1. Bump Effect
What can your country do for you?
That's not the selfish way we're supposed to think, obviously, but that's indeed the effect wearing red, white and blue has had on several members of Kevin Durant's Team USA teammates through the season's opening month.
For years we've been schooled to believe that serious summer work inflicts an unavoidable physical and mental toll on NBA players in the ensuing 82 games. Strangely, though, it's Durant in the midst of an uneven launch to the new season -- with his 3-ball and his health -- after a run at the FIBA World Championship that pitched his stardom to a seemingly Teflon stratosphere. Which leaves some glory for his teammates for a change.
Excluding the obvious nomination of Derrick Rose, who has been playing at a legit MVP level for the Bulls after being deployed as more of a setup man at the worlds, no fewer than five of Durant's colleagues are "just coming into their own" in the words of Kevin Love, who happens to be one of the five.
This week's Weekend Dime is devoted to a breakout fivesome that is clearly relying on the common boost of increased self-confidence after the players' time working with Mike Krzyzewski and Coach K's staff, which we should also say does more effective teaching in the Team USA setting than it ever gets credit for:
Westbrook averaged fewer than 20 minutes per game for Team USA, less than both Rose and Chauncey Billups. Yet it seems safe to suggest that the practice-floor time alone he got against those guys -- as well as facing Rajon Rondo before Rondo's exclusion from the final 12-man roster that went to Turkey -- served as one of the helpful springboards for his leap into the league's deep (and growing) cast of killer new-era point guards.
The reality is that he's deferring to no one -- not even Durant -- and thus ranks as more of a score-first PG than anyone else in the elite at the position apart from Rose or Tony Parker. The Thunder, though, aren't about to complain. Not when Westbrook, playing with an aggressiveness probably only Rose can match, is averaging nearly 25 points to go with his 8.6 assists and converting so much better than he ever before from the field (.446) and the line (.872).
One scout I trust did voice some concern about Westbrook's floor game, suggesting that the 22-year-old's QBing has suffered some because he's looking so hard for his own shot and getting to the rim. The same scout, though, points out that Westbrook somehow looks even faster than he did before going away with Team USA.
The scout said: "He goes from a jog to full speed as fast as anyone. You could be running side by side with Westbrook and then he can be six feet in front of you just like that. His change of speed is just ridiculous."
The Grizzlies aren't often feted for their foresight, but Zach Randolph rose from the most skeptical of expectations to All-Star status last season after Memphis traded for him and now it's Gay giving a rare credibility boost to beleaguered Griz owner Michael Heisley with his undeniable leap since last season.
Improved shot selection. Increased focus. Better decision-making. Sustained intensity.
Gay is regularly lauded for noticeable improvement in all those areas by opposing coaches and scouts, many of whom were echoing the derision coming from the media after Heisley awarded the 24-year-old a five-year deal worth more than $80 million in free agency before Team USA's summer began.
The buzzer-beating jumper that felled Miami on Nov. 20 -- No. 3 in Gay's career -- is the standout moment from his good start. But the consistency Memphis is getting from Gay surely means more. From the field (.483), free throw stripe (.843) and 3-point line (.406), Gay has made dramatic leaps in all kinds of conversion opportunities while also ranking as one of just three players (along with Jeff Green and Durant) who plays 40 minutes per game.
"His confidence is so high," said one Western Conference scout. "You can see it. He's not taking as many contested shots. He's learned to read situations better. He's not taking as many possessions off. It's almost like playing in the worlds made him more aggressive and more mature."
As the rare member of Team USA who had played all the way into deep June, Odom figured to face the highest risk of succumbing to the mental or physical fatigue all GMs and coaches fear when they send their players off to a national team assignment in the summer.
One of our favorite lefties has instead responded with what has to rank as the sharpest start of his career. For maybe the first time in his 12 seasons, Odom was in full-go mode from the opening tip, stepping into the void created by Andrew Bynum's latest injury absence with off-the-charts shooting from the field (.581) and the 3-point line (.500) along with a willingness to guard any position on the floor.
