TrueHoop: J.A. Adande

Nicolas Batum checks out, perks up

March, 5, 2015
Mar 5
Adande By J.A. Adande
LOS ANGELES -- Nicolas Batum tried something different during the All-Star break. He went down to a resort in Mexico and limited himself to only one hour of cell phone use every morning, then he turned it off for the rest of the day. He told his mother and his agent to call the hotel if they really needed to reach him.

That strict cell phone diet was a sign that Batum’s struggles this season -- in which his shooting percentage has plummeted to a career low and his scoring average is at its lowest since he was a rookie -- were mental as well as physical. Yes, he was drained from playing for France in international competition so many summers, and yes he has been bothered by wrist and knee injuries this season. But listen to what he said the time off meant to him:

“The All-Star break was a big thing for me. I just relaxed and refreshed my mind,” Batum said. “I’m feeling good now. I’m happy to be back and kind of get my rhythm back, my swag back a little bit.”

[+] EnlargeBatum
Gary A. Vasquez/USA TODAY SportsNicolas Batum had two indispensable 3-pointers in the win over the Clippers.
Swag isn’t something that can be surgically repaired. There’s no rehab program. Something was a little off in Batum and he knew it.

“Nobody’s been harder on Nic than Nic,” Portland coach Terry Stotts said. “He’s wanted to play well. He’s put a lot of pressure on himself.”

Batum averaged 8.9 points and shot 37 percent from the field and 27 percent on 3-pointers before the All-Star break. In the six games since his phone break, he’s averaging 11.8 points and shooting 40 percent on 3-pointers, 50 percent overall. That includes his 20 points, eight assists, seven rebounds and two blocked shots in Portland’s comeback win against the Clippers in Los Angeles on Wednesday night.

He took opportunistic shots. He found LaMarcus Aldridge on lobs off the pick-and-roll. He took over defensive duties on Chris Paul after Paul had his way with Damian Lillard and did a good job of forcing Paul left instead of his preferred right. He was, as he put it, “that all-around player like I used to be.”

At age 26, Batum is too young to be telling back-in-the-day stories. But he did find himself watching video of last season, when he put up numbers more in line with his career averages, when he was that more aggressive player.

The Trail Blazers are a different team with the Batum of the past -- and the post-All-Star present. They’re more dangerous, should be taken more seriously. He's a double-digit scorer and 40 percent shooter in their victories; he averages 7 points and makes only a third of his shots in their losses. They’re not going to go deep into the playoffs without a couple of podium games from Batum.

Apparently it took some time when he didn’t communicate with others for Batum to find himself. He liked what he saw in the old video, he realizes that player hasn’t vanished.

“I was OK last year,” Batum concluded. “I’m good now.”

If the Blazers are going deep into the playoffs, they’ll probably be better off if calls to Batum’s phone go straight to voice mail.

Dean Smith's NBA dominance

February, 8, 2015
Feb 8
Adande By J.A. Adande

Dean Smith’s death was the top story on Sunday morning even though Smith never coached a single game in the league. Sometimes the medium really is the message. That editorial decision is a reflection of Smith’s pervasive influence on the NBA, a greater impact than any other college coach.

At North Carolina, Smith coached five (Michael Jordan, Vince Carter, Antawn Jamison, Walter Davis and Bob McAdoo) of the top 55 scorers in NBA history, and three of the NBA's top 25 in coaching victories (Larry Brown, George Karl and Doug Moe).

Then there’s Billy Cunningham, who coached the 1983 champion Philadelphia 76ers. And Mitch Kupchak, general manager of the past four Los Angeles Lakers championship teams. The Carolina Network is real, still present almost two decades after Smith coached his last game in Chapel Hill.

I always felt the true testament to Smith wasn't the greats such as Jordan and James Worthy. It could be found in guys like Joe Wolf, who stuck around the league for 11 seasons despite his pedestrian career averages of 4.2 points and 3.3 rebounds. Or Hubert Davis, who played a dozen seasons and once led the league in 3-point field goal percentage. Signing one of Smith’s players meant a GM didn't have to worry whether he really understood how to play basketball.

Dean’s guys got it.

I miss the sight of college coaching legends turning into highly credentialed cheerleaders at NBA playoff games, the way Smith and Georgetown’s John Thompson (another Smith protege, with the 1976 Olympic team) did during the 1990s. That went away during the preps-to-pros generation. The closest thing now is John Calipari working the green room at the NBA draft each year when the latest batch from his Kentucky stable enters the league.

But Calipari’s been at Kentucky for only six years. Smith coached Carolina from 1961 to 1997. He helped desegregate the sport at the major conference level. He stocked rosters in the NBA and ABA. He made the North Carolina campus a home base for players from Phil Ford to Jerry Stackhouse.

You can find Smith’s name near the top of the lists for career college coaching victories and Final Four appearances. You can also find him throughout the NBA. You don't have to look very far.

James Harden keeps growing his game

January, 16, 2015
Jan 16
Adande By J.A. Adande
HOUSTON -- The thing to remember about the Oklahoma City Thunder trading James Harden is that the Thunder didn't trade this James Harden.

They didn’t have such a prolific scorer, they didn’t enjoy such an effective passer. They had a player who would be a perennial sixth man of the year candidate, not a guy drawing truly legit "M-V-P" chants during his numerous trips to the free throw line. They had a cult hero, not a star.

Most of all, they didn't have a player who is 0-2 in playoff series as an above-the-title star. Houston Rockets coach Kevin McHale traces Harden's improvement in every other area to that one pertinent stat. McHale told ESPN Radio's Kevin Calabro and Jon Barry before the game that he tried to tell Harden how empty the accolades would feel if no playoff success came with it, and now that Harden has experienced that himself, he's even more dedicated to the things that matter for winning teams.

[+] EnlargeJames Harden, Andre Roberson
Thomas B. Shea/USA TODAY SportsJames Harden's 31 points, 10 assists and nine rebounds against his ex-team showed his growth as a player.
"I just think he's making more of the simple plays," McHale said after Houston's 112-101 victory over the Thunder on Thursday night.

Harden can still make complicated shots -- contested 3s, even a 3-point shot over Kevin Durant that banked in as Harden fell into the courtside seats -- but it's his willingness to quickly pass to the open man when the double-team arrives, or his penetration followed by a pass to an open 3-point shooter (McHale likes those the best) that have Harden on a higher plane these days.

