1. Scouts Size Up The Stretch Run
Every team in the league entered the weekend with 20 games or fewer left on their schedules.
Which means we've arrived at the regular season's quarter pole. we've arrived at the regular season's quarter pole.
Which also means it's time to consult our usual coterie of advance scouts for the season's third and final installment of press-row insights into some of the league's most relevant topics, volunteered by folks who attend three to four games weekly to study the competition from the closest vantage point possible.
The following observations come from six scouts, all of whom were granted anonymity so they could speak as candidly as possible:
Eastern Conference scout on the Knicks' ceiling now that they've added Carmelo Anthony:
"I see them as a fifth seed in the best case. They have some of the same issues as Miami to some degree. You have to have a really strong bench to do something in the playoffs. I just don't see them able to get past that.
"I'm not so worried about Melo and Amare [Stoudemire] playing together. Amare is definitely a [Mike] D'Antoni guy; he's proven that in two places now. There's going to be an adjustment for Melo, because he's an isolation player and D'Antoni's system has all that ball movement and pick-and-roll action. But I think those guys will play well together.
"They like each other and wanted to play together. Maybe Chauncey Billups can give them more than I [expect], but they don't have enough to win a playoff series. They'll be good when their two guys are scoring, but not great."
Western Conference scout on the MVP race:
"I hope you guys get this one right. Because it's Derrick Rose.
"He's become so dominant in a game. He's making 3s. He attacks the rim. He makes the shot behind the screen when the defender goes under instead of forcing a drive that isn't there.
"He makes his teammates better. Defensively [he's] as solid as they come. Heart of a lion. He wills that team, along with [Joakim] Noah, to compete.
"[Tom] Thibodeau has definitely helped him step up his full-game motor, but Rose has taken it from there. Point guard, leader, warrior.
"Can you tell that I like him?"
Eastern Conference scout on Deron Williams' move to New Jersey:
"I really think he'll be much happier over there. They're going to play a little bit more of a wide-open game, use more of his quickness. I know everyone wonders how he's going to get along with Avery [Johnson], but everyone I talk to says he's not as strict as they thought he was going to be. I do think [Avery is] going to give him more freedom.
"The biggest thing with [Williams] is that he's obviously not healthy. That wrist is bothering him. But he's been more on the attack [with the Nets] than I've seen him in the past. He knows it's his team and he's getting the freedom to call plays, open the floor up, get in some different kinds of pick-and-rolls that can exploit his speed and quickness.
"He just had to do it in a different way in Utah. [Jerry Sloan] is a system coach and a super successful system coach. And he didn't change that system for anybody, from Karl Malone to now. D-Will was plugged into that system and they didn't make adjustments for him.
"[Such a rigid approach] can't be argued with because of all the success Utah's had. But this is going to be a breath of fresh air for him."
Western Conference scout on how Boston will fare after swapping Kendrick Perkins for Jeff Green:
"I don't think it's going to hurt them as much as people think. I know [Perkins] was an enforcer, but [Nenad] Krstic is not that bad defensively. And then offensively, he obviously gives them a lot more.
"Jeff Green is just completely lost right now, but they'll figure it out with time. The defensive system in Boston is so much more detailed than what Oklahoma City runs, but there's still plenty of time [before the playoffs]. They're gonna pick it up.
"Right now it looks bad because they have to learn and play on the fly. But maybe it's a blessing in disguise that Shaq [Shaquille O'Neal] and Big Baby [Glen Davis] have been out, so the new guys have to play and have to figure it out.
"I'm like everybody else. I thought they were gonna make the run with Perkins all the way to the Finals. But I think Green can space the floor just enough that he can play off those guys and give them a different dimension."
Eastern Conference scout on Miami's struggles to beat elite teams and win close games ... before Thursday night's slump-buster against the Lakers:
"I think a lot of this is overblown by you [media] guys. They've got so much pressure on them and maybe they have imploded in some of these games, but I still think they're going to be fine. Just think about the Lakers. A few weeks ago, they were talking about trading people. The turnaround is never far away when you have that kind of talent.