L.A.'s uncharacteristic four-game skid -- something none of Phil Jackson's 11 title teams in Chicago or L.A. ever experienced -- doesn't change the fact that Odom has reached new levels of reliability. It's certainly probable that Odom's numbers will take a hit once Bynum returns and he inevitably goes back to the bench, but this Odom is on course for his first invite to the All-Star Game. Which would be an especially meaningful breakthrough given that it'll be played at Staples Center.
Love might be the biggest believer in the Team USA effect. At least that's the impression he leaves when you get a chance to ask what those 8.9 minutes per game he registered in Turkey did for his self-belief.
"I think we all just came into the season with a real confidence," Love said this week. "Not that I didn't have it before, but I walked into the locker room [for Wolves training camp] feeling like: 'OK. I'm coming back with a gold medal and I played an important part in that.' Playing with those guys, even in practice throughout the whole summer, you think: 'OK. I can play at the top level in the league.' "
It's a level of confidence that steeled Love for the humbling opening-night disappointment of being benched in the fourth quarter of an eventual home loss to Sacramento.
Love has since managed to persuade his demanding coach to bump his nightly minute allotment into the 30s. Now he looks like a guy reveling in the fact that Kurt Rambis and general manager David Kahn chose to keep him ahead of exiled Al Jefferson, complementing his ability to vacuum in every available rebound with a newfound decisiveness offensively that suddenly stretches beyond the 3-point line.
Said one Eastern Conference scout: "He looks to me like he realizes it's his team now. And that's fueling him."
It would be a stretch to suggest that Chandler, with Dirk Nowitzki playing as well at 32 as he ever has, is the Mavericks' MVP of the season's opening quarter.
Except that Nowitzki told me it's indeed Chandler.
With length, mobility and athleticism that complements Dirk better than any other center he's ever played with -- as well as some long-awaited good health and potentially career-altering success lately with his jumpers and free throws -- Chandler has quickly brightened the mood after a summer of profound basketball in Big D.
The 7-footer was initially greeted as somewhat of a consolation prize after Mavs fans were led to believe that Erick Dampier's cap-friendly contract could bring back something spectacular in a July trade, preferably the dependable perimeter-shot creator Dallas has craved for ages.
Just a few months later -- thanks largely, Chandler says, to his time with the national team -- Dallas has the defensive anchor and vocal leader it needed as much as it still needs a scorer who can create his own shot.
When the anticipated trade opportunities for that driver/scorer failed to materialize back in July, Mavericks owner Mark Cuban wound up choosing a Dampier-for-Chandler deal with Charlotte over the opportunity to snag Jefferson from Minnesota. Cuban spoke earlier this week of the organization's quiet excitement when reports started coming in from Mavs athletic trainer Casey Smith, who serves in a similar role for Team USA, about Chandler's (A) significantly improved health and (B) effective vocal leadership with Coach K's crew in spite of limited minutes.
Nowitzki and Jason Kidd naturally remain the Mavericks' most celebrated vets, but neither is noted for high volume in the locker room. Chandler, though, has filled that void, while also flourishing on the end of Kidd's passes the way he did playing alongside Chris Paul, which has spawned a new twofold panic in Mavsland: How catastrophic would it be if Chandler's historically problematic feet don't hold up and can Cuban find a way to re-sign the free agent-to-be after spending $55 million on the disappointing Brendan Haywood before the chance to trade for Chandler surfaced?
"It's just such a great learning experience and confidence builder," Chandler said of playing for his country. "I've always been a passionate guy and a vocal guy, but being a vocal guy for Team USA and seeing guys responding to what I was saying, I felt like: 'This is on the biggest level you can possibly be on.'
"I don't think, if I hadn't had that Team USA experience, that I would have been as vocal and successful doing some of the things I'm doing around here [with the Mavericks]."
2. One on One To Five
Q: Being on the team that has to pick up the pieces without LeBron James hardest situation you've ever been in as a pro?
A: Uh, no. Last year in D.C. [with the Gilbert Arenas gun incident] was probably the toughest thing that I've been through. The thing about this situation it's tough that I only got the opportunity to play with the guy for a couple months, but Byron Scott's résumé speaks for itself. You've still got Mo Williams. You've still got Andy [Varejao], myself, Leon [Powe]. You've still got J.J. [Hickson], who's a rising talent.