Here's a rather arcane stat that speaks to McHale's point: Harden is 10th in the NBA in points created per assist, an number that accounts for passes that lead to a 3-pointer as well. He's the only shooting guard in the top 18 in that category (LeBron James is the only other non-point guard in the group).

That's the crux of what Durant implied when he said of Harden: "He's a point guard over there. He initiates everything. He's playing well."

Both Durant and McHale talked about how much Harden has the ball in his hands, yet Harden doesn't rank among the NBA's top 20 in number of touches or time of possession (also via

Maybe this observation from Durant was more explanatory: "He's playing with a lot of swagger."

Harden has also scored the most points on drives to the basket, and he's in a familiar position with the most made free throws in the league. It all adds up to an NBA-best 26.9 points per game.

But leading the team in scoring doesn't always correlate with championships or even make convincing arguments for MVP. The older heads in the Rockets organization are reminding him that he'll get the most credit if the team wins. They feel he saw that in action with Team USA at the FIBA Basketball World Cup last summer. Harden led the team in scoring, but everyone from Klay Thompson to Kenneth Faried picked up "cred points" for helping the team win gold.

The shock of the trade that sent Harden from Oklahoma City to Houston in 2012 has worn off. Their meetings are no longer so emotional.

Before he took some practice shots an hour prior to the game, Harden chatted with Thunder assistant coach Rex Kalamian, then assistant general manager Troy Weaver stopped by to say hello. Then, he blitzed the Thunder with 15 points in the first quarter.

"For me, it's just a normal game," Harden said. "A lot of great memories there. But it's been a couple of years now, and I'm adjusted very well here. So, um, yeah."

When 31 points, 10 assists and nine rebounds against his ex-team feels like a "normal game," it shows just how far Harden's game has progressed. So, um, yeah.

LeBron James and the perils of turning 30

January, 1, 2015
Jan 1
Adande By J.A. Adande
Thirty is the new forty. At least it seems that way for the NBA players who entered the league straight from high school and put their bodies through the rigors of an 82-game schedule while their counterparts were playing less than half as many games in college. By the time they hit 30, the additional wear and tear manifests in a notable dropoff from their peak performance.

Most players hit their physical peak at age 27. The decline by 30 is noticeably steeper for the high schoolers. A look at the 30-year-old seasons of prominent members of that group shows a dropoff of 13 percent to 60 percent from their top Player Efficiency Rating.

[+] EnlargeLeBron James
David Richard/USA TODAY SportsWhere does LeBron James go from here? If history is any guide, not up.
LeBron James is the latest in the 10-year wave of preps-to-pros players from 1995 to 2005 to turn 30, and right on cue he’s showing advanced signs of age. Two days after his 30th birthday, James was given a two-week respite by the Cleveland Cavaliers to heal his ailing knee and back. He could wind up missing as many games over the next two weeks as he has in any full season during his career. Meanwhile, he is posting a PER of 25, 21 percent below his peak of 31.7 at age 24.

The charts below, with data culled from, compares the peak PER to the PER at age 30 for prominent high school-to-NBA players. (The website goes by the player’s age at Feb. 1 of the season). The next chart shows the PER at age 30 for players who went to college and are deemed statistically similar by

Just for comparison’s sake, there’s a list of age 30 dropoffs for some all-time great players who played in college before heading to the NBA. You’ll notice their dropoff at age 30 is usually around 5 percent.

A couple of notes: Tyson Chandler was a rare player who actually posted his best PER after he turned 30. (It’s worth remembering that he never played more than 2,000 minutes in a season until his fourth year in the league.) And Michael Jordan didn’t play a full season at 30; that was in the midst of his first retirement. For comparison, we used his numbers from 1992-93, his 29-year-old season. His 30th birthday was Feb. 17, 1993, or 16 days after the cutoff.

Sideline view: Thunder at Lakers

December, 20, 2014
Adande By J.A. Adande
video Notes and observations from working the Thunder-Lakers game Friday night:

Kevin Durant feared the worst. When he stepped on Marreese Speights’ ankle while driving to the basket near the end of that scintillating first half in Oakland Thursday night his first thought was that he had bent or broken the screw that was inserted into his right foot during his October surgery.

X-rays showed that the screw was intact. That was the big relief. But on Friday morning the ankle still felt too sore to play in that night’s game against the Los Angeles Lakers. Durant took a few set shots about an hour before tipoff, then gingerly walked over and took a seat on the sideline. I asked him if he would be able to play in the Thunder’s game against the New Orleans Pelicans in Oklahoma City on Sunday and he said he wasn’t sure. The expression on his face could best be classified as “questionable.”

Given the Thunder’s penchant for caution when it comes to dealing with injuries, I would guess he’ll sit out again. The Thunder didn’t rush him back from surgery even while the losses mounted. They tried to limit his workload when he first returned after missing the first 17 games of the season following the surgery; he didn’t play more than 30 minutes in any of his first seven games back. But he played 35 minutes against the Sacramento Kings Tuesday night, and was on pace for 38 minutes Thursday against the Warriors. He also was on pace for 60 points, hitting 10 of 13 shots, playing so well that coach Scott Brooks was reluctant to take him out at all.

“I was on my way,” said Durant, who scored a career-high 54 points the previous time he played the Warriors.

Durant said it as he was on his way back to the locker room, where he remained for the game Friday night. He couldn’t watch the Thunder beat the Lakers from the bench because he didn’t have a suit or sport coat with him, so he couldn’t be dress code-compliant. (You try last-minute shopping to find a jacket to fit a 6-10 guy with outlandishly long arms). Maybe it’s time to re-evaluate the dress code. Would it really be so bad to see Durant on the bench cheering on his teammates, even if he were dressed as outlandishly as Russell Westbrook?

LAKER LETHARGY: Something looked off with Kobe Bryant throughout the game. When he was on the bench his head was down and he sucked in air like a Shop-Vac. On the court he kept squinting, as if his eyes had trouble focusing. I asked three members of the Lakers organization -- two who were seated on the Lakers bench and one who was in the locker room at halftime -- if Bryant was sick and they all said no.

Bryant told reporters after the game that he was fatigued, and he and Byron Scott wondered if practicing Wednesday had taken his legs from him. Maybe the Lakers need to adopt the Dallas Cowboys’ Tony Romo plan and hold him out of Wednesday practices from here on out.