"If [Miami's] offense looks boring and looks selfish, just remember that it's the same offense as Pat Riley ran. [Erik Spoelstra] hasn't changed a play. He hasn't changed a call. Now maybe Pat gets more out of it because of who he is, but it's not just at the end of games. Most of their offense is one pass, one shot. It is boring and it is basic.
"Predictable isn't always bad. Utah has always been very predictable and successful. But when [Spoelstra's] had [the Heat] playing well [this season], it's because he got them to play faster and take advantage of their athleticism.
"The problem in the playoffs is that nobody is going to let you run. The good teams won't. The good teams will make them play half court."
Western Conference scout on Memphis' ability to spring a first-round upset:
"I've always said they're a sleeper. They've got the two really good big men who play so well off each other in [Marc] Gasol and Zach [Randolph], but the best thing they did is when they moved [O.J.] Mayo to sixth man, which finally gave them someone on that second unit to make some noise.
"For me, though, Memphis and Portland go together. They're the two scariest teams [in the bottom half] of the West bracket. It's kind of a toss-up because [Gerald] Wallace fits [Portland] perfectly.
"He's taken to their offense immediately. [Wallace] can play the 4; he can play the 3. They have so much more versatility now. He gives them the versatility that they used to have in two or three different players."
Eastern Conference scout on Doug Collins' role in the Sixers' resurgence:
"His handprints are all over that team. They were so bad in the preseason. The worst team I saw for the first month.
"They have come a long way. All the stuff they ran early is all gone. Doug started out running the same sort of stuff he ran in his last job in D.C., but he figured out that it doesn't quite fit this personnel.
"But that's what he does. He figures out his personnel, what they can and can't do, and finds ways to put guys in position to be successful. Now they're very solid on offense and defense. They've really become a good defensive team. They're guarding and they're talking.
"And I remember early in the season, when things weren't going well, I saw him talking to [Andre] Iguodala and [Elton] Brand and just telling them, 'Stick with me and we'll get this figured out.' I couldn't believe [Collins] had to do it that early, but he knew exactly what he was doing."
Eastern Conference scout on the Mavericks' viability as a threat to the Spurs and Lakers out West:
"This is one of [the Mavs'] best teams. From top to bottom, they have a lot of depth and can play any style. Big, small, play through injuries.
"Everyone talks about Tyson Chandler as the big difference-maker, but that's not the only [difference]. Their ball movement is the best in the league. They don't have another guy on Dirk [Nowitzki]'s level, but the way they move the ball around makes them really hard to guard.
"I know they've done this in the regular season before, but I think they're legit. They have a lot of veterans, hungry veterans. And they have a lot of size now. I'd give them a puncher's chance against the Lakers."
Western Conference scout on who wins it all:
"It's not the answer you want, but picking today is impossible. Anyone who tells you they know is guessing. I do feel very safe in saying that it will not be Sacramento."
2. Western Conference
Bobcats president Michael Jordan helped Portland at the trade deadline with his willingness to dump Gerald Wallace's contract ... and MJ might have also helped the Blazers by quickly signing Paul Silas to a contract extension.
As covered in this cyberspace in December, Jordan was planning to be a prime suitor for Nate McMillan had the Blazers' coach, as he originally intended, finished out the final season of his contract to become a coaching free agent in the summer.
But the abrupt in-season departure of Larry Brown and Silas' early success as Brown's replacement -- before the Bobcats decided to deal Wallace and pack in the season -- prompted Jordan to move immediately and sign Silas to a one-year extension.
For all the justifiable skepticism about the Bobcats' willingness to engage Portland in a bidding war for McMillan, they were expected to factor into McMillan's thinking, given his ties to the area as a North Carolina native as well as to Bobcats team president Fred Whitfield. So let's just say that the removal of Charlotte as a potential landing spot couldn't have hurt the Blazers' ability to secure McMillan's signature this week on a new two-year extension.
Yet there's also a strong belief in coaching circles that the Blazers began to press McMillan on accepting an extension now because of their growing fear that the Lakers were going to pursue him as a potential replacement for Phil Jackson, who continues to insist that this season is his farewell to coaching.
