1. The Scouts' Quarterly Report
It's a staple of the holiday season here in Weekend Dimedom.
Once every team in the league plays at least 20 games, calls go out to a handful of the NBA's weariest travelers -- advance scouts -- to get some of their candid insights on the opening fourth of the regular season.
The following survey of five scouts, who make their livings as courtside spectators at three to four games per week and who have been granted anonymity to speak freely, examine some of the league's leading developments so far:
Eastern Conference scout on how seriously to take the defense-first Mavs -- who've reeled off 11 wins in a row -- and a thirtysomething Dirk Nowitzki:
"The one thing I'd still worry about for them is whether they have enough shooters. When you get to the really big games, can DeShawn Stevenson and Caron Butler and Shawn Marion really space the floor for Dirk?
"But I think they're gonna be right there with San Antonio challenging the Lakers. They've got a lot of really good athletes. Tyson Chandler has been so good for them, on the floor and off the floor, and they're so big and strong. [Assistant coach Dwane] Casey has those guys running around all over the place [defensively]. They can really close the floor down.
"As for Dirk, when I watched him, his shots hit nothing. He doesn't even hit the rim now. He's always been able to shoot, but he must get better with age. I don't think he's going to lose it any time soon. He's not like one of those athletes who has to kind of learn how to make shots as he gets older. I don't see why he'd have much of a dropoff over the next few years."
"What race? It's not close right now. But you're asking a guy who likes Blake Griffin more than I've ever liked a Clipper.
"He's not as skilled facing the basket as Karl Malone was, but he's a more explosive Karl Malone. He's one of those guys like LeBron [James] that [opposing players] are nervous about being around because he puts his head down and he's so strong and explosive. He will dunk on you. He will hurt you.
"He's taller than I thought just watching him on TV. And I know he struggles sometimes offensively because he's a rookie, but he's got a great feel for the game. He can pass. Sometimes he gets going a little too fast, but he'll be a 20/10 guy for as long as he wants to be and as long as he can stay healthy."
"He's a worker from everything I hear, so I'd guess that his face-up game will improve as the years go by."
Western Conference scout on Carmelo Anthony's play and body language amid non-stop trade speculation in Denver:
"I don't think all the stuff swirling around has affected his overall play. He's still attacking the basket, getting to the foul line, scoring a lot of points. But his body language is another matter.
"It does seem to me like he allows his [displeasure] to show more ... slouching on the bench, head-shaking, waving teammates off. I don't think his basketball has fallen off. But his demeanor? He seems more worried about how things are affecting his game and less how they're affecting the Nuggets.
"That said ... they just won seven in a row. So it can't be affecting [the team] that much."
"I have to believe it's a blip. Obviously everyone is focusing a huge amount of attention on him [defensively]. Maybe it's his knee being a little hurt or maybe he's a little tired [from Team USA duty in the summer]. He hasn't really been hurt before. But he's just too good a player not to find a rhythm here soon.
"He's also a guy who can do other things now. Get to the line, rebound. I'm sure after Turkey that everyone thought he was just going to overpower the whole league, but I'm sure he's gonna get better as the season goes along.
"Their team's pretty well-defined around Durant and [Westbrook]. That team's been built around those two guys and not a lot of other guys who need the ball. If Westbrook was playing with a Ray Allen-type, it would be a problem because he's not going to distribute the ball very well. If they added another scorer in there, he'd probably get frozen out.
"But Westbrook is such a great talent. How do you reel him in? He's similar to LeBron in some ways. In the open floor, when he puts his head down, he's as explosive a player as there is in this league. If you're the other team you have to hope he's not having a good shooting night."
Eastern Conference scout on the Knicks' Amare Stoudemire (25.7 points per game) and Raymond Felton (18.6 ppg) ranking as the highest-scoring pair of teammates who switched teams this offseason ... ahead of LeBron James (24.1 ppg) and Chris Bosh (17.9 ppg):
"Felton's been as good as he can possibly be. Stoudemire's doing what he's done his whole career, so I'm not really surprised even though everyone said he'd miss Steve Nash. Amare's just got a great skill set.