The troubling thing for the Lakers is that Bryant’s fatigue seemed to drag some of his teammates down with him. In a timeout midway through the third quarter Scott implored his players to “suck it up” for the rest of the game, and he spent most of our interview after the third quarter discussing his concern about their lack of energy.

The flip side is that the Lakers’ reserves showed plenty of energy in the fourth quarter -- even after their scoring and spiritual leader Nick Young was kicked out for a flagrant two foul. The lineup of Wesley Johnson, Jeremy Lin, Carlos Boozer, Wayne Ellington and Robert Sacre took the Lakers from an eight-point deficit to a three-point lead, which the Lakers couldn’t hold when starters Bryant and Ed Davis returned.

Boozer has responded the best way possible since Scott moved Davis into his starting role on Dec. 7. In the six games he’s played as a reserve Boozer has scored in double figures each time (he never hit double-digits in more than five consecutive games as a starter this season). He’s averaging 15 points and 9.5 rebounds and shooting 54 percent off the bench, compared to 12.6 points and 6.6 rebounds and 50 percent shooting as a starter.

To go from a starter on a playoff team in Chicago last season to a backup on a losing team can be jarring. But Boozer has remained engaged. His behavior in the huddle is telling. Sometimes players who aren’t in the game spend timeouts hang out on the fringes, checking out the crowd or the dance team. Boozer spent a third-quarter timeout hovering over Scott’s shoulder, listening intently, staring at the play Scott drew up even though Boozer wouldn’t be on the court to execute it.

Small bits of professionalism like that are reasons the Lakers’ season hasn’t tumbled into a freefall. But the heavy legs of their highest-volume shooter, Bryant, are among the reasons they won’t leap into the playoffs.

Dwane Casey's conundrum

December, 1, 2014
Adande By J.A. Adande
You probably didn’t realize that Toronto Raptors coach Dwane Casey, 57, is the fourth-oldest head coach in the NBA. There’s Gregg Popovich (65), Lionel Hollins (61), Flip Saunders (59), then Casey. It’s worth noting that Popovich and Hollins squared off in the Western Conference finals just last year, an indication that age can be an asset in coaching, particularly that mid-50s to mid-60s range. It’s enough time to accumulate a wealth of experience, not too old to be impaired by physical ailments.

Casey’s age is relevant right now because he’ll need to draw on everything he’s learned over the course of 35 years of coaching from Kentucky to Japan to all of the compass points in the NBA. After the Toronto Raptors got off to the best start in the Eastern Conference, they’ll have to move forward for the foreseeable future without leading scorer DeMar DeRozan, who’s out indefinitely with a torn adductor muscle.

It’s interesting that the memory that popped up in Casey’s mind was the one year he won a championship, as an assistant with the Dallas Mavericks in 2010-11. Dirk Nowitzki missed nine games in December and January; the Mavericks lost seven of them.

“Everybody thought the world had gone to hell,” Casey said. “But…it didn’t. Guys stuck together, bonded. We developed confidence in the guys who had an opportunity to play.”

For this story to have the same ending would require DeRozan to return and attain the level of play Nowitzki reached when he beat Kobe Bryant, Kevin Durant and LeBron James in the playoffs. That’s too much to ask. The flip side is that the Raptors don’t have to replace the irreplaceable.

The Raptors are the second-highest scoring team in the NBA even though DeRozan isn’t among the top 19 individual scorers (he averages 19.4 points per game). And he accounts for the lowest percentage of his team’s points – 18 percent – out of the leading scorers on the five best teams in the league. Here’s how much of the point production the other top scorers among the teams with the five best records provide:

Memphis: Marc Gasol, 20%
Golden State: Stephen Curry, 23%
Houston: James Harden, 26%
Portland: LaMarcus Aldridge, 20%

Scoring wasn’t the issue for the Raptors Sunday night, when they posted 122 points in an overtime loss to the Lakers. And they had three fewer turnovers than their average of 11, one of the best in the league. It gets down to rhythm and roles, to discerning just how much the right of changes in play and rotation are right. Can't do too much.Early in the third quarter, Kyle Lowry had attempted three times as many shots as Kobe Bryant (12-4), and he finished with 28 shots to get his 29 points. (He averages 19 points on 15 shots).

Greivis Vasquez started in DeRozan’s place and scored 19 points in 33 minutes, but also missed a late open three-pointer off a nice setup by Lowry. Lou Williams scored 19 points off the bench and was the only Raptor who played major minutes to log a positive plus/minus (plus-6). Williams has been a great asset to the Raptors, but it’s evident that Casey wants to keep him coming off the bench for now.

The Raptors tried running some of DeRozan’s plays for Lowry with mixed results.
They’ll have to maintain the characteristics Casey has instilled in them, a disciplined team that doesn’t beat itself. Casey said he’ll tinker with lineup combinations until he finds “Something that fits that will last.” He wants to keep DeRozan connected with the team, and said he’ll invite him to sit in on the coaches’ meetings. But Casey’s job requires him to move forward without DeRozan.

“I’m concerned about him as a person,” Casey said. “I care about him. His teammates care about him. But also as a coach, I understand that we have 14 other young men in that locker room that we have to push and motivate and get going.”

He has three and a half decades of experience to utilize.

Lakers legends too busy to be upset

November, 17, 2014
Adande By J.A. Adande

The Lakers’ glorious past and pathetic present were both well represented at Staples Center on Sunday night, and normally the confluence of such a disparity is disruptive, like the turbulence when two weather fronts meet.

I still remember Lakers legends Jerry West and Magic Johnson fuming when the Lakers were swept by the Utah Jazz in the 1998 playoffs. West called it “ridiculous” and said players “should be embarrassed.” Johnson said, “I’m really upset at this.”

There was no such anger Sunday night, not even as the Lakers were picked apart by the Golden State Warriors 136-115 to drop their record to 1-9.

Maybe criticism wasn't at the forefront of people’s minds because of the reason they gathered: to celebrate Elgin Baylor’s 80th birthday. Hall of Famer Lenny Wilkens flew in from Seattle. Dick Barnett, one of Baylor’s teammates in the Lakers’ early years in Los Angeles, came out from New York. Former Lakers players Tommy Hawkins, Lucius Allen and Michael Cooper were on hand as well. All of the fans at the game received replicas of Baylor’s No. 22 Lakers jersey, and he was honored at halftime with a lengthy video tribute. All in all, a wonderful homage to one of the NBA’s all-time greats.

