TrueHoop: Josh Howard

The book on Rick Carlisle

January, 18, 2013
1/18/13
11:11
AM ET
Arnovitz By Kevin Arnovitz
ESPN.com
Archive
Rick Carlisle
Rocky Widner/NBAE/Getty ImagesRick Carlisle: The pragmatist

Name: Rick Carlisle

Birthdate: October 27, 1959

Is he an emotional leader or a tactician?
A tactician. Carlisle inspires his team and staff with his deep knowledge of the game, not an emotional appeal. They know he’s passionate about winning and losing, but that’s conveyed through his intelligence and command, not huddle histrionics or heartfelt one-on-ones with players or coaches. Those who’ve worked with him, as well as colleagues around the league, marvel at Carlisle’s ability to manage the last five minutes of a basketball game.

Is he intense or a go along-get along type?
You’d be hard-pressed to find anyone in the NBA who would characterize Carlisle as lighthearted. He’s very intense, but he also knows how to corral that sharpness and doesn’t coach angry.

Does he rely on systems, or does he coach ad hoc to his personnel?
Give Carlisle the pieces, and he’ll find something that works. In Detroit and Indiana, Carlisle’s teams were defined by their defense and were all about controlling the possession on offense. He succeeded with both Stackhouse-Atkins and Billups-Hamilton backcourts in Detroit, all four guards decidedly different in styles and strengths. In Indiana, Jermaine O’Neal got the ball on the left block, and Reggie Miller curled off single-singles, stacks and staggered screens. In Dallas, Carlisle went away from play-calling in favor of something that relied on more general principles -- and the instincts of Jason Kidd and Dirk Nowitzki to put those principles into action. To the extent that there’s a commonality over the course of Carlisle's career, it’s “Find the right shot at the right time for the right guy.”

Does he share decision-making with star players, or is he the Decider?
Carlisle is the Decider, but he’s exceptionally good at giving his key players the sense that they own a piece of the enterprise. He takes in a lot of information -- from assistants, star players, owners, numbers guys and trainers -- and that knowledge will often guide his decisions. For instance, things weren’t so rosy in fall 2008 when the Mavericks came out of the gate 2-7. Kidd didn’t want every set being commandeered from the sideline and was pining for more freedom. Carlisle went into the lab with his staff, came up with the "push" offense, which gave Kidd the flexibility he needed, but still generated the right shot at the right time for the right guy. That often amounted to an early jump shot for Nowitzki in a prime spot.

Does he prefer the explosive scorer or the lockdown defender?
Carlisle has always appreciated who’s helping his team on the defensive end of the floor and feels confident he can find good shots for just about anyone -- even a defensive specialist like DeShawn Stevenson. In Indiana, Carlisle found plenty of minutes for Fred Jones, and in Dallas there has almost always been a Corey Brewer, James Singleton or Quinton Ross within close reach if needed for defensive duty. All that said, neither Corliss Williamson nor Jason Terry ever had to worry about losing minutes under Carlisle, who can recognize a well-tuned microwave when he sees one.

Does he prefer a set rotation, or is he more likely to use his personnel situationally?
Carlisle has no problem mixing things up when he identifies an opportunity. When his Pacers team needed to unclog the half court against the Pistons in a grueling conference final in 2004, Carlisle had Austin Croshere make his first start in two seasons to help the spacing. When his Mavericks team needed someone to attack the Heat’s defense off the dribble in the 2011 Finals, Carlisle inserted J.J. Barea into the starting lineup for the final three games of the series en route to an NBA championship. Throughout his tenure in Dallas, if a player has cracked the code in a regular-season game -- say Brandon Bass in a pick-and-roll with Barea -- Carlisle will gladly leave him out there to exploit an opponent’s defensive vulnerability.

Will he trust young players in big spots, or is he more inclined to use his veterans?
Again, Carlisle isn’t prone to personal bias. He wants the guy out there who can help him the most. The situation will dictate the personnel, regardless of a factor like age. In Indiana, the core apart from 38-year-old Reggie Miller was very young, and nobody used more possessions for him during his last season in Detroit than 24-year-old Rip Hamilton. Yet Dallas has largely been a veteran’s shop under Carlisle.

Are there any unique strategies that he particularly likes?
Carlisle might never fashion a trend in the NBA, but he’ll take a current one and perfect it.

The push offense isn’t so much an offensive system as it is solution to a problem. The 2008-09 Mavericks roster featured few players who could break a defense down with penetration and nobody who could be classified as a low-post threat. What Dallas had in spades were one- and two-dribble jump shooters and guys with astronomical basketball I.Q.s and other discernible skills like picking, diving and cutting. So Carlisle, with the aid of then-assistant coach Terry Stotts, devised a strategy to empower the team to find early high-percentage looks against an imbalanced defense.

As a general tactic, this wasn’t new -- several teams had abandoned structure for freedom, Mike D’Antoni’s Phoenix squads the best example. But unlike D’Antoni, Carlisle didn’t have a prober like Steve Nash, nor was his group in Dallas as speedy or stretchy. The Mavs couldn’t run and shoot with abandon, but Kidd could orchestrate an aggressive offense that knew how to sniff out those clean, early looks. That often meant getting wings and big men behind plays into random pick-and-rolls, or pinning Nowitzki’s man early, or hitting Terry on the secondary break for a trailing jumper, or finding Josh Howard (later Shawn Marion) underneath a defense that’s collapsed after an early drag screen.

Given his conventional playbook at his previous stops, this shift to a more free-flowing offense seemed like a departure for Carlisle. But in time, we learned that Carlisle didn’t coach a deliberate, half-court game in Detroit and Indiana because he had a predisposition for it. He drew it up that way because his rosters necessitated more structure. When the circumstances in Dallas revealed themselves and he realized Kidd wasn’t Jamaal Tinsley or Anthony Johnson, Carlisle deftly adjusted to the talent around him and created something special.

Defensively, the Mavericks adopted an inventive zone defense strategy devised by Dwane Casey. They were the rare team that was able to effectively zone up after misses, and would actually employ both zone and man-to-man schemes within a single possession.

What were his characteristics as a player?
A plodding but an intensely hard-working shooting guard who was always prepared and stayed in impeccable shape. Curiously, he tallied only 3.5 rebounds per 36 minutes for a total rebounding rate of 5.4 percent -- one of the lowest in history for a guard his size. By all accounts, this wasn’t for a lack of effort, but a lack of hops.