I like the players here. I like the coaching staff. I know things were said this summer about the owner after [the open letter Dan Gilbert wrote in response to LeBron's decision to sign with Miami], but he's shown me nothing but respect. It's a good place to be.
Q: You don't feel abandoned by LeBron's departure? You're not mad?
A: Obviously I wish I had an opportunity to play with him for more than two months. But I have no ill will towards him. I was happy to come to Cleveland for the opportunity I did have [with him]. He wants to win a championship, and he put himself in a really good situation to do that. Just like everybody else [in Cleveland], I thought he was staying. I wanted him to stay. But I can't be mad at him.
Q: Outsiders like me would have expected you, in your 30s, to be pushing for a trade once LeBron left. So, we have it wrong?
A: I really enjoy playing with these guys. Before training camp, I didn't know what to expect. But once I came here a couple of weeks before camp, I saw that the atmosphere was the same. Guys pull for each other in this locker room. I want to be here. It's not a bad situation at all.
Q: And you're really at peace if the second half of last season was your best shot at getting a ring?
A: Before last year, I was so bent on getting an opportunity to compete for a championship. That was the only thing really missing [from my career]. That was the one thing that was so frustrating in Washington. Every year, we kept saying that we had all this talent, but honestly [last season's trade to Cavs in February] was my best opportunity to win a ring.
[After] getting a shot, my whole mindset has changed. I had an opportunity. It didn't work out, but now I've got to go out there and continue to play hard. I can't always keep thinking, 'I need to be in this situation, I need to be in that situation.' I can't make any excuses.
Q: People probably forget that you've won a Sixth Man Award [back in 2004], but it's been a long time and you've been a starter ever since. How big an adjustment is it to come off the bench?
A: My role has changed, but it's not a role I'm uncomfortable with. It was a little different at first, but I've put that behind me. Like I said, I can't make any excuses about anything.
I have no problem going through this transition. I have no problem being that guy that [teammates] look up to -- the elder statesman on the team -- because I've been doing that for the last six or seven years. So it's something I'm accustomed to.
3. Thursday Night's 'Other' Big Game
Upset of the week: There actually were two Thursday night games on TNT.
One of the most overshadowed nightcaps in the history of televised basketball even managed to deliver a little history.
Golden State's Jeremy Lin logged just five minutes in the Warriors' 107-101 home loss to Phoenix. It was another rough ride for a raw kid who should probably be a third point guard instead of a backup at this early stage of his career, but the brief stint enabled the rookie from nearby Palo Alto to record his 12th appearance in an NBA game, making him the second most decorated Harvard alumnus the league has ever seen.
And playing in 32 more games will jump Lin to No. 1, because the exclusive Ivy League institution of higher learning -- ESPN's own smart guy, Ric Bucher, could only get into Dartmouth -- has sent only three of its former stars to the NBA.
No joke: It's easier to become president of the United States than make it to the NBA after attending Harvard. Eight ex-Harvard students have gone on to be elected president -- including a former Harvard Law student named Barack Obama -- but Saul Mariaschin (who played 43 games for Boston in 1947-48) and Ed Smith (11 games for New York in 1953-54) are Lin's only Harvard predecessors in the association.
The last NBA players before Lin from a school currently in the Ivy League were Matt Maloney and Chris Dudley in 2002-03, although Penn's Ed Stefanski (Philadelphia) and Princeton's Geoff Petrie (Sacramento) do serve as NBA general managers. Dudley's 886 career games out of Yale account for the most by any Ivy League product.