Maybe they abstained from criticism because their minds are occupied elsewhere.

When Magic chatted with Cooper, his teammate through five championship seasons in the 1980s, the topic was the WNBA’s Los Angeles Sparks, which Cooper used to coach and Johnson now owns.

As West made his way out of the building, he said, “We’re a fun team to watch.” He was talking about the Warriors, whom he currently serves as an executive board member.

The Lakers are still part of their identities, but they’re no longer their business. West left the front office in 2000 and Johnson sold his ownership stake in 2010. You could make a case that the exodus of the valuable institutional knowledge of Johnson and West is one of the reasons the team is in its current state.

The older generation of Lakers felt more nostalgic than ornery. Hawkins sat next to Baylor and talked about the team’s early days in Los Angeles, when they played at a nearly empty Sports Arena and didn’t have a full-time radio play-by-play announcer. Hawkins recounted one of his favorite stories, the time he and Baylor combined for 78 points -- 71 of them by Baylor.

Jeremy Lin probably won’t have such fond recollections of Sunday night, when he and Kobe Bryant combined to score 44 points -- 44 of them by Bryant. Bryant took 34 shots to Lin’s two.

But watching Kobe shoot and score seemed to be enough to satisfy the fans, who were oddly complacent throughout the game. No boos rained down, not even when the Warriors went ahead by 38 points. Most of the fans even remained in their seats well into the fourth quarter, even after it became apparent that neither Bryant nor the Warriors’ starters would return to the court. Lakers games feel more like a tourist destination than a sporting event these days. Come look at the banners and the Laker Girls and Jack Nicholson, say you’ve seen Kobe do his thing, and don’t worry about the outcome of the game.

One of the patrons who stayed until the end was Shaquille O’Neal, who was “in father mode” and took his kids to the game at their request.

O’Neal said Kobe and all of the residents of Lakerland just need to hang in there.

“It’s not what L.A. fans are accustomed to,” O’Neal said. “Just got to weather the storm.”

There’s sunshine in O’Neal’s life. He has an ownership stake in the Sacramento Kings, who are 6-4. The Lakers legends have moved on. Even on a rare occasion when they were all in the same building again, there was no collective angst about the franchise’s descent to the bottom of the Western Conference.

It’s not their problem.

Sideline view: Pacers and Heat

November, 13, 2014
Adande By J.A. Adande
Here are some sights, sounds (I still can't get "Just The Way You Are" out of my head) and notes from my two days in Miami to work the sidelines for the Pacers vs. the Heat for ESPN's game broadcast.

The Indiana Pacers' three victories so far might be enough to qualify them as the NBA overachievers of the year. They went through training camp working on an approach for a team that lost Paul George to injury and Lance Stephenson to free agency. Then half of their rotation players were wiped out by injuries right before the regular season started.

[+] EnlargeRoy Hibbert
Andy Lyons/Getty ImagesRoy Hibbert finds himself as the lone Pacers mainstay standing at the moment.
The Pacers tried to stick with the same system. But as the injuries to David West, George Hill, C.J. Miles, C.J. Watson and Rodney Stuckey lingered the Pacers had to realize that what they thought of as their temporary team was going to be their actual team for a little while longer. They were caught in an unexpected rainstorm, and have considered reworking things to accommodate who they are. Somehow, in the midst of trying to decide whether to reconfigure their approach, they managed to win their third game of the season.

The only players who have maintained their expected roles are starting center Roy Hibbert and his backup, Ian Mahinmi. So it’s the old coaching quandary of plugging players into a system or adjusting a system to suit the players…while those players are adjusting to playing with each other.

The Hibbert-Copeland-Solomon Hill-Lavoy Allen-Donald Sloan lineup the Pacers used in the fourth quarter against the Miami Heat had played together for only 13 minutes, according to And that's the group that expanded the lead.

In some cases it’s not just different roles, it’s different positions. After the New York Knicks used Copeland at power forward, the Pacers are playing him at small forward.

“I’m a decent athlete, but I’m not one of those super-athlete guys,” Copeland said. “I get by on just skills and fundamentals, pretty much. So playing against these guys who are a lot quicker and more athletic coming off a ball screen [is difficult].”

In the regular season, playing hard can overcome a multitude of issues. And effort is one thing the Pacers have provided consistently, as evidenced by rebounding, the most effort-based statistic. They’re the third-best rebounding team in the NBA, second-best in offensive rebounds. They destroyed the Heat on the boards Wednesday, 53-28.

Talent tends to win out in the NBA. What the Pacers have done is find a way to give themselves a chance while they're devoid of talent. Of their six losses, only the Memphis Grizzlies beat them by double-digits. Teams look at Indiana’s lineup and expect a night off, but the Pacers never give it to them.

* * *

Where do the Pacers go from here? It’s not really up to them. David West and Roy Hibbert have player options for next season. If they come back and Paul George returns from his broken leg, the Pacers will try to make another run at it with this group. If not, the Pacers will have ample room under the salary cap in the summer of 2015, giving them the flexibility to reconfigure their team.

One of the things they hope to get from this season is the development of Solomon Hill, their first-round pick in 2013. He’s showing signs of improved shooting, hitting 36 percent of his 3-point shots so far after shooting 30 percent last season. They already love his defense, and it’s notable how vocal he is about defensive assignments and adjustments, both in the huddle and on the court.

* * *

This might seem convoluted, but ride it out: the Heat are a good team because they don’t know how good they are. Just listen to Dwyane Wade discuss the mix of new players, plus returning players who dramatically shifted roles.

“It was hard early on,” Wade said. “We started off 0-4 in preseason because we were all trying to figure each other out. We were trying to figure out kind of a new system. And also trying to get rid of the comfort of knowing we can do it, which we’ve done the last four years.”

Get rid of the comfort?

“The one thing that’s cool about this team is that we didn’t know,” Wade said. "We knew we had individual pieces, but you come into games not really knowing if you have enough every night to overcome a 20-point deficit or a 10-point deficit. The last few years we kind of knew we could overcome it. Right now, the excitement of it is figuring it out together.”

Now it makes sense. There’s a regular-season lull that comes with proven greatness. This version of the Heat hasn’t proven anything, so every night is a new opportunity and adventure.