Which coaches did he play for?
Carlisle played for Pine Tree State lifer Skip Chappelle at the University of Maine before transferring to the University of Virginia, where Terry Holland was the head coach. During his three years with the Boston Celtics, Carlisle came off the bench for K.C. Jones. Rick Pitino had Carlisle for a single season in New York. Carlisle finished his career as a player with New Jersey for Bill Fitch, who eventually offered him his first job on an NBA staff.

What is his coaching pedigree?
After being waived by the Nets, Carlisle got his start breaking down film under Fitch. In 1994, Carlisle joined P.J. Carlesimo's staff in Portland, where he worked alongside the legendary Dick Harter, the man responsible for the Bad Boy Pistons’ “Jordan Rules” defensive strategy. Harter had a tremendous influence on Carlisle, who ultimately adopted many of Harter’s principles in Detroit and Indiana -- strong base defense without much switching, few double-teams, help and rotations only when necessary and, above all, physicality. In 1997, Carlisle joined the coaching staff of former teammate Larry Bird in Indiana. Again Carlisle found himself on staff with defensive guru Harter. When Bird left the sideline in 2000, Carlisle was passed over for Isiah Thomas, but was tapped by the Pistons for his first head coaching gig. After two seasons in Detroit, Carlisle moved on to Indiana for four seasons before landing in Dallas in 2008 after a one-year sabbatical.

If basketball didn't exist, what might he be doing?
Working as a clinical psychologist.

Post-All-Star Game Bullets

February, 15, 2010
2/15/10
12:07
PM ET
Arnovitz By Kevin Arnovitz
ESPN.com
Archive

The High-Grade Sleepers

August, 17, 2009
8/17/09
10:06
AM ET
Posted by Kevin Arnovitz

NBA training camps are still a few weeks away, but rosters around the league are gradually taking shape. Once David Lee, Allen Iverson and Ramon Sessions have jobs, we'll be ready to go.

The favorites in each conference are easy to spot -- they bear a striking resemblance to the teams that were playing on Memorial Day weekend. But which teams are lurking beneath the surface, ready to assume the role of improbable contender?

If they can avoid the injury bug, and the chemistry works just right, here are three teams that could emerge as success stories come spring:

Dallas Mavericks

Dallas Mavericks


It's easy to forget just how dominant the Dallas Mavericks were when they took the floor against the eighth-seeded Warriors on a Sunday evening in April 2007. This was the last game of the postseason's opening weekend, a perfunctory item of business for the Mavs en route to a conference finals matchup against the Suns or the Spurs.
Dirk Nowitzki & Shawn Marion Can this pair inflict serious damage in a brutal Western Conference? (Garrett Ellwood/NBAE/Getty Images)

Dallas was one year removed from an NBA Finals appearance, and had just piled up 67 wins in the regular season. Only five teams in NBA history had recorded more Ws in a single season. Dirk Nowitzki was the presumptive MVP (and would go on to win the award).

The Mavs' epic collapse in that first-round series against the Warriors has been well-documented, and over the next two seasons, Dallas would descend from its perch into the Western Conference's upper-middle class.

What's interesting about that falloff is how many of the elements of that Mavs team remain intact today -- to say nothing of the quality pieces that have been added since. 67 wins isn't ancient history; we're talking two seasons ago.

Dirk Nowitzki, at 31, is the same age as Kobe Bryant. While Nowitzki is unlikely to reproduce his 2006-07 exploits, he remains one of the league's best players. Jason Terry has been a model of consistency for Dallas and had arguably the most efficient season of his career as the Mavs' super sub in 2008-09. Josh Howard is only 29. When healthy, he's still one of the more flexible swingmen in the game and a lockdown defender. In 2006-07, J.J. Barea logged fewer than 200 minutes, but he's become a spark plug for the Mavs' quality second unit ever since.

With Jason Kidd settling nicely into the role of veteran facilitator (and surprisingly efficient shooter), the franchise doubled down on the bet that its solid core could maximize what's left of Nowitzki's prime. The Mavs landed Shawn Marion.

Like Howard, Marion is versatile, freakish, and mercurial. Defensively, he can stay in front of speedy point guards, bother face-up power forwards, chase spot-up shooters, and clean up on the boards. Offensively, Marion's downward trajectory the past season and a half began the moment he left Phoenix. Coincidence -- or evidence that his talents demand the care of a veteran, pass-first point guard?

When you consider those assets, then throw in sensible additions like Drew Gooden and Kris Humphries to bolster Erick Dampier on the block, defensive stopper Quinton Ross, and a pair of intriguing rookies, and the Mavs appear ... stacked.

There is no shortage of nightmarish scenarios by which Dallas' gamble can implode. Nowitzki, Kidd, Marion, Terry, and Dampier are all on the wrong side of 30. Howard is accustomed to missing about 15 games a year, and being less than 100 percent for long stretches. The Mavs' best offensive lineup (Kidd-Terry-Howard-Marion-Nowitzki) won't give them much interior defense, and the loss of Brandon Bass makes them a less energetic bunch.

But with Kidd at the point, and a roster of flexible guys who can each serve multiple functions on the floor, Dallas has the potential to develop into a grizzled, selfless squad with the kind of mental edge that just might have been the missing ingredient 28 months ago.


Chicago Bulls

Chicago Bulls


How much should we read into Chicago's classic seven-game series against Boston? Was the Bulls' gutsy performance a harbinger of things to come, or was it lightning in a bottle? Did they graduate into a team that knows how to scramble defenses with a legitimate pick-and-roll game, or were they just lucky to encounter a crippled Celtics team ill-suited to deal with their quickness and athleticism?

Those aren't the only imperative questions for Chicago. Even if we conclude that they came of age in April, is it fair to expect them to continue their progress without their top scorer, Ben Gordon, whom they lost to Detroit?

Short answer: Yes.