"Felton's also benefited by playing with Amare. They've found a common ground. But he's shooting the ball well and he's become a better pick-and-roll player. I'd think after being in Charlotte under Larry Brown and now being in New York under Mike D'Antoni, it's like the floodgates have opened.
"Larry taught him the right way to play, but I'm sure Felton's thrilled to be in a situation where he's given the ball and you can shoot when you want to without being criticized too much and Amare will catch everything you throw to him whenever you need a bucket.
"Larry's a great teacher and taught him how to do the right things, but in that process he'll grind you down and break you down mentally to the point where you've had enough. He's always so tough on his point guards. But now the kid goes to this situation and it's completely the opposite. He's been schooled well and he's benefited greatly from the change of scenery.
"It also helps that the guys around them like [Danilo] Gallinari and [Landry] Fields and [Wilson] Chandler know their roles. But the thing with them is that those guys are logging a huge amount of minutes. They don't have a true backup point guard and they don't defend anybody. They're on the right track to go to the playoffs, but you're going to be able to score on them."
"I would say they've helped him be more confident. Face-ups, shooting off the glass, even his running hook shoot moving across the lane -- he's still not consistent on those shots, but he feels better about them. He's being more aggressive instead of waiting for the double team and trying to fight through it.
"But I think he has to be more in attack-mode offensively, because Vince [Carter] and Rashard [Lewis] aren't getting it done. I have to think [Magic general manager] Otis [Smith] is looking around for a trade. The guys around [Howard] haven't played as well as they did in previous years, except for Brandon Bass.
"Know who he is? Bass is like Udonis Haslem and Shaq [in Miami]. He can't make shots all the way out to [3-point range], but if you help off Bass to get to Dwight, when he's playing and he's confident he'll knock those mid-range shots down. When [Bass] only gets two or three shots a game, he's not a good shooter. But he's the only other Orlando guy who's active and physical."
Eastern Conference scout on the Heat's six-game winning streak since calling a post-game team meeting in Dallas and the early season criticism coach Erik Spoelstra has been forced to weather:
"I think best thing that could have happened is what happened. Pat [Riley] stayed quiet and Erik has been real vocal and forceful in saying, 'This is what we're going to do' and never backing down publicly. Now that they're having some success, I think that's helped his credibility on the outside, though I don't know if he ever really needed that.
"Pat really hasn't said anything since the season started. So to me it would have been more hurtful at the time [of the Dallas loss and reports of player dissatisfaction with Spoelstra] for him to come out of semi-hibernation and get back in the public eye. Spoelstra gained strength by doing all the talking.
"It's all been good for them. It looks like LeBron and D-Wade have quit trying to get everybody else involved and are just making it more of a two-man show. And Bosh is playing better. I think the other two guys have been playing better, so [Bosh's] shots have come a little easier and he's been a little more active trying to rebound the ball instead of just being a jump shooter."
"They're going to [O'Neal] right away when he's in there. They're trying to get him his touches early, and he seems like he's fairly healthy and in fairly good condition.
"The main thing is that he's got a lot of veteran players around him that are obviously very good players, so he can't get into the BS-ing that we've seen. I think [O'Neal] really respects those guys, so he's playing the best he can. I don't think he's always been in that situation [in] the last couple years. He really respects Doc [Rivers] and the group.
"And when Jermaine O'Neal comes back, they got bigs up the butt. They're going to be tough to deal with. They're old but they're experienced -- looks like a pretty darn good combo to me. KG is having the best year he's had in years. Ray Allen looks like he's 20. And [Rajon] Rondo is in a very, very good place. Age is overrated with them.
"Plus they've got a helluva coach. Obviously he has very good players, but they run great sets, great stuff out of timeouts, [Rivers has] great command of the guys. He's just a killer over there and he's got a helluva smart point guard, too."
Western Conference scout on the new up-tempo Spurs and how comfortable coach Gregg Popovich will be with playing at a faster pace in the playoffs:
"Even though Tim [Duncan] and Tony [Parker] are foundations for that team, it's still all about [Manu] Ginobili to me. When he's really healthy, they're really good. When he's so-so healthy, they're so-so.