* * *

Erik Spoelstra said the decision to start Norris Cole at point guard came by accident. Mario Chalmers was out for a preseason game, Cole started and Spoelstra liked what he saw.

While playing with the second unit means Chalmers can be more assertive, it hasn't helped Chalmers shoot more accurately. His field goal percentage is at 40 percent, down from a career-high 45 percent last season

Chalmers seemed plagued by uncertainty during the NBA Finals, when he weighed the possibility that those games could be his last with the Heat. But the free agent was re-signed to a two-year contract in the summer, which he called “a big relief.”

“I never wanted to leave in the first place,” Chalmers said. “I feel like Miami is home to me. I’ve been here my whole career. Hopefully I can stay my whole career.”

One last note on Chalmers. Maybe it was just a little self-deprecating joke, or maybe it showed where his confidence level is right now, but when I asked Chalmers if the Nintendo character on his T-shirt was Super Mario or just regular Mario, Chalmers said: “This is Super Mario. I’m the regular one right now.”

* * *

The two greatest unofficial job titles are mogul and guru. The two greatest official job titles are consultant and ambassador. You should aspire to be at least one of those four things.

For example, recently retired Heat player Shane Battier’s new title is Miami Heat ambassador. Apparently, part of the job description is singing “Just The Way You Are” to promote an upcoming Billy Joel concert at American Airlines Arena. Yep, he gets paid to do karaoke.

Battier is learning another benefit to ambassadoring. (See, another sign of a great job title is if it can’t properly be used as a verb). While talking with a few reporters before the news conference, Battier said one of the best parts of his new role (in addition to speaking engagements) is using parts of his mind he’d shut off during his 13-year playing career.

“The thing that struck me in just having time to meet people is that there’s a whole world out there of fascinating people doing awesome things,” Battier said. “They’re changing the world. And sometimes, especially in this business, you’re caught up in the next shootaround, the next game, the next practice, the next flight. You have a very myopic view of just the world. And that’s been the most fun part is talking to people and being part of conferences and speaking to groups and having amazing conversations ... it’s amazing, it’s stimulating and it’s exciting to finally be a part of it.”

Battier always came off as one of the players who was well aware of the world beyond the court. If he says he was insulated, it lets you know just how cut off from reality most pro athletes are.

Free, Love: The liberated T-Wolves

August, 23, 2014
Adande By J.A. Adande
The only thing we know with certainty is that Aug. 23, 2014, marks the date of the liberation of the Minnesota Timberwolves. We don’t know yet if it will go down as the day the Cleveland Cavaliers acquired their final championship component, or the day the Timberwolves landed the Next Big Thing. Too many variables involved to be sure. But go ahead and rejoice in the freedom of the Timberwolves. They’re freed from expectations, freed from conventional NBA style and most of all freed from that most hellish of NBA locales, the Cape of Mediocrity.

There was all of this pressure to get good or lose Kevin Love. Fret no more. Now they’ve lost him, even though it turned out they weren’t that good with him. Their best record in Love’s six seasons in Minnesota was this season’s 40-42 -- and there’s not much worse in the NBA than being 40-42. That’s not good enough to be a contender, not bad enough to have a good shot at getting a top draft pick in the lottery.

Now there’s no need for them to get good right away. Flip Saunders is in his first year back as coach. He also happens to be the GM. He’s not on the hot seat, he just did the ice bucket challenge.

With Andrew Wiggins and Zach LaVine flying through the air and Ricky Rubio throwing them lob passes, the Timberwolves have a chance to be the most entertaining team in the league. They never were going to be that with Love. Even though I could spend entire summer afternoons watching this Love outlet GIF -- it’s that mesmerizing -- Love doesn’t make you jump out of your seat and immediately start texting your buddies.

And if the best thing the Timberwolves have to offer is style, maybe they can play in a way that runs counter to the NBA trend of jacking up 3-pointers all the time. Last season they were one of the worst 3-point shooting teams in the NBA (ranking 26th), but that didn’t stop them from attempting just as many 3s as the league leader in 3-point percentage, the San Antonio Spurs. Love was the biggest culprit, and his 505 3-point attempts were more than all but five players in the league.

Wiggins wasn’t a stellar 3-point shooter in college and Anthony Bennett made only 10 as a rookie last season. They should be attacking the hoop and leaving the 3s to Kevin Martin. Scrap the layups/3s/free throws model the rest of the league operates under and go for dunks/dunks/more dunks.

Minnesota’s good luck should be our good luck ... and it all starts with Cleveland’s good luck. Has anyone ever benefited more from someone else’s good fortune than the Timberwolves? Usually premium talent becomes available because something went wrong. Clashes with management, attitude issues, contractual stalemates. In this case Minnesota had a chance to cash in because so much went right for Cleveland. The Cavaliers landed No. 1 pick after No. 1 pick, and then the best player in the game returned because he got homesick. So the Cavaliers had the motivation to accelerate their winning window and the means to get Love with that ultra-rare offer of back-to-back No. 1 picks.

I’d much rather have rookie contracts than expiring contracts (which is primarily what Minnesota sent to Philadelphia, along with a first-round pick from Miami, to get Love fill-in Thaddeus Young). If the Timberwolves so desire, they can have Wiggins and Bennett for a combined $53 million over the next four years. Compare that to, say, Eric Gordon on a $58 million deal over four years.

When the Timberwolves first came to grips with the likelihood they’d have to trade Love they couldn’t have imagined they would end up with the top pick in the most anticipated draft in years. They’ve got a player with the talent to become a star. Even if Wiggins’ potential goes unfulfilled, at least the Timberwolves are unburdened.

Durant sizes up the new KDs

August, 7, 2014
Adande By J.A. Adande
For a guy with his own line of signature shoes, Kevin Durant sure spends a lot of time wearing retro Air Jordans. The sneakerhead side of Durant came out Thursday, because he didn’t just drop the proverbial other shoe following Paul George's horrific injury. By withdrawing from the U.S. men's national team, Durant dropped a pair of still-in-the-box kicks, addressing both the impact of George's injury and the notion of championship windows.