Although there will be nights when Gordon's fearlessness as a sniper will be missed, the Bulls might be better served long-term by the three-guard rotation of Derrick Rose, Kirk Hinrich, and John Salmons. With Gordon out of the picture, Rose can assert himself both as distributor and scorer. He's a transcendent young point guard, and one that should flourish now that his running mates in the backcourt are a little more pliable.
Derrick Rose Derrick Rose: Season Two
(Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

Both Rose and Hinrich are expert ballhandlers -- and Hinrich is very comfortable off the ball as well. Salmons, along with Hinrich, is capable of defending all three perimeter positions, can score on pin-downs, slash to the rack, and fire from 3-point range (41.7 percent).

There are good reasons sleepers are sleepers, and the caveats for Chicago reside in its frontcourt. Start at small forward, where Luol Deng will be returning from a stress fracture in his right leg. He last played in a game on February 28. When 100 percent, Deng is a rangy, athletic force in transition and in the halfcourt, where his height and handle give him a big advantage over most defenders at the small forward. When Deng is on his game, he's also the correct answer to the question, "Who's going to make up for Ben Gordon's 20.7 points per game?"

There's a reason why any time a marquee big man comes on the market, he's rumored to be headed to Chicago. But desperate as the Bulls are for help on a threat on the block, we saw something interesting down the stretch last season. Rather than resign themselves to their lack of post scoring, the Bulls began to use Joakim Noah and Tyrus Thomas in pick and roll schemes, where their agility allowed them to beat their defenders to the rim. So long as Thomas resisted launching jump shots, it worked.

Noah doesn't have the jumper to be a high-post center (like backup Brad Miller), but his passing and mobility around the hoop might be enough in Chicago's offense. Thomas, of course, is the wild card. A composite of his finest moments last season would show him as a defensive ace, capable of creating opportunities for himself off the dribble, hitting a face-up jumper, and blocking any shot in medium proximity.

If that highlight reel can become a reality, if Deng can bounce back, and if Rose can continue his co
urse as one of the game's best young playmakers, the Bulls might turn their novelty act from last spring into a long-run production in 2010.


New Orleans Hornets

New Orleans Hornets


Here's one you can play by the pool:

Name the best starting power forward/center tandems in the NBA.

You could begin with Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum. After the Lakers' duo, there's only one other pair of starters who each recorded a player efficiency rating greater than 18:

David West and Emeka Okafor.
Chris Paul & Emeka Okafor For Emeka Okafor, playing alongside Chris Paul will be more pleasant than playing against him. (Photo by Kent Smith/NBAE via Getty Images)

After playing in relative obscurity with Charlotte over the past five seasons, Okafor moves to New Orleans, where he'll fill Tyson Chandler's spot at center for the Hornets. Chandler was a sentimental favorite in New Orleans -- both of the fan base in the Crescent City and his teammates. The Chris Paul to Tyson Chandler alley-oop was one of the NBA's signature highlight reel snippets.

Okafor may not be an elite center, but he's a very, very good big man and a more complete player than Chandler. For an extensive look at New Orleans' upgrade, take a look at John Hollinger's must-read comparison of Okafor and Chandler.

One of the most productive frontcourt tandems in the league and arguably the best point guard on the planet: That's a pretty nice place to start a season, don't you think?

Paul, West, and Okafor might not warrant a "Big Three" designation, but we can agree that they qualify as some sort of troika -- particularly in a scheme that's as dependent on the pick-and-roll as the Hornets offense.

Unfortunately for New Orleans, the NBA game demands that its best teams field a couple of guys on the wing who can create and/or defend -- preferably both -- and this is where the Hornets have depth problems.

As a catch-and-shoot artist, Peja Stojakovic is about as good as we've seen over the past decade, but he's coming off his worst season since the Clinton administration and is increasingly having trouble staying healthy. The Hornets signed James Posey a season ago to play the same role in New Orleans that he did in the Celtics' 2008 championship run -- defensive and 3-point specialist. Posey is good for 25 minutes per night in that capacity, but not dynamic enough to play much more. Morris Peterson was once thought to be a solution on the wing, but injury and age have slowed him. Those three guys -- each born in 1977 -- won't get them the 96 minutes per night they need from the off-guard and small forward.

The Hornets don't need All-Stars at the wings, but they must get solid production. Enter enigmatic, third-year forward Julian Wright.

Whereas the Hornets' aforementioned veterans have trouble doing much more offensively than spot up and shoot, Wright -- on his better nights -- can do everything but shoot. Though he was a menace defensively for the Hornets -- the team was about five points stingier with him on the court -- Wright took a step back last season offensively. The gifts are apparent, but there's still a lot of refinement needed, both mechanically and mentally.

The elasticity of the Hornets' win total isn't all on Wright and the health of the vets. If Summer League is any indication (that's a much longer conversation, isn't it?), New Orleans scored with its selection of guards Darren Collison and Marcus Thornton in the draft. And forward Ike Diogu was a savvy pickup on the cheap, as well.

One summer ago, the Hornets were being sized up as contenders after a spirited playoff run. This summer, much of the discussion surrounding the team has included the phrase "luxury tax threshold." While general manager Jeff Bower was attending to the spreadsheet, it's possible he constructed a team poised to surprise next season.
The Shawn Marion deal is grounds for cautious optimism for Dallas. The Antonio McDyess signing means that Spurs ownership will take a hit in the pocketbook. And the quasi-Trevor Ariza-Ron Artest swap in Houston stirs mixed emotions. 

Shawn MarionRob Mahoney of Two Man Game: "While the Mavs won't be confused with the SSoL Suns, it's still easy to see [Shawn] Marion fulfilling his same duties as a one-man fast break. But more than anything, the Mavs are somewhat reliant on the notion that putting more weapons around Marion will boost his effectiveness and his efficiency on offense. Marion was a second offensive option on his last two stops, but with the Mavs he moves a bit further down the totem pole. The Mavs have an elite scoring talent in Dirk [Nowitzki], but also boast shot-creators in Jason Terry and Josh Howard. The attention that those three draw should definitely relieve some of the pressure from Marion, but the question is: Will it be enough? ... It's hard to say exactly where the Mavs' moves thus far put them in the context of the Western Conference ... For every little flaw I've picked at in this post, this is still Shawn fricking Marion. Even Shawn's harshest critics would have to concede that Dallas improved as a result of this deal. For every minor issue Marion brings to the forefront, he solves a handful of others. While he may not fit like a glove, the acquisition of Marion is far from forcing a square peg into a round hole. Donnie Nelson and Mark Cuban showed some creativity in getting Marion to Dallas, and now it's up to Rick Carlisle to show some creativity in getting him to excel here."