Some numbers of note in the West this week:
6: Kobe Bryant is up to sixth on the NBA's all-time scoring list, with 27,473 career points, and has passed six famous names this season after starting at No. 12: John Havlicek, Dominique Wilkins, Oscar Robertson, Hakeem Olajuwon, Elvin Hayes and Moses Malone.
2: Al Jefferson's game-winning tip at the horn Wednesday night in Toronto marked just the second buzzer-beater for the Jazz in the past six seasons. Sundiata Gaines' buzzer-beating 3-pointer last season to beat Cleveland, just days after Gaines was called up from D-League, is the other.
14: During his record run of 52 consecutive double-doubles, Kevin Love has on 14 occasions this season reached double figures in points and rebounds by halftime, including Wednesday's 26-point home rout of Indiana. Love finished with 16 points and 21 boards, good for his 13th 20-rebound game this season.
64: Love needed only 64 games to reach the 1,000-rebound mark for the season. The last player to get there that quickly was Dennis Rodman, who reached the 1,000 plateau in just 57 games with San Antonio in 1993-94.
227: That's the all-time record for consecutive double-doubles, which was established -- shocker -- by Wilt Chamberlain. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, Wilt assembled separate streaks of 227, 220 and 133 consecutive double-doubles for Love to chase.
Kobe Bryant's instantly famous shooting session in Miami after Thursday night's loss to the Heat and the Lakers' visit to Dallas on Saturday night makes this a good time to trot out a memorable line you might have missed from Mavs owner Mark Cuban during Super Bowl Week from Jim Rome's "Rome Is Burning" on ESPN2. With the Lakers still in the throes of their midseason funk, Cuban scoffed at the notion that the Lakers had actually squandered their status as title favorites, telling Rome: "I don't care if Kobe is 97. He'd take out his dentures and bite you and finish out the game." ... All-Star snubs don't just bruise egos. They can be costly, too. Wallace is a Blazer now, but he'd have earned an extra $500,000 had he made the Eastern Conference All-Star squad for a second successive season in Charlotte. Memphis' Zach Randolph, meanwhile, lost out on a $333,333 All-Star bonus when West coaches snubbed him last month.
3. One-On-One ... To Five
Five questions with Pennsylvania native Chris Finch, who coaches the Luol Deng-led Great Britain national team as well as the Rio Grande Valley Vipers, who won the D-League last season:
Q: On Sunday, you guys find out if FIBA is allowing Great Britain to fill one of the 12 automatic spots in the Olympic basketball tournament in 2012. How nervous are you?
A: I'm pretty optimistic. From a basketball performance point of view, we've met a lot of the objectives that they laid out. Their biggest concern has always been the basketball administration side.
And like most political change or bureaucratic change, that takes a little bit more time to get everything organized [moving from separate basketball federations in England, Scotland and Wales to one governing body that oversees basketball throughout Great Britain].
But overall, I feel pretty hopeful.
Q: The host nation hasn't been excluded from the basketball tournament since the sport was introduced at the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin. Don't they ultimately have to let Great Britain in if the 2012 Games are in London?
A: I never took that for granted. FIBA has been very clear that it's their tournament and they will make the decision as they see fit.
I think, in the Olympic spirit, to exclude the host would be sad, but I really think they're going to put us in because of what we've been able to do [qualifying twice under Finch for the Eurobasket competition] since we kind of started this process in 2006.
Q: I know you played and coached club ball in England, but how have you been received as an American coaching the national team?
A: I'd have to say quite favorably. I've spent more than 10 years of my life there. I love the country. I have a strong affinity for the place. I've been through all the peaks and valleys, from where the professional league was in a better place than the national team to where we are now with the national team being a bit more successful. But I think we've always maintained that for the sport to really grow [Great Britain's] national team has to really lead the way.
Q: What's a realistic ceiling for your team if you can ever get Deng and Ben Gordon reunited as teammates with Team GB?
A: I've always said that if we have all of our best players it's not outside the realm of possibility to win a medal. What's hurt us [in recent years], be it injuries or contract situations or whatever, it's been difficult to get all of our best players together.
But I just saw Ben [on Wednesday] night in San Antonio and I think we have a really good chance to have Ben this summer. Kelenna Azubuike still doesn't have a [UK] passport but is inching closer to it. He was born in London, and we believe he's entitled to a passport and will eventually get the passport.