Both were fair game when George broke his leg in a USA Basketball exhibition game last week. We wondered if it would shock the red, white and blue out of other players, and we also wondered whether this was the end of the Indiana Pacers' championship pursuit. The Pacers have already lost Lance Stephenson, their toughest competitor in the 2014 playoffs. George could miss next season, and who knows how much stronger the other Eastern Conference teams will be in 2015-16. The only Pacers currently under contract for 2016-17 are George and George Hill. It's quite possible that Game 7 of the 2013 Eastern Conference finals represented the pinnacle of these Pacers as we've known them.

Maybe Durant is stirred by the fear that the same could be said of his Oklahoma City Thunder team that won Game 1 of the 2012 NBA Finals. He didn't know that would be James Harden's final series in a Thunder uniform. He couldn’t have guessed that Russell Westbrook would be lost after two games in the 2013 playoffs or that Serge Ibaka would miss the first two games of the 2014 Western Conference finals.

Here's what Durant does know for sure: He has two more years on his contract, Westbrook and Ibaka have three more, and next summer Reggie Jackson will command far more than the $2.3 million he'll make this season. There are tangible limits to the Thunder future that once seemed to stretch out like the Oklahoma plains. This season could very well be Durant's best opportunity to win a championship with this group. Or ever.

The Thunder split the four playoff games in which Ibaka played against the eventual champion San Antonio Spurs. The players who accounted for 89 percent of Oklahoma City's points in that series are returning. Durant is the reigning Most Valuable Player. There's no promise that the circumstances will ever be better.

So, for the first time on the national stage, Durant put himself first. In the USA Basketball news release, he said, "I need to take a step back and take some time away, both mentally and physically in order to prepare for the upcoming NBA season."

Although he didn’t cite George's injury, the timing of this move is telling. It’s not as if he just looked at the schedule and saw there'd be up to five more weeks of work. He knew the level of commitment going in. And this is from a guy who seems indefatigable in the summers, showing up to play anywhere there's a rim and a net.

Durant has already logged two runs with the national team, competing in the 2010 world championships and the 2012 Olympics. He won a gold medal both times. His account is paid up. And all of that time in the casino during Team USA training camps in Las Vegas has taught him the wisdom of leaving the table when the chips are stacked in your favor. He has missed a total of only five games the past five seasons; no need to add unnecessary risk to that run of durability.

Durant doesn't want what happened to Paul George -- or even worse, what could happen to Paul George -- to happen to him.

The Clippers' no-win situation

July, 23, 2014
Adande By J.A. Adande

There’s no need for Doc Rivers, Chris Paul or any other member of the Los Angeles Clippers to abandon ship now, because there’s no way for them to beat Donald Sterling. You can’t defeat a man who doesn’t care if he loses, and Sterling’s made it clear he fears no loss at all. He doesn’t care if he loses out on the $2 billion he could get if he signed off on the sale of the team to Steve Ballmer. He doesn’t care about salvaging whatever respect accompanied his name. He doesn’t care about paying attorneys for a never-ending series of lawsuits.

There’s no reason to prove a point to the NBA because commissioner Adam Silver and the league are on their side, having banned Sterling for life with a willingness to vote to oust him if need be. If the forced sale gets tied up in the legal system, so will an attempt by Sterling to overturn his ban. Either way, don’t expect Sterling to be sitting courtside on opening night. So what would a resignation by Rivers – as interim CEO Richard Parsons suggested could happen -- or a player boycott accomplish? It would create nothing but hardship for other players, fans, arena workers and broadcast partners.

For anyone contemplating bailing, it’s really about resolving a conflict with their own conscience. And the only way to do that would be to give back every dollar they ever made from Sterling. They can’t act as if Sterling’s true nature only came to light when TMZ posted the V. Stiviano recordings in April. If they signed their contracts in a shroud of ignorance, that’s on them.

Sterling’s lawyers are trying to portray this entire saga as an unfair exploitation of an illegally recorded private conversation. It’s so far beyond that now. Every act of defiance by Sterling, every sponsor who stays away from the Clippers while he still owns the team, every day this story drags on all conspire to “affect the Association…adversely”, which is one of the criteria for the NBA to terminate ownership. So is delinquency in paying debts to the league, and the NBA says Sterling still hasn’t paid the $2.5 million fine levied by Silver.

It’s impossible to discern Sterling’s end game. He can’t realistically hope to keep his team. He’s not looking to get as much money as possible. He apparently enjoys inconveniencing as many people for as long as he can. The option of inconveniencing him right back isn’t viable. He takes the witness stand and disparages everyone in the NBA, yet he resists a $2 billion opportunity to rid himself of their company forever. Apparently, he prefers this misery.

Even if the players, sponsors and fans abandon him and he feels compelled to sell he’ll still reap a windfall. We just witnessed the Clippers go through a no-leverage sale (get rid of the team immediately or have the league do it for you) and get sold at quadruple the market value. Apparently there’s nothing that can depreciate this asset. Sterling’s best efforts couldn’t.

The irony of Rivers weighing the option of quitting is that it would be the equivalent of firing someone who had just typed up a letter of resignation.

As draft ends, even more questions arise

June, 27, 2014
Adande By J.A. Adande

The most intriguing draft in years is over, and it still doesn’t feel like we know anything.

How many of the top 10 picks have you feeling like you can confidently describe what they’ll bring to their teams next year?

How well rookies contribute is always a question. The difference this year is trying to anticipate exactly what offensive skills theses guys will perform –- and for how many games?

Will Joel Embiid’s fractured foot allow him to play at all? Will Julius Randle need to take some time off to have his foot tuned up?

And those are just the injured guys. Exactly what does Dante Exum bring to Utah? Or Noah Vonleh to Charlotte?

[+] EnlargeAndrew Wiggins
Brad Penner/USA TODAY SportsAndrew Wiggins led a host of teenagers taken in the 2014 draft. Which youngsters will develop into stars?
For years we were sold on the potential of this draft, and now that it’s over it’s still about potential. That’s what happens when teams place a greater premium on upside and combine measurables than basketball experience.

The first nine picks had an average age of 19 and consisted of six freshmen, two sophomores and the Australian, Exum, who didn’t go to college in the United States.

Doug McDermott, a senior who was the NCAA player of the year, went No. 11. Wichita State’s Cleanthony Early, the best player on the best college team in the regular season, wasn’t selected until the second round.

It’s obvious why Adam Silver has made raising the minimum entry age a priority. Otherwise these NBA general managers can’t help themselves.

