big run and seriously threaten Philly. “It was a missed open shot or a missed free throw or just a bad possession offensively,” Pacers coach Frank Vogel said. “We kept grinding, kept grinding but just couldn’t turn the corner.” There were also turnovers at the wrong times. The Pacers turned the ball over five times when the 76ers went on a 10-0 run in the third quarter. The Pacers got to within six with about two minutes remaining, but Roy Hibbert couldn’t convert a three-point play, Darren Collison threw a bad pass and Paul George, who had a team-high five turnovers, was called for an offensive foul.

  • Ryan Wolstat of the Toronto Sun: It might not be the prettiest basketball to watch, but Dwane Casey has the Raptors playing a style of basketball that is getting results. The team is doing it with defence, namely relentless, aggressive play inside. It led to a lot of fouls, but it worked on Monday, resulting in a 97-87 win over the visiting Minnesota Timberwolves. Amir Johnson and Andrea Bargnani again were the best Raptors. Bargnani led all scorers with 31 points and added nine rebounds, while Johnson, his frontcourt mate, harassed superstar Kevin Love into a brutal night while excelling himself. Johnson scored a season-high 19 points, added 11 rebounds and bothered Love into a 3-for-16 shooting night. Toronto held the Wolves to 34% shooting from the field. Love refused to credit the Raptors for his “off-night” and while that was true of his 5-for-10 shooting from the line, Love was deceiving himself if he truly believed Johnson didn’t help keep him in check. “A cap on the rim, had nothing to do with them, just had to do with me,” Love maintained. “A lot of it was just easy little bunnies.”

  • Robert MacLeod of the Globe and Mail: Ricky Rubio’s eyes got as big as saucers as he took a look at the large media contingent lying in wait to speak with him before Monday’s game against the Toronto Raptors. He did an abrupt U-turn and disappeared behind closed doors. It was yet another smooth manoeuvre from the 21-year-old basketball prodigy from Spain, whose backcourt presence with the Minnesota Timberwolves this season has helped inject a buzz around the franchise not seen since the days of Kevin Garnett. That buzz invaded the Air Canada Centre for a game against the Raptors, who happen to have a Spaniard point guard of their own in Jose Calderon and is a close friend of Rubio’s having played together for years on the Spanish national team. The two went out for dinner in Toronto on Sunday night after Minnesota arrived in town following an afternoon game in Washington against the Wizards. Calderon picked up the tab. Calderon was hoping for a more favorable disposition in the game – and he got it in the form of a satisfying 97-87 Toronto victory over Minnesota (3-6) that snapped a two-game losing skid for the Raptors (4-5).

  • K.C. Johnson of the Chicago Tribune: Rest assured that as Joakim Noah continues to search outward for rebounds, the fifth-year center also is looking inward. Long one of the team's most self-critical players, Noah knows his foul-plagued start to the season has lacked. "I need to play better," Noah said simply. Noah entered Monday averaging 7.7 points and 7.4 rebounds with just one double-double, achieved last week against the Pistons. He finished with four points and eight rebounds against Detroit on Monday night. After nine games last season, Noah had posted six double-doubles. "When Jo is playing great defense and is active, that's when he plays well offensively," coach Tom Thibodeau said. "Running the floor, there's not a better athlete at the center than Jo. He'll be fine. He has to keep working." Noah's foul trouble has limited him to 26.2 minutes per game, down from 32.8 last season. He averaged 10.4 rebounds last season.

  • Vincent Goodwill of The Detroit News: When you're last in the league in scoring, it's natural to milk your best offensive player. For the Pistons, it's Greg Monroe, but coach Lawrence Frank isn't about to force the ball to his second-year center. Monroe is averaging nearly 16 points while shooting 57 percent from the field for a team that only puts up 84 points and shoots less than 42 percent. "He's averaging around 14 touches, which is 13 more than he got last year," said Frank to laughs from observers. "It's going to be a continued evolution." Frank was referring to Monroe's role last season, when he virtually got no plays called for him and only scored off offensive rebounds. To go from that to the sole focal point is more difficult than folks realize. "I wouldn't say it's a hard transition," Monroe said. "Last year it wasn't my role but this year it is, so I'll try to accept it."

  • Michael Cunningham of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution: Larry Drew has been pretty conservative with his starters’ minutes this season. Until tonight, when he suddenly decided to ride them and go all out to beat the Nets. The absence of Marvin Williams explains some of that but I thought the bench guys had OK stints in the first half, only to never be seen again (except for Zaza Pachulia). ... “Going into halftime, I was going to come out and see what happened and go off feel,” Drew said. “Once New Jersey made that run, I made a decision to ride the starters. I didn’t want to lose momentum. I went with feel. I kind of went with my gut.” ... “I understand in this short season, every game is important for us,” Joe Johnson said. “I’m willing to do whatever L.D. wants. We talked, and he understands my mindset. He knows what I’m willing to do what I have to as a player to help this team get better.”

  • Rick Bonnell of The Charlotte Observer: It looks like Gana Diop starting at center for the Charlotte Bobcats could be more than a one-game gig. Seven-footer Diop started Saturday vs. the Indiana Pacers to match up size-wise with Roy Hibbert. Diop didn't do a lot statistically (four points, one rebound, one block in 17 minutes), but coach Paul Silas was encouraged enough to start Diop on Monday against the New York Knicks. "We need what he can provide - the defensive abilities, the shot-blocking. He can't really block a lot of shots now, but if he loses the weight, down the line he's really going to help us," Silas said at morning shoot-around. Diop was out nearly a year, recovering from a ruptured Achilles tendon. He couldn't run for nine months, and his weight ballooned to about 305 pounds, 25 more than his ideal playing weight. Diop said he's down to 290 and plans to lose the other 10 quickly.

  • John Reid of The Times-Picayune: Hornets Coach Monty Williams paced in front of his bench a few times Monday night, pushing for his players to defend and make shots. Finally, they gave Williams sustained execution, and for a change they did not wilt under the pressure of trying to hold a fourth-quarter lead. Tired of losing, the Hornets came away with a 94-81 victory against the Denver Nuggets, ending a six-game losing streak. It was the Hornets first victory since Dec. 28 against the Boston Celtics at the New Orleans Arena. "I just thought guys stepped up and competed tonight," Williams said. "We talked about committing for four quarters, and we had some guys to knock down some shots." The Hornets (3-6) built a 21-point lead, and closed the game shooting 52 percent from the field, including 6-of-10 from 3-point range.

  • Christopher Dempsey of The Denver Post: Until his strained left heel heals enough to not cause him a world of hurt, Nene will do whatever he can to manage the pain. "Half the time when I play, it gets worse after the game," he said. Nene played in the Nuggets' game Monday night against New Orleans at the Pepsi Center. He missed three games because of the heel problem, including Saturday at San Antonio. To help him continue to play, the team's training staff will have Nene wear different shoes if necessary. He wore the Dwight Howard Adidas adiPower shoes Monday against the Hornets, hoping to keep the heel comfortable. The Nuggets opened a four-game homestand Monday, a stretch that has no back-to-back sets. Nene plans to rest the heel on days off. "We have a good eight days, four games here, where we can fit in this kind of plan," he said. "That's what we're going to do. It's hard. It's really tough to put your heel on the floor because it's ... so painful."