This might be our chance this summer [at Eurobasket 2011 in Lithuania] to put our best team on the floor.
Q: Your day job is coaching in the D-League. Defending champs and working as an extension of the Rockets' organization ... sounds like a pretty good gig.
A: It really is. I think it's a great model. There's a lot of cohesion with the Rockets on what we're doing and why. We talk with them every day. We're much more a division of their personnel department than their coaching staff.
They got into the D-League business [directly aligning with Rio Grande as a "hybrid" affiliate] for developing and evaluating personnel.
We've got three guys on NBA call-ups right now [New Orleans' Jerel McNeal, Golden State's Jeff Adrien and Washington's Mustafa Shakur] and we've had about eight different guys called up the last two years. So that makes you feel good.
4. Eastern Conference
Ex-Cavs coach Mike Brown remains a strong favorite to be offered Indiana's coaching job next season should Larry Bird return as team president.
It's likewise possible that Brown, currently working for ESPN, will receive other offers. But Indy's recent swoon, lowlighted by a 26-point loss in Minnesota on Wednesday night after a honeymoon period under interim coach Frank Vogel, has renewed the belief in coaching circles that the Pacers will be conducting a coaching search at season's end that starts with Brown.
Lakers assistant coach and Pacers legend Chuck Person, according to our old friend Sean Deveney at the Sporting News, will also be a candidate for the job. But word is there's another name on Indy's radar that hasn't circulated much yet: Mavericks assistant coach Dwane Casey.
Casey is still waiting for his second shot at a head-coaching gig after his unceremonious dismissal in Minnesota halfway through the 2006-07 season and serious (but ultimately unsuccessful) flirtations in recent offseasons with Philadelphia, Chicago and Atlanta.
The link to Indiana, though, was inevitable, given Casey's good work on Rick Carlisle's staff in Dallas and how close Carlisle and Bird remain after their time together as teammates in Boston and Carlisle's years in Indy both as Bird's assistant and as head coach.
Some numbers of note in the East this week:
12: The Bulls have a 12-0 record against Central Division opposition and, with four more wins, would become the first team to go unbeaten in divisional play since the NBA went to a four-division format in 1970-71.
30.6: After signing Mike Bibby, Miami has the league's oldest roster, with an average age of 30.6. Perhaps not so coincidentally, Miami also averages just 22.3 bench points per game, lowest in the league.
9: The Heat have suffered nine losses this season in which they led in the final three minutes of the fourth quarter or overtime. They've also lost their past three home games in which they led by at least 10 points. No team has blown double-digit leads in four consecutive home games since Houston in the first month of the 1999-2000 season.
2: Only two rookies have been in their team's starting lineup for every game this season: Blake Griffin with the Clippers and the Knicks' Landry Fields. The last Knicks rookie to start every game of his debut season was Bill Cartwright in 1979-80.
30.2: Carmelo Anthony's scoring average of 30.2 points in February marked the first time in Melo's career that he led the league in scoring for a calendar month ... and the first time in league history that a player led the league for an entire month after playing for two teams.
5. Will To Believe?
6. Marc's Quote
"... The unification of the Denver Nugget organization has never been this tight and this close since I've been here. We've always kind of had little separations between management, coaches, players ... and we fought hard to camoflauge them and overcome them. But the truth now is [that] the Denver Nuggets are together."
Nuggets coach George Karl, offering a glimpse into post-Carmelo Anthony Denver in a visit this week with Tony Kornheiser and Michael Wilbon on "Pardon The Interruption."
It's not just hyperbole, either. The first-year management tandem of owner Josh Kroenke and general manager Masai Ujiri, whose shared inexperience generated plenty of skepticism around the league throughout the six-month Melo Drama, actually held up pretty well in a front-office baptism like no other and extracted more from the Knicks for Anthony than many rivals expected.
Kroenke and Ujiri then took another significant step away from the "separations" era by finalizing a three-year contract extension this week with Karl. The result is a tangible sense of synergy stretching from the front office to the bench that didn't exist in Denver's previous management model, which was thick with creative tension thanks to the presence of three execs (Bret Bearup, Rex Chapman and Mark Warkentien) who grappled for influence under Stan and Josh Kroenke.