I definitely don’t blame the players for fleeing the serfdom of the NCAA. If the NCAA loses the lawsuit brought by Ed O’Bannon, and players are ultimately allowed to be compensated for their likenesses, it could be the best thing to happen to everyone involved.

Staying in school might be a lot more appealing to players if they could get paid six figures to do so. They’d have fewer responsibilities and more time to learn and compete against players their own age. College basketball would have a better talent pool, and the TV networks providing all that money would have a better product to showcase.

The NBA could get more time to evaluate these players before making multiyear, multimillion-dollar commitments to them. Or, as MSG Network’s Alan Hahn suggested on Twitter, if we did away with the fallacy of amateurism, teams could draft American players and stash them in college to develop -- similar to the strategy that is used with Europeans. It could even allow players to wield a bit of influence regarding where they’re drafted if they could hold the threat of staying in school against undesirable teams that wanted them to enter the league right away.

Players should be encouraged, not forced, to stay in school longer. But as long as NBA teams are tripping over each other to take the least accomplished athletes, they’ll keep making the leap regardless of preparation level. The top three picks in this year’s draft can claim one NCAA tournament game victory between them (Andrew Wiggins at Kansas). That’s the fewest for the top three since the “one-and-done” era began with the 2007 draft, and barely surpasses the zero from 2001, when two high school players (Kwame Brown and Tyson Chandler) and a Spaniard (Pau Gasol) went with the top three picks.

I’ve had general managers tell me they don’t even scout the NCAA tournament, that if they don’t have enough intel on a player by the time March Madness arrives they haven’t been doing their jobs properly. I disagree. The best of the recent Charlotte draft picks, Kemba Walker, is the guy who led his team to a championship.

Joakim Noah helped Florida win a championship, then defied draft projections to stay in school and help the Gators win another one. He was punished for it, falling to the ninth pick in the 2007 draft. Yi Jianlian of China and Brandan Wright, a freshman from North Carolina, were among those who went ahead of Noah. Lucky for the Chicago Bulls, they wound up with a player who was the Defensive Player of the Year and first-team All-NBA this past season.

Maybe LeBron James was onto something when he raved about Shabazz Napier on Twitter, and the Heat made sure to accommodate him by trading with Charlotte to acquire the former UConn point guard. Somehow the guy deemed the most outstanding player of the 2014 NCAA tournament was still around at No. 24. Perhaps winning two championships with Shane Battier, the most outstanding player of the 2001 NCAA tournament, helped LeBron realize the value of collegiate championship pedigree. It's kind of ironic that a guy who entered the league straight out of high school places so much importance on college accomplishments.

Just as some teams were in the dark about certain players’ medical records, teams drafted without much evidence of the top prospects coming through in the big games.

High draft picks are expected to dominate, to alter the course of their franchises. But the safest expectations these days might be no expectations. When my colleague Ramona Shelburne asked Lakers GM Mitch Kupchak if his team’s selection with the No. 7 pick, Randle, was the type of player to build around, Kupchak’s answer was telling.

“He’s young, and you don’t know how somebody’s going to develop,” Kupchak said. “There’s really no reason why he can’t continue to improve. To make a decision about building around a 19-year-old player right now is really premature.”

In that light, grading any draft for the teams in the top 10 is premature. Not only do we not know, we know even less than we usually don’t know.

Joel Embiid fits Lakers' needs

June, 20, 2014
Adande By J.A. Adande
Joel Embiid is shaping up as the latest incarnation in the storied lineage of Los Angeles Lakers centers. He’s got the back problems of Dwight Howard and the foot problems of Shaquille O’Neal and Pau Gasol.

That doesn’t mean the Lakers should not take him if the two screws implanted into the navicular bone in his right foot Friday scare away enough teams to leave Embiid available at the No. 7 pick. At the moment he’s a better fit for them than any other team in the draft’s top 10.

With Kobe Bryant under contract for two high-cost seasons, the Lakers don’t need to a pick for the long term. They need to extract as much as they can from what’s left of Bryant’s career. With that mentality, it wouldn’t be as devastating to them if Embiid’s career is cut short by injuries. Even one or two high-level seasons would suffice. It’s the same risk they took when they brought in Howard fresh off back surgery in 2012; they shouldn’t get shy because it didn’t pay off.

Besides, the chances of getting a long-term franchise cornerstone at No. 7 are slim. None of the seventh picks from 2003 to 2008 has stayed with his team for the duration of his career. (Two of them, Kirk Hinrich and Corey Brewer, are back with their original teams after going elsewhere).

The long-term success of the Lakers isn’t strictly dependent on striking gold in the draft. They’ve shown they are capable of landing major free agents or making trades with confidence that players will re-sign with them. Hearing Julius Randle glow about the mystique of the Lakers and his admiration for Kobe after his workout in L.A. this week served as a reminder that the Lakers still resonate with the up-and-coming generation of players. They also have the financial means to go into the luxury tax to assemble and maintain their roster.

No other team with high draft picks has that fallback. They all need their picks in this deeper-than-normal draft to click if they’re going to have success.

The Lakers’ fan base wouldn’t freak out if they picked Embiid. While O’Neal had that problematic big toe and Gasol has dealt with plantar fasciitis, the Lakers don’t have the star-crossed injury history of say, Portland, with its litany of limping big men from Bill Walton to Sam Bowie to Greg Oden that would immediately make Laker fans fear for the worst.

Actually, Walton’s Portland years -- one great season, four injury-plagued ones -- would be more than enough for the Lakers from the No. 7 spot. Walton played more than 58 games in a season only once for the Trail Blazers, but that once was enough to get him a Most Valuable Player award, a championship and a cherished spot in the hearts of all Blazers fans. That might be more than Embiid fulfilling his potential, Bryant returning to 80 percent of his capacity and a key free agent could accomplish for the Lakers ... but at least Embiid could entice with possibilities.

There’s no player in this draft who’s guaranteed to make his team into an annual championship contender. Among the players the Lakers have brought in for workouts this week were Randle, Marcus Smart, Aaron Gordon, Nik Stauskas and Elfrid Payton, who is rocketing up the mock draft lists and impressed the Lakers in his session Friday. All could be good, none has the potential of Embiid.

If the Lakers take Embiid and it doesn’t work out, there won’t be the pervading sense of “What if?” that haunts the Trail Blazers with Oden and Kevin Durant. For the Lakers, it’s always, “What’s next?”

