A look at the trending topics around the #NBA.
After watching the Lakers under Mike D’Antoni, we already know who their MVP is.
“In Phoenix, we couldn’t win a game without him,” said D’Antoni, the former Suns coach. “Not a game.”
Take a wild guess who he’s talking about. Steve Nash will carry almost as great an importance in Los Angeles, if only because the Suns were never title-or-bust like the Lakers. That’s a lot of weight on a guard who’ll soon be 39, is still healing from a small leg fracture and hasn’t played two full games yet with his teammates. But now you know how desperate the Lakers are, and what Nash means to the big picture.
When the ball’s in his hands, everything changes. Teammates work harder to get open, knowing Nash will find them. Right now the Lakers are in the bottom-five in assists and, without their star point guard, forced to create their own shots. That’s fine for Kobe Bryant, not so okay for Dwight Howard and especially not okay for Pau Gasol, who looks completely lost and flustered. Big men are impacted more when a point guard is missing. Nash is an expert at throwing lob passes and also at getting into the paint and drawing the defense away from the bigs, allowing them to get open looks.
Besides, Nash is their best, and perhaps only, three-point shooter. So he’ll bring two weapons the Lakers need most. Expect him to return in another few weeks, and only then can we begin to judge how D’Antoni will do. Somewhere, Mike Brown is wondering why he never got a grace period or the chance to coach Nash.
The Lakers’ agonizing wait isn’t the only trending topic around the NBA. Here’s what’s happening with the other hashtags:
Shaquille O’Neal caused a stir when he claimed Brook Lopez was a better center than Howard, who in turn wondered if Shaq was jealous. Howard said Shaq should just “let it go, man.” Even Avery Johnson, who coaches Lopez, refused to support the notion, saying “I like Shaq, he’s a funny guy” and left it at that. Well, this we do know: Lopez brings a far better grasp of scoring than Howard, and while he’ll never be the rebounder (six per game?) or help defender that Howard is, he’s having an impact in Brooklyn. His teammates are Deron Williams and Joe Johnson and yet Lopez is leading the Nets in scoring while ranking just behind Howard in blocked shots (2.55 to 2.71). Don’t be surprised if Lopez is an All-Star in February. What’s really interesting is the Nets wanted Howard last summer and did all they could to swing a trade for Lopez, who eventually signed an extension and might be more valuable than Howard on a per-dollar basis. Hey, look at it this way: At least Shaq didn’t claim Robin Lopez was better than Howard.
I made a sarcastic wisecrack the other day that Greg Oden would return faster than Andrew Bynum, never thinking it would actually be possible. And then Bynum’s timetable for his problematic knees was subsequently downgraded from January to “indefinitely.” So who knows? The real issue anyway is whether the Sixers give Bynum max money or close enough next summer. The absolutely wrong way to approach his free agency is to pay him only to justify trading Andre Iguodala for him. That’s financial suicide. The Sixers should pay Bynum only if they’re okay with the idea of him playing 60-65 games a year and being three-fourths the player he was in LA. Because that’s how it looks right now.
Can any team match the impact and diverse skills of Memphis’ front line? Do any have a clever center and a double-double power forward and a small forward with range? The only candidates are LeBron-Bosh-Battier in Miami, Pierce-KG-Bass in Boston, Deng-Noah-Boozer in Chicago and Howard-Gasol-Peace in LA -- and none of those really compare with Rudy Gay-Zach Randolph-Marc Gasol right now in Memphis. The best team in the West, record-wise, is getting it done with unselfish basketball, and it starts up front with three players who collectively are borderline All-Stars. Z-Bo had double-doubles in each of his first 11 games, Gasol has the highest player efficiency rating on the team while Gay, still feeling snubbed by the Olympic team, is averaging 20 points a night. The small-market Grizzlies rolled the dice when they locked up all three players with rich contracts (average of $13 million per year for each), but their chemistry -- this is their fourth season together -- is making that decision seem on the money.
At times last season the Bulls managed to get by without Derrick Rose, and even look solid some nights. Right now? They’re desperate for Rose, watching the calendar, waiting for him to rescue them. His absence is finally catching up with the Bulls, who still play good enough defense to remain competitive but are starving for scoring, especially in big moments. They lost in the closing minutes to Houston, Portland and Phoenix before pulling one out against the Bucks to stop a four-game losing streak. Rose is still doing cutting drills and there’s no timetable yet, though most projections have him back sometime in January. Given the weak state of the East, when Rose returns the Bulls could still finish top-four, and with the Pacers choking, winning the division wouldn’t be beyond reach.