A school-by-school breakdown:
Current Ivy League Schools' All-Time NBA Players
|Brown (3): Johnny Bach, George Grimshaw and Mo Mahoney|
|Columbia (5): Jim McMillian, Walt Budko, Dave Newmark, Jack Molinas and Red Dehnert|
|Cornell (1): Nat Militzok|
|Dartmouth (7): Dick McGuire, Rudy LaRusso, Ed Leede, George Munroe, Walter Palmer, James Blackwell and Aud Brindley|
|Harvard (3): Saul Mariaschin, Ed Smith and Jeremy Lin|
|Princeton (9): Bill Bradley, Armond Hill, Geoff Petrie, Brian Taylor, John Hummer, Bud Palmer, Steve Goodrich, Michael Kearns and Ted Manakas|
|Penn (12): Corky Calhoun, Dave Wohl, Ernie Beck, Matt Maloney, Chink Crossin, Howie Dallmar, Jerome Allen, Bob Bigelow, Phil Hankinson, Ira Bowman, Tony Price and Jack McCloskey|
|Yale (3): Chris Dudley, Tony Lavelli and Butch Graves|
P.S. You had to know I couldn't possibly get through an item that has anything to do with the college game without at least mentioning my beloved alma mater. And Cal State Fullerton, which I like to refer to as the Harvard of the West for journalism schools, has sent 11 players to the NBA: Bruce Bowen (three rings with San Antonio), Bobby Brown, Greg Bunch, Cedric Ceballos (1995 Western Conference All-Star), Kevin Henderson, Ozell Jones, Richard Morton, Pape Sow, Henry Turner and Leon Wood (who started in the same backcourt as Michael Jordan on the 1984 gold-medal-winning Olympic team). I suppose I'm obligated to point out that there are no active Titans taking the court in the league at this precise minute apart from Wood, who's in his 15th season as a referee. But that's only because Brown has decided to play in Europe this season.
4. Marc's Quote
"We pretty much are agenda-less."
-- Boston coach Doc Rivers, pinpointing what he regards as one of the rarely discussed strengths that has enabled his veteran (some would say creaky) Celtics to supplant the audaciously assembled Miami Heat as the favorite in the East in a span of fewer than 20 games.
In a recent conversation about locker-room drama -- no shortage of which has been bubbling in Miami lately -- Rivers expounded on the Celts' ability to work through the creative tension every NBA team eventually faces which only served to illustrate how well Rivers understands and connects with his players.
"It's the teams that can deal with the drama and get over it and move on [that succeed]," Rivers said. "You're gonna have drama. You're gonna have something.
"You look at the Lakers. They had all kinds of stuff last year on and off the floor. And we were on a roll there for a while. But it didn't affect us much. We like each other, and we almost accept each other as family. And family, when you have a crisis, you yell at each other, you argue and then you still like each other. And you move on.
"That's more of the case here. The teams that aren't mentally strong enough to handle that are the ones that fall apart when drama happens. You can't win that way."
That's more of the case largely because of Rivers' ability to keep strong personalities from two generations so unified. Kevin Garnett summed up the respect Rivers commands from the Celts' 30-somethings (KG, Paul Pierce, Ray Allen and Shaquille O'Neal) as well as the next-gen crew (Rajon Rondo, Kendrick Perkins and Glen Davis) when he responded to the persistent chatter about Heat president Pat Riley hoping to steal Doc away this past summer by saying: "I told [team president Danny Ainge]: 'The day y'all get rid of Doc, I'll tip my hat to the Boston area [and] the Boston fans.' "
5. Western Conference
Have to do a quick follow-up -- purely in a bow to the relentless precision my engineer father demanded when I was a kid and he drew straighter right angles freehand than I could with a ruler -- on Nick Collison's contract extension in Oklahoma City:
The well-chronicled $6.5 million boost Collison received to his $6.75 million salary this season, by the letter of salary-cap law, is not officially referred to as a signing bonus, even though that's basically what it was.
I've been instructed to pass along that, in the most accurate technical terms, the final year of Collison's existing contract was "renegotiated" upward from $6.75 million to $13,270,000. He then, as stated, received a four-year extension worth $11 million and change.
But all the basic concepts covered in this cyberspace last week were accurate: Oklahoma City decided that the best use of its leftover $6.5 million of salary-cap space from the summer was paying it all to Collison now in exchange for a below-market extension that ensures Collison's cost-effective presence on the roster when Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and maybe even Serge Ibaka are all commanding big dollars in the midst of their own contract extensions.
Doing so, of course, means that the Thunder no longer have that cap space to increase their trade options between now and the Feb. 24 trading deadline. And if they're ever second-guessed for anything, it's their ongoing unwillingness to go out and trade for a productive veteran.