"It'll be interesting to see how Pop does it in the playoffs. But I also think he almost has to [speed the game up]. With as many young guys as they have, they have to score more points than they used to. Defensively Pop can't choke down a game like he has in the past. You can't do as many schemes with a younger team. He has to simplify things, which probably means giving up more points than he wants to.
"If you look at the way the Spurs always played the Suns in the playoffs, it's never like they could really stop Phoenix, so they played faster. So he has [played at this pace] in stretches before. But he's doing it longer now because they can't scheme it up and get as many stops as they could with an older team. The only guy on their bench with any experience is [Antonio] McDyess."
2. One-On-One ... To Five
Five questions with Hornets guard Chris Paul:
Q: At 14-7, just focusing on what's happening on the court, how satisfied are you with the team after your first rough patch (3-6) of the season?
A: It upsets me because I hate to lose, but I understand it's a long season. It's a long season. That's why I didn't get too high when we were 11-1.
I'm happy. I'm happy. You've got to take the good with the bad. We're having a tough stretch right now, but we've got to keep working hard, work together and figure out how to right this ship.
Q: You mentioned [after Wednesday's win over Detroit] that people have been saying you've been playing "passive" during this little skid after such a great start. You obviously disagree?
A: I don't think I'm being passive. I just take what the defense gives me. At the end of the day, if I get into the lane and see three people [converging], that means somebody's open.
I watch every game that we play -- I watch it two or three times over again. I try to see where I could have taken a shot here or three. The thing about me is that I never force it. You know me, I'm trying to find guys, and I'm probably harder on myself than anyone if I pass up on a shot that I had. I got more confidence in my shot than anybody.
Q: How do you grade your own game personally through the first quarter of the season?
A: Maybe a B. Maybe like a B-minus or something like that. I'm probably averaging more turnovers than I ever have in my career.
Q: The last time I saw you [in mid-November], you talked about how there were points during the summer that you were really worried about your [surgically repaired left] knee ever allowing you to play your game again. How does it feel now?
A: The knee's good, but I can still stand to defend better. I've got to get my defense better because, I don't know, there's times when guys go by me and it's kind of frustrating. And I've got to get my turnovers down. I'm still working [on strengthening the knee], no question about that, or else I wouldn't have that frickin' knee brace on. But I have full confidence [in the knee]. It is what it is. One thing I'm never going to do is make excuses. When I play, it's like I don't have that knee brace, because I'm mentally strong enough to get myself through that.
Q: Do you still think there's room in this town to support the Hornets and the Saints?
A: Yeah, yeah, yeah. Definitely. They've done it. They've done it before. You've been down here when we had those [playoffs] games and the fans were giving me goose bumps. ... This city here has more than enough to support [both teams].
3. Open For Business?
The Hornets have not shied away from long-term contracts as part of their roster shakeup (Trevor Ariza and Jarrett Jack) while managing, in the short term, to drop nearly $4 million under this season's luxury-tax threshold. Sources close to the situation insisted to ESPN.com this week that first-year general manager Dell Demps will continue to have the latitude to make deals between now and the Feb. 24 trade deadline -- even to go over the luxury tax if the right opportunity presents itself -- because the Hornets belong to the league now.
Translation: NBA commissioner David Stern agrees that putting a good product on the floor is the fastest way to raise the value of the asset.
"We're going to continue to build this team for the long term," Demps said. "We're not going to make short-term decisions. There are always limits for any team, but I really don't feel like anything has changed since Monty and I started working together."
Head coach Monty Williams said he isn't expecting changes, either.
"From everyone I've talked to, we're not changing the way we do anything," Williams said.
Coach and GM, if that proves true, will continue to report primarily to team president Hugh Weber, with the league-appointed Jac Sperling -- whose primary assignment is making the franchise more attractive to prospective bidders (and preferably local bidders) -- serving as Stern's eyes and ears in the French Quarter.
The New Orleans native freely admits he's not a basketball guy, but Sperling counters by pointing out that he began a successful stint bringing the Minnesota Wild into the NHL in similar conditions.
"I didn't have a hockey background, either," Sperling said. "What you do is hire really good people. And Hugh has hired two really good people. You let them run it. You let them run it, you let Hugh run it, and that's what we're going to do here."