Peter HoltGraydon Gordian of 48 Minutes of Hell: "By signing [Antonio] McDyess to the full Mid-Level Exception and [Marcus] Haislip to the full Bi-Annual Exception (most likely), the Spurs are now a solid $10 million over the line ... Peter Holt took a serious financial hit yesterday and he did so for the good of the franchise you love. It's hard to feel sympathy for a man whose net worth is counted not just in millions but in tens of millions, but compare Holt's situation to Mark Cuban's, whose net worth is presumed to be north of $2 billion, and you begin to recognize the commitment Holt is making to the franchise. When the Mavericks head into the luxury tax, Cuban hardly feels the prick of a pin. Holt and the rest of the Spurs ownership group commit a significant fraction of the franchise's net worth to the team's success. Mr. Holt's financial commitment to the team is significant to no one more than the 3 individuals we adore most: Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili, and Tony Parker. Whether by only requesting reasonable contracts or restructuring their contracts to allow the team to acquire the necessary supporting cast, over the last several years the big three have done their part to ensure the Spurs are in a position to compete for championships. By allowing the front office to take the steps they took today, Holt has kept up his end of the bargain."

Trevor ArizaAnup Shah of Rockets Buzz: "The wan, dreary days that have been the two weeks since the draft finally parted the clouds for a glimmer of hope today. The Rockets were granted an exception for Yao, and now Daryl Morey can make the moves to at least give the Rockets a chance next season. And with the money they got from the exception, the Rockets officially inked [Trevor] Ariza for $5.7 million and still have $5.7 million more to spend on someone else. The hype won't match that of a year ago, but it certainly allows the Rockets to be more proactive -- to, as much as I hate to say it, start thinking past the TMac-Yao era. Then there was this video I watched more than once today. You hear [Ron] Artest say how he 'always wanted to be a Laker' and that this decision was a 'no-brainer.' To Rockets fans, pull the knives out of your back and patch up that cut. If you watch this video, every time Artest shoots the ball, you'll see a teammate calling for the ball back. And you remember the bad that came with the good. The 4-for-21 nights. The nights Artest was NOT the facilitator of the offense. I don't know what the future holds for the Rockets this year, but it'll be something new, and fans have come to trust Daryl Morey's judgment."

THE FINAL WORD
3 Shades of Blue: A blogger-owner dialogue with Michael Heisley.
Knickerblogger: Smart breakdown of salary cap arcana.
Bucksketball: Free agent signings -- not all they're cracked up to be.

(Photos by Streeter Lecka, Noah Graham, Bill Baptist/NBAE via Getty Images)

Posted by Kevin Arnovitz

Jrue HolidayJrue Holiday drops ... and might be better for it.
(Photo by Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE/Getty Images

As recently as a few weeks ago, Jrue Holiday was a projected top 10 pick. A good number of observers felt that another year at UCLA would've served Holiday well, but there was enough collective faith in his court smarts, defense, and capacity to blossom into a productive NBA guard. Whether it was Ben Howland's slow-it-down offense, playing off the ball alongside Darren Collison, or something else, Holiday found himself as the dreaded "Last Guy Sitting in the Green Room" Thursday night, and ultimately went #17 to Philadelphia.

In the big man division, no prospect dropped farther and harder Thursday night than DeJuan Blair. Projected as a certain first-rounder and as the seventh best player in the 2009 draft class according to John Hollinger's Draft Rater, Blair was a brute force at Pittsburgh with 15.7 points and 12.3 rebounds a game, along with a rugged brand of defense. At the combines, Blair's wingspan measured at a eye-popping 7-foot-2.

What caused Blair to slip to the seventh pick of the second round? Concerns about his knees. In high school, Blair tore both of his ACLs and had them surgically repaired. Blair's scar tissue essentially got re-absorbed by his body and the result left Blair with essentially no ACLs.

Although he's suffered no adverse effects ever since, Blair's is an unprecedented injury and one that scared off a slew of NBA executives. Though Blair literally has no ACL to tear, some team physicians feel that Blair could eventually develop a nagging issue that could eventually wear him down. As a result, Blair ended up as the #37 pick of the draft, landing with San Antonio. 

Dropping in the draft is a tough indignity for a young guy to endure. In addition to the dashed expectations and losing face, there's also the monetary loss. As a second-round pick, Blair isn't even guaranteed a contract. Holiday will make less a couple million dollars less over the next four years as the 17th pick than a player who went 10th. 

But once Holiday and Blair get over the initial sting, both will realize that they're in ideal situations -- not in spite of having dropped, but because of it.

Holiday joins a young Sixers team deprived of guards that went into the postseason with a shooting guard platoon of Willie Green and Lou Williams. Philly's point guard, Andre Miller, has an uncertain future with the club. In other words, there might not be a better situation for a young guard than joining the beleagured Sixers' backcourt.

DeJuan BlairWill DeJuan Blair emerge as a second-round steal for the Spurs?
(Photo by Andy Lyons/NBAE/Getty Images)

By virtue of dropping to 37, Blair lands with arguably the NBA's best franchise. Not only will he join a model organization, but he'll be able to step in and fill one of the team's most glaring needs. The Spurs never found the bruiser they needed up front last season. Matt Bonner, Fabricio Oberto, Drew Gooden, and an aging Kurt Thomas all logged minutes as Tim Duncan's frontcourt mate, but none could effectively fill the role. Blair will have the opportunity to step in and help the league's 30th-ranked offensive rebounding team. 

Mark Jackson, Jameer Nelson, and Josh Howard all sat around longer than expected on their respective draft nights, and each fell into ideal situations. With some serendipity and hard work, Holiday and Blair will have the same opportunities to emerge as steals on winning teams. When and if they do, the frustration of Draft Night 2009 will be a footnote.

Posted by Kevin Arnovitz

Spend some time around the Denver Nuggets this spring and you'll hear how Carmelo Anthony's commitment on the defensive end of the floor has a lot to do with the team's success. When you ask people who know Anthony where that dedication came from, you get an almost uniform response: As a member of Team USA last summer in Beijing, Carmelo rubbed shoulders with the most professional players in the game, and through the Olympic Rehabilitation Program for Uninterested Defenders, he saw the light. He realized that while his offense will always keep him in the conversation for Best Scorer on the Planet, if he was sincere about being a Top 5 player, he'd have to get serious about his defense.