Yet those who've studied the machinations of Thunder general manager Sam Presti in building this team surely aren't surprised that he was willing to go to such lengths to keep a mere rotation player such as Collison. The reality in OKC is that (A) Presti places a high value on players he knows fit into the Thunder's culture and (B) Presti still has a good handful of trade assets even after surrendering the cap space.
Some numbers of note in the West this week:
0: None of Phil Jackson's 11 championship teams has endured a four-game losing streak, which is what the Lakers took into Friday's home date with Sacramento.
1: San Antonio's Tim Duncan is the only player in league history to post more triple-doubles in the playoffs (four) than he has in the regular season. Duncan's up to three after amassing 15 points, 18 rebounds and 11 assists in a romp Tuesday at Golden State.
9: History says that Duncan's Spurs might really regret not finding a way to win in Los Angeles against the Clippers on the night after his triple-double. The loss was San Antonio's first in nine road games this season and each of the four teams in NBA annals to open a season 9-0 on the road went on to win the championship. They are: New York (12-0) in 1969-70, Boston (10-0) in 1961-62 and 1960-61 and Houston (9-0) in 1993-94.
13: Russell Westbrook's 13 points in the third overtime Wednesday in Oklahoma City's eventual win at New Jersey fell just shy of tying the highest-scoring OT ever. Gilbert Arenas had a 16-point OT outburst in December 2006, narrowly besting the 15 points scored in an overtime by Earl Boykins in January 2005. Dirk Nowitzki (February 2009) and Butch Carter (March 1984) tied for third with a 14-point OT and in a random aside I can share that I attended Carter's summer basketball camp as an eighth-grader long before I ever imagined winding up as unofficial president of Dirk's fan club.
700: Houston's Shane Battier played in his 700th career regular-season game last weekend, making him the ninth player from Duke to reach that milestone in the NBA. The others are Jeff Mullins, Jack Marin, Mike Gminski, Danny Ferry, Christian Laettner, Grant Hill, Corey Maggette and Elton Brand. Only North Carolina (14) and UCLA (13) have produced more 700-game NBA players than Duke.
Veteran center Mikki Moore, who appeared in 23 games for Golden State last season before his release in January, has received interest from Hapoel Jerusalem in Israel and other teams overseas. But I'm told the 35-year-old remains hopeful of finding one more NBA job. Spanish tennis star Rafael Nadal wore a purple shirt with a yellow headband and wristbands throughout the year-end ATP World Tour Finals event in London, but countryman Pau Gasol said it wasn't any sort of Lakers tribute as far as he knows. Of greater concern, obviously, to Gasol: Pau has averaged just 14.3 points per game in L.A.'s four-game skid after averaging 22.1 points in the season's first 15 games.
6. Rudy Awakening
As Griz fans could tell you, Rudy Gay's game got a big boost in Istanbul. (See Box 1)
7. Eastern Conference
Only three times in NBA history has a team that made an in-season coaching change gone on to win the championship.
But Pat Riley has been the coach in two of those three instances: 1981-82 with the Lakers and 2005-06 with the Heat.
Miami could have improved to 17-3 after Thursday's trouncing of LeBron James' old friends in Cleveland -- as opposed to 12-8 -- and we still would be wondering whether Riley's return to the bench is looming. Chatter about that scenario is simply impossible to extinguish, no matter how many times someone credible says that Riley, at 65, wants no part of coaching this team. Erik Spoelstra knew the deal going in and has to live with it.
But I do believe that Spoelstra will manage to last (and deserves to last) the season, even if the Heat have more losing streaks and/or team meetings in their immediate future. Whatever extra Riley could conceivably coax from LeBron by holding him more accountable than any other coach ever has, I would imagine that Riles can also convince Heat owner Micky Arison that this season is the wrong season to play that card -- no matter what -- when Miami had holes in its roster even before the only two players it spent money on outside of its three stars (Mike Miller and Udonis Haslem) went down with long-term injuries.