The commissioner is making similar vows. Should another trade be recommended by Weber and Sperling in the near future, Stern said this week, "then we're going to be approving it."
And the Hornets, sources say, are still looking for deals with vigor. One source close to the situation said they are "aggressively" trying to use the $9.7 million trade exception created in the recent deal with Toronto headlined by Peja Stojakovic and Jack to add "a significant player."
• To read the full Hornets Q and A, click here.
4. Dec. 15 Is Almost Here
Wednesday could (stress: could) be a big day in the NBA. Reason being: There are 108 players who signed free-agent contracts between July 1 and Sept. 15 who become eligible to be traded Wednesday because it's Dec. 15.
The reality, of course, is that front-office executives have been already been including such players in trade discussions when necessary in anticipation of the increased wheeling-and-dealing freedom.
Yet multiple teams have also been whispering warnings about the uncertainty regarding the conditions of the next labor agreement and how it could make several teams hesitant to take on long-term deals, since no one can fully forecast the down-the-road ramifications of taking on an expensive contract.
Bearing all of the above in mind, here are a few names from the list of 108 summer signees who hard as they might be to move in this climate do rank as available based on what we're hearing on the front-office grapevine: Orlando's J.J. Redick, Dallas' Brendan Haywood and Memphis' Tony Allen.
Some bookkeeping to add to the discussion with regard to where teams stood luxury-tax wise as of Friday morning:
LUXURY TAX TEAMS
|Team||Current Tax Bill|
Reminder: Where teams' payrolls wind up on the date of their final regular-season game, in relation to the league's $70.3 million luxury-tax threshold, determines the final amount of tax owed for 2010-11. Based on the eight teams in tax territory, each of the 22 teams currently under the tax line are on course to receive a rebate in July of $3.2 million per team.
Footnote: There are four teams under the tax by less than $2 million: Atlanta ($759,787), San Antonio ($850,591), Milwaukee ($1,256,819) and Philadelphia ($1,864,546).
Footnote II: New Orleans was nearly $700,000 over the tax line before its recent trade with Toronto headlined by Canada-bound Peja Stojakovic and Hornets-bound Jarrett Jack. The Hornets are now nearly $4 million under the tax, with the Raptors at $3.6 million under.
5. Marc's Quote
"He got some bad advice."
Mavericks owner Mark Cuban, when asked recently on ESPN Radio in Dallas (103.3 FM) if LeBron James should have given more than mere exploratory consideration to signing with Dallas as a free agent last summer.
And that wasn't the first time Cuban has publicly questioned James' wisdom in signing with the Heat. As recently as Nov. 27 -- before the Mavs scored a 106-95 victory over visiting Miami that sent LeBron's new squad straight into a postgame team meeting that lasted nearly 45 minutes -- Dallas' loquacious owner revealed that he had texted James and close friend Maverick Carter several times during the recruiting process to warn them "that no one had ever blown up a team down to the core and added a couple free agents and won a championship."
Like Miami's Pat Riley was trying to do.
"It's always taken somebody coming to a team to put it over the top," Cuban said that night, leaving little imagination required to know that he was suggesting James could have been that guy in Big D.
Yet it should be noted that Cuban has lobbed a few South Beach-bound bouquets in addition to the barbs, insisting that he would never write the Heat off purely because of a bad start after the Mavs "went 0-4 and wound up winning 67 games" in 206-2007. And this week Cuban has been walking around telling reporters in Dallas that the Heat are suddenly playing better than anyone else in the league after six straight wins entering the weekend.
When asked to elaborate Thursday night after the Mavs stretched their own win streak to 11 with a home cruise against New Jersey and former Mavs coach Avery Johnson, Cuban credited better meshing among Miami's three stars and the Heat's improved defense as justification for a pro-Miami claim that was greeted with plenty of skepticism.
"Damp has helped them a ton," Cuban said, referring to former Mavs center Erick Dampier.