Carmelo Anthony
Carmelo Anthony: Two-Way Player? (Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images)

"Is that what they say?" Anthony says with a wry smile. "I always knew how to play defense."

Anthony then explains that the Olympics were important -- particularly his friendship with Kobe Bryant. The conversations he has with Michael Jordan are also helpful, as is his team's decision to make defense a priority this season. More important than anything, though, is the cumulative growth that comes with day-to-day life in the game.

"In the game of basketball you learn a lot each day," Anthony says. For him, that's more important than any single experience.

"The more time you spend in the league the more you learn player tendencies," says Idan Ravin, who has trained Anthony along with several other top NBA players. "He has a great eye for details and can recognize player patterns quickly."

There's a nice illustration of this toward the end of Game 5 of the Nuggets' series with Dallas: 

  • [4th Quarter, 2:29] Denver is up 10 points, as Dallas brings the ball up, needing to score to stay in the series. The Mavs run a two-man game on the right side with Josh Howard and Dirk Nowitzki. Howard holds the ball with Carmelo playing off him a little bit. Then Nowitzki runs interference by slipping between Howard and Carmelo -- so now Dallas has the mismatch they want: Nowitzki/Carmelo. Howard feeds the ball to Nowitzki just off the mid-right post, his back to Carmelo, who bodies up on him tightly.

    Trying to back Carmelo into the paint with his right shoulder, Nowitzki takes three dribbles with his left. On each dribble, Carmelo absorbs a blow to the chest by Dirk's shoulder. Dirk picks up his dribble, then pivots on his right foot, trying with his patented ball-fake to deke Carmelo -- only Carmelo doesn't bite. Feet set and ready, chest out, arms extended upward, Carmelo stays grounded. Dirk goes to his contingency plan -- a full 360 twirl on his pivot foot, hoping to get Carmelo to yield him some space for an up and under. Again, Carmelo holds his ground. Only when Dirk falls back for a fadeaway does Carmelo lunge, getting a full hand in Dirk's face. The shot is no good. 

Although Nowitzki has made a career of hitting that fadeaway, even after defenders have done a solid job on both the initial backdown and the up-and-under attempt, the best stoppers understand that the percentages play best for the defense when Nowitzki takes his shot of last resort.

According to both Ravin and Nuggets' assistant coach Chad Iske, Anthony has become a cinephile in recent months. "On the defensive end, he's been paying more attention to film studies and what guys do," Iske says. "He pays more attention to detail, whether he's on the ball or on the help side." 

Denver forced three shot clock violations in the third quarter of Game 2 against the Lakers Thursday night, and Anthony was instrumental in each sequence. Here's one example: 

  • [3rd Quarter, 7:07] Carmelo's capacity to help off Trevor Ariza is crucial to Denver's defensive success in the series. Here the ball starts in Ariza's hands out on the wing. Ariza passes the ball off to Derek Fisher in the left corner, then clears along the baseline. Carmelo follows Ariza only as far as the middle of the key, though Ariza lands in the right corner.

    Carmelo is now officially a help defender on the play, as Fisher kicks the ball to Kobe Bryant on the left wing, guarded by Chauncey Billups. Carmelo has a lot to worry about. Pau Gasol is set up at the elbow just in front of Kobe. If Kobe penetrates and blows by Billups, Martin is going to have to leave Gasol open at the elbow to provide help on Kobe. (Want to know how Gasol gets so many open looks at the elbow? That's why!). If that happens, it'll be Anthony's job to move over to Gasol to make sure Pau doesn't get that open look.

    But wait ... Ariza has just drifted to the top of the arc, and is now only a skip pass away from a wide open look. He's still primarily Carmelo's responsibility, even as Gasol and Kobe need monitoring. As Kobe readies himself to drive left, Martin moves off Gasol. Bryant sees this, but Carmelo sees Bryant seeing this. Just as Kobe darts the ball to Gasol, Anthony zips into the passing lane, knocking the ball away. By the time the Spalding finds its way back into Kobe's hands, the shot clock is about to expire. Kobe heaves a desperation 3-pointer that Anthony gets a piece of.

    Anthony navigates the Ariza-Gasol help axis to perfection and it's his help, as much as anything, that allows Denver to force the turnover.   

This sort of recognition by Anthony crops up in conversation about his defensive improvement. Nuggets' guard Dahntay Jones is Anthony's counterpart on the wing much of the time. He says that Anthony's defensive effort has definitely intensified, but the overall improvement has a lot to do with Carmelo's awareness of his teammates -- and the fact that those teammates are much better individual defenders than in years past. 

"His awareness of where his help is on the floor is much better," Jones says. "When you have better defensive pieces around you, it makes things easier. You gain a lot of confidence by being with guys who can help you out defensively."

When you have a situation like the possession above, with Billups shading Bryant right, then Martin anticipating the driving lane, it simplifies life for Anthony as a help defender -- as it would any help defender.

"He's always been a pretty good individual defender," Nuggets head coach George Karl says. "It's his off the ball situations, his transition situations, his conceptual situations where he got lost a little bit in the past. But he's cut those mistakes in half."

Individual defense is difficult to quantify, but I consult Aaron Barzilai to get a feel for what his  +/- numbers can tell us about Carmelo's D.

"Anthony seems to have been a liability in 2007-2008 but not in 2008-09," Barzilai says. "Maybe that's the story, he quietly became at least a neutral player on defense in the regular season."

By liability, Barzilai means that the Nuggets were a little more than five points per 100 possessions worse defensively with Anthony on the floor in 2007-08. This season, though, it was a wash. (The numbers don't s
how any appreciable improvement from the regular season to the playoffs). The numbers indicate that it might be a little early to start talking NBA All-Defense selection for Anthony, but a five-point bump in defensive adjusted +/- suggests real improvement, provided the trend holds for another season or two.  

At the other end of the evaluative spectrum, I ask a scout for an NBA team to tell me if he's seen the improvement in Carmelo's defensive game we hear so much about during the broadcasts.

"It's there. Carmelo's buying into a role," the scout says. "You see it when it comes to containing dribble-penetration and as a weak side defender off the ball. That's one of the reasons his steals are up. Is he becoming a lockdown defender? No. But he's grasping the team concepts in terms of defensive rotations, and that's the big thing." 