The small numbers that led to $2 billion

May, 30, 2014
Adande By J.A. Adande
The $2 billion valuation for the Los Angeles Clippers wouldn’t be possible without the numbers 5, 3, 6 and 10. Those were the digits on the ping-pong balls that allowed the Clippers to win the 2009 draft lottery, the combination that led to them landing Blake Griffin. Steve Ballmer’s record-setting purchase price for the franchise makes that pick the financial equivalent of the enduring success the San Antonio Spurs enjoyed by winning the Tim Duncan sweepstakes.

Everything the Clippers have become started with Griffin. Without Griffin there’d be no Chris Paul. Without Chris Paul there’d be no Doc Rivers. And without Griffin and Paul and Rivers, would there be a $2 billion dollar sale?

We’ll never know for sure. Maybe Ballmer was just that set on getting a team. A league source said Ballmer had expressed regret about losing out on the Sacramento Kings and wished he’d kept going until the number got so high the NBA had to relent to his Seattle-based group. The source said Ballmer vowed to never get outbid again. Maybe all it took was the availability of a team in Los Angeles in a modern arena with a local television deal that’s about to make them free agents in the city’s most competitive sports TV rights market ever. Maybe those factors alone were enough for Ballmer to get to three commas, then quickly double it.

But the fact that it was a good team couldn’t hurt, right? It’s not the L.A. NBA team with the glorious past, but it is the more successful L.A. NBA team of the present, and the one with the more promising future.

And that all goes back to Blake Griffin. Sometimes I’ll look at him, off at the far end of the Clippers practice facility shooting free throws, and wonder how so much money – a mini-economy, really – can be tied to one person’s basketball ability. If he ever had those thoughts as well he just saw a clear example leap out of the headlines the way he soars to the hoop.

The bad part is there’s no way for him to be justly compensated. His salary remains the same no matter if the franchise value quadrupled during his time in uniform. It’s actually been worse for Tim Duncan. The salary cap rules have forced him to slash his salary in order for the Spurs to surround him with enough talent to keep contending for championships.

Here’s an idea for the next go-round of collective bargaining: what about allowing teams to provide shares of the team that vest upon retirement for players who have spent at least 12 years with the same franchise? Give the superstars some equity for the loyalty they’ve shown to the team and the value they’ve added to it. That way the Lakers could simply reward Kobe Bryant for what he’s meant to them, rather than simultaneously punish him by making it harder for him to chase his sixth ring because his salary eats up so much of the cap.

The side effect could be small market teams would be less likely to get LeBronned and watch a superstar draft pick depart to spend the prime years of his career elsewhere. The prospect of spending a dozen years in Milwaukee might be more appealing to a player if he knew he could reap the benefits the next time the team gets sold for a surprisingly high amount.

The way it stands now, the NBA is players’ league – until it’s time for the biggest checks to be deposited. That's when even the high-flying Griffin can only stand to the side and watch.

Resolving the problem

May, 29, 2014
Adande By J.A. Adande
SAN ANTONIO -- One of the San Antonio Spurs’ most admirable qualities -- their resilience -- is now one of their most essential. The resolve that helped them bounce back from last year’s devastating loss in the NBA Finals and put themselves in position to grab another championship is what they’ll need to draw from in Thursday night’s Game 5 and the remainder of the Western Conference finals.

“They’re a real professional group,” Gregg Popovich said of his team. “There’s not going to be any team at this point in the playoffs that’s not professional and hungry and play hard, whether it’s a win or a loss.”

Popovich is right, despite the occasional evidence to the contrary the Indiana Pacers provide. His words are particularly accurate in the West, where it’s quite possible that the Oklahoma City Thunder’s athleticism advantage is more significant than the Spurs’ wisdom edge.

Yes, the lineup of Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili, Boris Diaw and Kawhi Leonard -- the Spurs’ second-most used unit this season –- boasts a collective 725 playoff games of experience. But if Scott Brooks wanted to he could easily field a lineup with a total of 584 playoff games to their credit: Kevin Durant, Serge Ibaka, Derek Fisher, Russell Westbrook and Kendrick Perkins.

The other day, Durant said that experience pays off in “knowing that we’ve been here before and knowing how we responded,” as well as saying “just knowing that a couple of possessions can switch the series up.” It’s the knowledge mixed with the athletic ability that makes them so dangerous. Popovich used Westbrook as an example of a player whose effort on the court reflected the stakes of Game 4.

Somehow the Spurs didn’t respond. At the moment, the Thunder have the edge in awareness.

“It’s important for us to have ... a sense of place, a sense of where we are and what kind of an opportunity we have here, and to what degree do we want to take advantage of it,” Popovich told reporters Wednesday. “These things don’t come along every year, to be in this kind of a position. I’m anxious to see what our approach is mentally to the game.”

The rest of us are curious to see whether Popovich has any significant adjustments for Game 5. He got everything he could have asked for from the lineup of Diaw, Cory Joseph, Marco Belinelli, Matt Bonner and Aaron Baynes that he sent in once the Spurs fell hopelessly behind. That doesn’t guarantee we’ll see more of it, in any form.

“That was a situation that called for something like that,” Popovich said. “But I wouldn’t think that that’s going to be a staple.”

The Spurs could use a “stretch 4” to pull Ibaka away from the basket.They actually have one in Bonner, but he brings defensive concerns and has fallen out of the rotation in the past couple of years. His reduced usage can be traced back to the 2012 conference finals against the Thunder, when Bonner’s play increased from 11 minutes in Game 1 to 17 minutes in Game 2 to 23 minutes in Game 3, then dropped to two minutes in Game 4, 50 seconds in Game 5 to not playing at all in Game 6. Bonner’s time in the 2014 series has mostly come once the outcome has been decided.

Diaw has been the primary frontcourt sub, but he’s shooting only 27 percent on 3-pointers in the series.

The Spurs had some success running their offense through Duncan in the high post and letting him make passes to players cutting to the basket. He had assists on three of the Spurs’ eight baskets in the second quarter of Game 4. That’s another area they could explore.

The longer a series goes on, the less it becomes about adjustments. Radical change at this stage often reeks of desperation. It’s more about maximizing than countering, as Ginobili alluded.

“We’ve got to get to a point where we play much harder and much smarter,” he said. “We’ve got to attack quicker, don’t let their pressure bother us or get us on our heels.”

They’ve got to dip into their well of resolve.