Combine that harmony with the fact that Denver kept all of the Knicks it acquired instead of receding into full fire-sale mode and you're suddenly forced to add the Nuggets to Memphis and Portland in the new order of lower Western Conference seeds that have the wherewithal to make the big boys sweat in the first round.
Melo and Deron Williams, along with Carlos Boozer and Amare Stoudemire, have all moved East since last season, but you'll notice that it really hasn't made the West any easier. San Antonio and Dallas have exceeded preseason expectations, Westerners have posted a cumulative .584 winning percentage in cross-conference play entering the weekend (227-162) and the West will likely have 11 teams with winning records at season's end ... all of which has quickly extinguished the previously popular belief that the Spurs, Lakers, Mavericks and Thunder were all locks to get to Round 2.
West's Record vs. East: Past Five Seasons
7. NBA Video Channel
8. Clutch (NY) City
Clutchness has been a popular topic all week thanks to Miami's repeated crunch-time failings, but Carmelo Anthony just made it worse for his Miami buddies.
In a week in which it became a virtual reflex to spit out a line about how the Heat have shot 1-for-16 this season on potential game-tying or go-ahead shots in the final 10 seconds of the fourth quarter or overtime, Anthony nonchalantly drained a wing jumper with less than a second remaining Wednesday night in Memphis to deliver a 110-108 road victory over one of the league's hottest teams.
It was the second straight 30-point game with the Knicks for Anthony, whose crunch-time résumé only gets glossier. Melo has now sunk his last three potential game-tying or go-ahead shots in the final 10 seconds of the fourth or OT, having connected twice earlier this season for Denver in wins over Chicago and Dallas.
With the usual assists from the Elias Sports Bureau and ESPN Stats & Info, let's take a longer look at that résumé:
Most FGs Made In Clutch*, Past Three Seasons
Most FGs Made In Clutch In 2010-11
Most Go-Ahead FGs In Clutch Since 2003-04
|Dirk Nowitzki||Col 2|
PS -- Elias says that the regular-season success rate among all players in the 10-seconds-or-less situation is 25.1 percent, with that figure rising to an average of 28.3 percent in the postseason.
James and Wade have combined to take 10 of those 16 potential go-ahead shots for the Heat this season. LeBron is 1-for-7 (10-for-51 lifetime in the regular season) and Wade is 0-for-3 (10-for-52).
The good news? There actually is some, yes: LeBron is 5-for-11 lifetime in the playoffs in the 10-seconds-or-less circumstance, while Wade is 2-for-2.
9. (Luxury) Tax Corner
After the Denver Nuggets shed millions in 2010-11 payroll when they finally dealt Carmelo Anthony to the Knicks, only seven teams are on course to pay luxury tax in July.
That the NBA's group of taxpayers is down to seven likewise means the rebate teams under the tax line will receive is projected to be a mere $2.38 million per team.
Last season's rebate for teams that stayed under the tax line was close to $4 million, since there were 11 taxpaying teams forced to pay a collective $111 million in dollar-for-dollar penalties for being above the tax line.
The seven teams on course to pay tax in the summer, barring unforeseen payroll reductions between now and June 30:
1. Lakers $20.07 million
2. Magic $19.59 million
3. Mavericks $16.33 million
4. Celtics $6.37 million
5. Jazz $4.96 million
6. Blazers $3.79 million
7. Rockets $452,254
Total: $71.56 million
Per-team payout for teams under the $70.31 million tax threshold: $2.38 million
PS -- Multiple teams on the list above will have their tax bills reduced slightly by salary that players are required to forfeit to the league during suspensions. Current examples: Orlando's bill is due to be reduced $75,669 for the recent one-game suspension served by Dwight Howard and could be lowered further if Howard, as seems likely, has to sit out additional games because of accumulated technical fouls. Boston ($38,836) and Portland ($33,402) are also scheduled to receive slight reductions because of suspensions served earlier in the season by Delonte West and Andre Miller, respectively.
10. Chatter Box