This postseason has been a revelation for those who've been eager for Anthony to arrive as the complete package. Offensively, he's always been a deadly scorer, but over the past month, there seems to be a new polish to his game. He's not just explosive; he's heady. And those prolific numbers we're seeing every night are as much a product of guile and artfulness as they are brute instinct. To the naked eye, it appears as if this evolution might be surfacing in Anthony's defensive game. The transformation could take another couple of seasons to fully materialize, but if it does, Anthony -- who will turn 25 next Friday when the Lakers and Nuggets are scheduled to meet in Game 6 -- might finally claim his place among the NBA pantheon. 

Cleveland beat Atlanta, while Dallas beat itself. How does the Boston-Chicago showdown of '09 rank with history's best? We also explore the parallel universe where the Bulls came out on top. 

Dirk NowitzkiRob Mahoney of Two Man Game: "Brick by brick, the Mavs built the foundation for a victory. They survived 1st quarter adversity to remain within striking distance. The bench stepped up as Josh Howard went down. They clawed their way into a game that they really had no business being in. And yet, when a Jason Terry three finally pushed the Mavs ahead 74-72, I couldn't shake the unmistakable feeling that it would all come crashing down. Boy, did it, in a way that may seem eerily familiar. After hanging, and hanging, and hanging with a Nuggets team playing better basketball than them on both sides of the floor, the Mavs blew a perfect opportunity by scoring just 2 points in the first 6 minutes of the fourth quarter. There were rim-outs, there were horrible turnovers, and there were blocked shots, all of which seemed to end in free buckets for Denver on the break. The offensive magic that pulled the Mavs through the third quarter unscathed was left gasping the thin Denver air, and the Nuggets danced on the grave of the Mavs' dead and buried transition defense. The team that wanted to turn this series into a marathon was run out of the gym..."

Mike BibbyBret LaGree of Hoopinion: "Mike Bibby poses a greater problem. His 14 point (six shots), five assist first half went a long way toward the Hawks scoring 1.1 points per possession during the first 24 minutes. His defense, though, had a lot to do with Cleveland scoring 1.22 points per possession ... Cleveland ... made a concerted effort to run their offense at Mike Bibby to such a degree that, at times, it appeared that the newly crowned MVP was their second option, the first being 'whoever Mike Bibby is guarding.' Cleveland ran screen-and-roll with Bibby's man setting the screen. Cleveland ran screen-and-roll for Bibby's man to force him to switch onto the big man cutting to the basket. Cleveland ran isolations for Mo Williams on the rare possessions where Bibby attempted to guard him ... Mike Bibby is central to the offensive success of both teams. This is obviously a troubling state of affairs ... There isn't a Cavalier that won't exploit Bibby's defensive limitations. Perhaps the answer is just to put Bibby on Williams and take that medicine rather than create a third reliable offensive option for Cleveland."

Josh SmithJohn Krolik of Cavs the Blog: "Josh Smith was aggressive and playing the right way tonight. For reference, it is ALWAYS a bad idea for him to take a jumper. Does anyone actually believe he's more intense for the playoffs, or it was just that his spirit animals told him to go inside tonight? I think Josh Smith is too talented to actually game-plan or care about basketball. If LeBron is Infinite Jest, then Josh Smith is definitely Brief Interviews With Hideous Men -- for every great story, there's a 'screw you, I'm doing the second half of my story as a schema because I am that freaking talented' play. I honestly think basketball bores Josh Smith."

THE FINAL WORD
Roundball Mining Company: The Nuggets got away with some shoddy D.
The Painted Area: Putting the Celtics-Bulls series into historical perspective. 
By the Horns: Putting the Celtics-Bulls series into counterfactual perspective.


(Photos by Garrett Ellwood, Gregory Shamus, Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images)

Both the Celtics-Bulls and Spurs-Mavericks series are positively schizophrenic. Dahntay Jones is making a name for himself as Denver's Paul-stopper. And NBA fans should sentimentalize hand-checking at their own peril. 

J.J. BareaGraydon Gordian of 48 Minutes of Hell: "The formula that produced tonight's blowout loss against the Mavericks seems simple enough. The Mavericks came out with a level of defensive intensity they had yet to show this series. The Spurs were out of sync offensively from the outset and continued to miss open looks for a full 4 quarters ... even if each game makes sense in and of itself, this series has yet to develop a rhythm. The power dynamics of the individual match-ups fluctuate wildly from game to game. Players who seem unstoppable one night are decidedly mortal the next. Although the details are quite different, the tone of this series reminds me of last season's schizophrenic Western Conference Semifinals between the Spurs and the Hornets: The only game that was close in the closing minutes was Game Seven. I would not at all be surprised if this series ended in a similar manner."

Jason KiddRob Mahoney of The Two Man Game: "If you'd like a face for the Mavs' exemplary defense, I'll give you three: Jason Kidd, Josh Howard, and Erick Dampier. Tony Parker was obviously in the Mavs' crosshairs, and they successfully held TP to 14 points on 5-14 shooting with 3 turnovers. If that surprised you, then brace yourself: that defense on Parker was keyed primarily by Jason Kidd. Kidd hardly guarded Parker exclusively, but he provided the groundwork and a point of reference for J.J. [Barea] and Parker's other defenders. He hustled to get into position, tried his damnedest to slow Parker even half a step, and used timing and hustle to irritate Tony into turnovers or misses ... the defense's accomplishments were even more pronounced because of shot-blocking from the weak side. Enter Howard and Dampier ... Howard played the passing lanes and forced his share of turnovers, but cemented the Mavs' defensive game plan by coming out of nowhere for huge blocks. Dampier followed suit, protecting the rim from Parker and [Tim] Duncan ... without fatally injuring anybody. Parker wasn't knocked flat on his back, but he might as well have been."