In one sense, the big whoop-de-do about the Bobcats is over the top. They’ve beaten Washington without John Wall twice, Minnesota without Kevin Love, Dallas without Dirk and the Pacers without Danny Granger. Also, it’s easy to match your win total from last season when the season was only 66 games -- and does winning seven games reflect on how good you are this year, or how crummy you were last year? No matter, the Cats will take what they can, after setting ineptitude records. Even better, with the Carolina Panthers in the dumps, there’s no competition for the sports dollar in Charlotte and people are showing up at games to see a young, scrappy team feel good about itself. Nothing wrong with that. Kemba Walker almost feels like he’s back at UConn. Almost.
The Wolves welcomed back Kevin Love, who seems reinvigorated and ready to return to the level of last year when he was generally regarded as the game’s most skilled power forward. But there’s a problem: He replaced a guy who might confirm that the Wolves blew it (again) with one of their high draft picks. Derrick Williams did not play in Love’s first two games back and then only received 11 minutes Saturday in Golden State. He’s only 21 so it wouldn’t be wise to reach a hasty conclusion about the No. 2 pick in 2011 but he clearly suffers from ‘tweeners disease, meaning he lacks the skills to master either of the forward positions. What exactly is he? A long-range shooter? His shooting has regressed to 37 percent, down from 41 his rookie season. A rugged post player? He doesn’t look comfortable there, and besides, that space belongs to Love. In the last three years the Wolves used the No. 6 pick on Jonny Flynn and a 4 on Wes Johnson and they’re both gone. Williams would be an even bigger draft flop if he stays on this pace.
It was a low-key reunion when Jeremy Lin met his old teammates the other day, mainly because it happened in Houston, but also because Lin is hardly the player he was for 15 minutes in New York with the Knicks. His numbers are down and the Rockets are rebuilding, so there’s no buzz anymore. Teams have figured him out and know how to defend him better. And he’s struggling to thrive in any system besides the pick-and-roll. There was a stretch with the Knicks where Lin dropped 38 on Kobe and scored 20 or more in nine out of 10 games. Now he’s shooting 34 percent. Even he admitted: “I don’t know if I can play better than I did during that stretch. I’m going to find out how close I can get to that.” His best option is to concentrate on being a playmaker and setting up teammates. The Jeremy Lin that blew up in New York can’t be put back together again.
Chauncey Billups said he’ll return soon from Achilles surgery, probably right before or after Christmas, “and I think I can still play this game at a good level.” That’s great news for Billups, who’s 36, and the Clippers, who could use another smart player in the backcourt. But you wonder how this might affect Eric Bledsoe, off to a solid start, and Jamal Crawford, the team’s leading scorer. Both will see their minutes decline when Billups teams up with Chris Paul. This will either go one of two ways: Crawford and Bledsoe find roles and happiness, or become disenchanted and fall into a funk. The Clippers will happily take that risk because, as Paul said: “We’re not a complete team until Chauncey’s back on the floor. We’ll only get better.”
There’s a feeling by some of his fellow GMs that Joe Dumars would be in trouble in Detroit if not for 6-10 rookie Andre Drummond. Dumars has had checkered stretch of decisions the last five years and during this time, ownership changed hands, which usually spells doom. But Drummond is making Dumars look smart for using the ninth pick on him. It’s tough to find a pure center who can impact the paint on both ends, much less one who’s only 19, but Dumars might have pulled it off. Because of his age and that he only played one year in college, Drummond is being groomed slowly, seeing just 17 minutes a night. He brings a work ethic and is willing to learn. If he’s indeed the real deal, the young big man combo of Greg Monroe and Drummond would be the next Laimbeer and Mahorn in Detroit. Coach Lawrence Frank said: “We’re proud of what he’s done and he hasn’t even come close to his potential. There’s huge growth potential.”
Before Drummond, the last time Dumars was infatuated over a big man, he took a 17-year-old Serb in what became one of the all-time greatest drafts. Unfortunately for Dumars, Darko Milicic didn’t blaze the same path as Carmelo Anthony, LeBron James, Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade. He became an epic bust and a blot on Dumars’ reputation. Well, the end is probably here for Darko, who left the Celtics last week to stay with his ill mother overseas. Nobody expects him back in the NBA. Here’s the surprise, though: Darko lasted 10 years. And after he went belly-up in Detroit, the Grizzlies signed him for three years and the Timberwolves for four ($41 million total). Even the Celtics thought he’d help them. Yes, teams are that desperate for big men. Darko’s biggest problem was bad body language, immaturity and no strong desire to be in the NBA or be a star. Which is why he never became one.