PS -- While true that the Mavs were not on the short list of teams to get face-to-face interviews with Team LeBron in Cleveland in July, Cuban and Kidd maintained a level of contact with James' camp throughout his free agency. Knowing that it had zero shot (with zero cap space) at winning the LeBron Sweepstakes without sign-and-trade co-operation from jittery Cleveland, Dallas didn't press for a face-to-face meeting, fearful the extra attention generated by a sitdown would only unnerve the Cavs further.
PPS -- The Mavs complete their season series with the Heat in Miami in a little over a week on Dec. 20. Stay tuned.
6. Western Conference
Some numbers of note in the West this week:
145: Since his rookie season in 1996-97, Steve Nash has reached the 20-point and 10-assist plateaus in the same game no less than 145 times. That's the most in that span, followed by Gary Payton (134), Stephon Marbury (116) and fellow 1996 draftee Allen Iverson (104).
57.3: Dirk Nowitzki is shooting 57.3 percent from the field -- and averaging 24.7 points -- during the Mavericks' 11-game win streak.
21: With 21 more points, Kobe Bryant will move to 11th on the league's all-time scoring list and pass Boston's John Havlicek (26,395) for the fourth-highest career point total with one franchise in NBA history. Indiana legend Reggie Miller is third with the highest point total (25,279) playing for only one franchise, followed by Lakers legends Jerry West (25,192) and Elgin Baylor (23,149).
5: Minnesota's Kevin Love is up to five 20-point, 20-rebound games this season. The rest of the league has combined for five, courtesy of Carmelo Anthony, Andris Biedrins, Al Horford, Nazr Mohammed and Zach Randolph.
1: One more win will enable George Karl to become the seventh coach in league history to reach 1,000 career victories, joining Don Nelson (1,335), Lenny Wilkens (1,332), Pat Riley (1,210), Jerry Sloan (1,206), Phil Jackson (1,113) and Larry Brown (1,097). If he gets it Friday night when Denver visits Toronto, according to the Elias Sports Bureau, Karl would become the first of those seven to earn win No. 1,000 on the road.
7. Post-Sonic Youth?
Could New Orleans-loving Chris Paul be repping Seattle in the near future? We've got the buzz on the Bees. (See Box 10)
8. Eastern Conference
Some numbers of note in the East this week:
6: Amare Stoudemire's six straight games with at least 30 points entering Friday's play is the second-longest such streak in franchise history, trailing only Willie Naulls' seven-game run in 1961-62. The Knicks, meanwhile, are just the fourth team in NBA history to win nine of their first 12 games on the road.
2: Kevin Garnett's layup off a lob pass from Rajon Rondo for the win in Philadelphia on Thursday night was the second game-winning bucket with less than two seconds to play in Garnett's Celtics career. It was also Boston's seventh straight win in Philly, matching the Celts' longest-ever road streak against the Sixers.
98: Rondo is up to 98 career games with at least 10 assists, good for third in Celtics history behind Bob Cousy (249) and Larry Bird (118) and just ahead of John Havlicek (92).
2: Tom Thibodeau is just the second coach in Bulls history -- joining Phil Jackson -- to post a winning record in his first 20 games in charge. Jackson went 13-7 to start the 1989-90 season; Thibodeau is 12-8 entering Friday's home date with Jackson's Lakers. Doug Collins (1986-87) and Rod Thorn (1975-76) got off to 10-10 starts.
25: When he turned 25 this week, according to the Elias Sports Bureau, Orlando's Dwight Howard had played more games (508) and grabbed more rebounds (6,419) than any other player in history by that age. LeBron James (505) is the only other player to appear in at least 500 NBA games before turning 25, and Howard has almost 2,000 more rebounds than any other player under 25. Don't forget, though, that Moses Malone -- No. 2 behind Howard with 4,544 NBA rebounds before his 25th birthday -- spent his first two seasons in the ABA.
9. Chatter Box
10. Alternative Listening
Marc Stein visits ESPN Radio in Seattle (710 AM) to join two old friends -- former Sonics play-by-play voice Kevin Calabro and former Sonics beat writer Jim Moore -- for a lengthy discussion about Seattle's chances of getting another NBA franchise and the loud rumblings about Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer preparing to reach into his billions for a bid that ultimately brings the Hornets to the Pacific Northwest.