Derrick RoseMatt McHale of By the Horns: "Chicago suffered a meltdown so complete that at one point I started to wonder whether the United Center had been converted into a giant microwave. These couldn't be the same Bulls that almost swept the first two games in Boston, could they? Seriously, I was ready to storm the locker room and check for Body Snatcher pods. I mean, newly minted Rookie of the Year Derrick Rose (9 points, 4-for-14, 3 rebounds, 2 assists, 7 turnovers) wasn't just thoroughly outclassed by Boston's Rajon Rondo (20 points, 8-for-15, 11 boards, 6 assists, 5 steals), he was even outplayed by Stephon Marbury (13 points, 4-for-10, 3 rebounds, 5 assists, zero turnovers). Welcome to the Twilight Zone, folks."

THE FINAL WORD
Celtics Hub: It's the offensive efficiency, stupid.
Hoopinion: A smart take on the great hand-checking debate.
Roundball Mining Company: Dahntay Jones -- game-changer.
Beyond Bowie: What to wear, what to wear?!

(Photos by Glenn James, Gary Dineen/NBAE via Getty Images)

The Spurs biggest test might come in the offseason. Could the Mavs give the Lakers a test in a 1-8 matchup? And the Raptors are testing the patience of even their most loyal fans. 

Gregg PopovichTimothy Varner of 48 Minutes of Hell: "Gregg Popovich has carved a unique place for himself in the pages of sports history. He's a Hall of Famer, both as a coach and front office executive ... It's an elite little club, chaired by Red Auerbach. Invariably, failure follows on the heels of such attempts. It's not an infrequent thing to see an elite coach attempt to hold an office in General Management concurrent with their gig on the sideline. Some find success, but it's a rare thing.  Usually, it ends in a mess. Gregg Popovich has not only walked that tightrope, but he's done so hopping on one foot while juggling bowling pins. Or, put differently, he's shown olympian balance, especially with the rigors of small market shaking the line at either end. Men like R.C. Buford have done much of his heavy lifting, but Pop's singular genius is almost without peer.  That genius will be tested this offseason."

Dallas MavericksMatt Moore of Hardwood Paroxysm: "Let's talk Dallas. We wrote them off. You did, too. Don't lie. Liars go to hell, Billy. We all wrote them off and chanted 'Thank You, Cuban!' along with the Nets' twelve fans (and we are still right to have done so), and figured they would embarrass themselves on the way to either a first round playoff exit or missing the dance entirely. Well, the first round exit still seems likely, but embarrassing themselves doesn't. [Jason] Kidd is playing the best ball he has in years, [Josh] Howard is back to full force, Dirk [Nowitzki] is so damn consistent we should all be taken to court for the crime of not appreciating it, [Jason] Terry is their sixth freaking man, and they have depth all over the place.  When this team is playing well, and if you watch them right now, they're playing really well, they're still a loaded team with a ton of playoff experience."

Chris BoshArsenalist of Raptors Republic: "The Pacers laid down a beating to remember on the Raptors and unlike the last time we were in Indiana, there was no comeback to feel good about. The question raised during this hammering was whether the Raptors were playing really crappy or were just putting out a crappy effort, the answer's probably a potent mixture of both ... I realize the game doesn't mean much but there's this thing called pride that tends to disappear from this unit at times and makes me question every single character on this roster ... When we were down by 41 in the third quarter nobody on the bench or on the floor looked peeved about being sodomized. A result like this significantly diminishes the value of that six-game winning streak because as much as winning games says about your basketball potential, a loss like this says even more about your character and mettle, something which should be a prerequisite for any Raptor next season. The varying effort that the Raptors play with scares me because it tells me that the problems go beyond talent and strategy but are deep-rooted in their spirit."

THE FINAL WORD
Hornets247: Steve Nash bests Chris Paul.
Roundball Mining Company: A gut check for the Nuggets at Staples Center tonight.
Valley of the Suns: Too little, too late.

(Photos by Glenn James, Barry Gossage, Ron Hoskins/NBAE via Getty Images)

The Hornets' sharpshooter might be better off in the second unit. The Cavs' sharpshooter couldn't connect all night...until it mattered. Ron Artest thinks he's a sharpshooter. The TrueHoop Network shoots from the hip. 

Peja StojakovicRyan Schwan of Hornets247: "Other than Dallas, the Hornets have the worst bench among the current 8 seeds in the West...That means that when the Hornets hit the playoffs, we can expect the second-quarter meltdowns to become even more pronounced.  It's pathetic, because the Hornets' starting five is the seventh best in the league, despite all the nagging injury issues they've had.  If the Hornets' bench could provide even a little boost, or just play the other team more evenly, it would make the team infinitely stronger and get the starters more rest.

So is there a way to fix the bench?  I'm a bit of a pessimist, but here is an idea that several people have already proposed in our comments, and that I agree with: Turning Stojakovic into a sixth man.

During the series of games where Paul, Chandler, and West were all out of commission, the Hornets turned to Peja to be their primary offensive option, and he did a pretty solid job in that role.  The past three games with Julian in the starting lineup, the Hornets' starters have produced a slightly worse offensive efficiency of 108.0 and a much nastier defensive efficiency of 84.0 ... The Hornets could start Julian, sub him out for Peja around the 6:00 minute mark of the first quarter and let Peja warm up.  At the start of the second quarter, they can start running the offense through him.

Making this change will entail curtailing Posey's minutes some -- but I really think he'd be better served as a 20-22 minute man anyways, not the 29 minute man he's been all season."

Mo Williams

John Krolik of Cavs the Blog: "Mo Williams. What do I say? For 47:54, he had absolutely as bad a game as you can have. He's kind of an Anti-LeBron in that he's a guy who's primarily a straight-up scorer whose offense comes from the perimeter, so when he's not in a flow things can get very bad very fast. (Fortunately, he's ridiculously consistent.)

Tonight, he wasn't hitting his shots off the dribble. He wasn't hitting open threes. He wasn't doing well defensively. He had one assist against four turnovers.

And yet, for the third game in a row, Mo Williams was the difference between victory and defeat. And if I had to pick one game to show how valuable Mo is to this team, it might be this one. No matter what he's done before in the game, he's the guy who's there when we need him. Tonight, he was the difference between a great win and the worst loss of the year.

Delonte got off the hook, too-he was an absolute non-factor all game long, which is the one thing he generally never is.

Again, I'm going to point out just how good Joe Smith and Andy were at rolling to the basket all game long and getting layups, and how unbelievable LeBron was at finding them with amazing passes. I do not think it is a coincidence that this came against Zach Randolph."