It's equally true that the interim options out there make even less sense. I've been reliably advised that Isiah Thomas would crawl from Florida International University for the right to coach LeBron & Co. even if he had to accept a game-to-game contract. I've also been led to believe that longtime Riles pal Mike Fratello would be willing to come in whenever summoned and try to get LeBron and Dwyane Wade clicking. But how could anyone believe that a knee-jerk change like that -- given the resultant chaos and knowing that the new guy would have to endure all the same speculation about Riley coming downstairs -- could work out better than Spoelstra?
Coach Spo, as they call him down there, has years of tenure in the Heat's unique culture. He somehow manufactured 90 wins out of the last two seasons when the roster was in the process of being stripped down to make room for the pursuit of Chris Bosh and James. You can believe it whenever you read or hear that Riley wants him to succeed.
Getting full buy-in from LeBron will always be a challenge when there's no escaping the shadow of a coach with Riley's pedigree. The fact that Spoelstra's job security has been questioned so much already is likewise symptomatic of the unprecedented scrutiny this team faces in the modern-day era. But even as you acknowledge the more legit concerns about his playoff pedigree and whether Spoelstra can truly coach the faster game James and Wade almost certainly need to succeed, you inevitably still conclude that one interrupted season to try to make the pieces fit is the least he should be granted.
As long as he, and everyone else, understands that the Riley chatter is going to get cranked up again as soon as there's fresh trouble.
Some numbers of note from the East this week:
3: The trio of Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen were 150-50 in their first 200 regular-season games together just three off the pace set by the previous signature triumvirate in Boston. Larry Bird, Kevin McHale and Robert Parish went 153-47, with just as many titles, in their first 200 games together from 1980 to '83.
35: When Brook Lopez rang up 36 points and Amare Stoudemire answered with 35 in the Knicks' 110-100 victory Tuesday night over Lopez's Nets, it marked the first time in Madison Square Garden's 43 years of NBA play that each team's starting center cracked the 35-point plateau. MSG-goers hadn't seen opposing centers score at least 30 points since Patrick Ewing (40) and the Suns' Tom Chambers (31) did so on March 7, 1989.
5: The Knicks have won five straight road games, entering Friday's stop in New Orleans, for the first time since the 2000-01 season.
162: Hornets rookie coach Monty Williams was the 162nd coach to oppose Charlotte's Larry Brown when host New Orleans beat the Bobcats on Wednesday night. Only all-time wins leader Don Nelson has gone head-to-head against more NBA head coaches (172) than Brown.
10,000: With nine boards Tuesday night at Orlando, Detroit's Ben Wallace became just the 34th player -- and the only undrafted player -- to record 10,000 career records. Only four active players have reached that milestone: Shaquille O'Neal (No. 1 overall pick in 1992), Tim Duncan (No. 1 in 1997), Kevin Garnett (No. 5 in 1995) and Wallace.
There are no Weekend Dimes in late September. We were also consumed at the time by the prospect of Carmelo Anthony nearly getting traded to New Jersey, so there is no shortage of alibis here.
But I still regret not making more of Andray Blatche's Sept. 24 contract extension from the Wizards, mainly because it was the season's first example of the innovative template Oklahoma City just used to extend Nick Collison's contract last week (see Box 5).
By quietly taking its available salary-cap space left over from the summer and offering it to Blatche, Washington sprinkled an additional $5.6 million into what is now a five-year deal, bumping Blatche's salary for this season ($3,260,331) and next season ($3,520,661) to $5,904,152 and $6,442,083, respectively, then tacking on three more seasons at $7,118,502, $7,794,921 and $8,471,339.
Because of Blatche's reliability issues, though, Washington can count on more of the Collisonesque second-guessing the Thunder are getting for investing so heavily in a backup. Blatche can justify those dollars talentwise and through his offensive production as a 17-and-8 guy, but questions persist about his defense, focus and conditioning.
8. NBA Video Channel
9. Chatter Box
Randy Galloway thinks he's seeing the best Mavericks team since the glory-days squad of Blackman/Aguirre/Harper in the 1980s that had the mighty Lakers in its way. Marc Stein joins Galloway & Company on ESPN Radio in Dallas (103.3 FM) to explain why it's too soon to go that far.