Dirk NowitzkiMichael Schwartz of Valley of the Suns: "We'll never know if things would be different with Amare (I think they would be), but as J-Rich said, the Suns just can't think that way.

As it is, Phoenix struggles to match up defensively against most teams with their small ball lineup, and it makes me a bit queasy that Dirk has said the toughest defender he faces in the NBA is Shawn Marion.

Yeah, he might be a little helpful right about now.

To add insult to injury, the Mavs won this game without Josh Howard to snap a nine-game road losing streak to Western Conference foes, winning their first West game away from Dallas this calendar year. And yes, it is March 10.

For the Suns, it feels like that 'season-changing' win over the Lakers on March 1 was in a whole different calendar year."

THE FINAL WORD
Celtics Hub: How clutch are the C's in close games?
Rockets Buzz: The eternal Ron Artest question.
Daily Thunder: Who needs Tyson Chandler when you have Nenad Krstic?

(Photos by Glenn James, Noah Graham, Barry Gossage/NBAE via Getty Images)

Invisibility isn't necessarily a bad thing for Dirk Nowitzki.  Norm Van Lier was anything but invisible in the pantheon of Chicago Bulls legends...but Josh Smith was in Atlanta's tough loss to the Cavs.  Gain some visibility at The TrueHoop Network: 

Dirk Nowitzki

Rob Mahoney of The Two Man Game: "Dirk only had 24 points (8-19 FG), 10 rebounds, and 5 assists.  Yawn.  His typical brilliance was trumped only by his usual subtlety, 'invisibly' anchoring the Mavs' attack.  (On another note: why is the word invisible always used as a pejorative when it comes to basketball?  There's something wonderful about blunt domination, but I can see the advantages of killing an opponent without their knowing they're being killed.)  Howard continues to boggle the mind.  His 16 points tells you he did fine on the offensive end, which is true.  But 0 steals and 0 blocks?  Just another example of the deception of the box score.  The team continues to excel whenever Howard hits the floor, and his somewhat empty stat line is balanced by a +15 for the game.  Well done, chaps.

As someone who has watched Dirk's entire career, I feel obligated to comment on Andrea Bargnani.  Dirk was the hopeful projection when Toronto drafted Bargs with the 1st overall pick, and it's kind of silly.  It's not that Bargnani isn't talented, or that he doesn't have some of Dirk's skills.  Their approaches to the game are just fundamentally different.  Dirk's ungodly efficiency is a product of a natural high ground, a high release, and a sweet shooting stroke.  What he lacks in athleticism and mobility he makes up for in footwork and precision.  Bargnani doesn't share Dirk's dominant shooting touch, as much as he loves to shoot.  But he does show a willingness and an ability to drive and finish, which is something in it's own right.  He's 23 and has all the time in the world, but for those still hoping to see Dirk 2.0, keep this in mind: Nowitzki is the exception, not the rule.  There has never been a player that combined Dirk's size and shooting touch, and it may not be so soon before we see another."

Norm Van LierMatt McHale of By the Horns : "At 6′1″, Norm [Van Lier] was small-ish, even for his day, and his game was about toughness, hustle, defensive tenacity and a team-first attitude…not the accumulation of gaudy, record-setting statistics. You might notice those are the same traits that made one William Felton Russell into the greatest winner in NBA history. Sadly, Norm wasn't part of 11 championship teams like Russell. In fact, he wasn't on a single title winner. But that shouldn't diminish his greatness, or our memory of him.

Fortunately for Norm, the people of Chicago came to adore him, and his teammates respected him so much they probably would have stepped in front of a flaming meteor for him. He was a member of the most beloved Bulls team that didn't include Michael Jordan. That 1970s squad featured a group of players who brought it every night: Norm, Jerry Sloan, Bob Love, Chet Walker and Tom Boerwinkle. None of those guys were what you would call All-World, but they played smart and they played together. And despite the lack of star power, they managed three straight 50-win seasons (four if you count the year before Norm arrived), an epic seven-game semifinal series against Wilt Chamberlain's Lakers in 1973, and two trips to the Western Conference Finals in 1974 (where they lost to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar's Milwaukee Bucks) and 1975 (where they lost a bitterly contested seven-game series to Rick Barry's Golden State Warriors, who would go on to win the title).

...As his old running mate Love said after he heard about Norm's passing: 'Man oh man, me and Norm were just together Tuesday night. As usual, he was expressing his love for the team and the franchise. He said, "Butter, a lot of times I may sound critical on TV but it's just because I love these guys so much and I want them to win." People might have taken that the wrong way. But he had passion like nobody else and just wanted to be loved.'

That was Norm in a nutshell. When Johnny 'Red' Kerr was honored a couple weeks back, President Barack Obama described Kerr as 'the fan on the bar stool next to us.' Which he was. Well, Norm was the rascally old grandfather filled with a mind full of wisdom and a belly full of fire. He was never afraid to tell it like it was, nor would he waste an opportunity to teach a lesson that needed to be learned, even if, at times, those lessons weren't taken to heart or (again) fully appreciated.

We'll miss you Norm."

Josh SmithBret LaGree of Hoopinion: "The fourth quarter will likely lead to another round of questions about Josh Smith and whether the Hawks are better with or without him. It's a complicated question. His poor rebounding and shot selection are entirely his own fault. His help defense is a great benefit to the team. The deciding factor for me would be one for which (conveniently) I don't have an answer: Does Josh Smith spend possessions on the perimeter guarding the likes of LeBron James (last night) or Brandon Roy (last week) of his own accord (Be it fueled by competitiveness or laziness it's harmful to the team.) or because he's assigned, from time to time, to guard guys he can't guard? If it's the former then Zaza Pachulia and Marvin Williams need to play a lot more at the 4 as matchups dictate. If it's the latter it would be unfair to blame Smith for being put in a position to fail though it still doesn't get the Hawks closer to playing optimal basketball..."

THE FINAL WORD
Cavs the Blog: "There's always a better play than an ISO for Flip Murray."
Celtics Hub: A close examination of Stephon Marbury's defense against Detroit.
Hornets247: What's the "Palm, jab, jab, pump, jab, jab, fade-away flat-footed 20-footer, clank" routine?  Glad you asked.

(Photos by Glenn James, Noren Trotman,Scott Cunningham/NBAE via Getty Images)

How is Josh Howard like global warming? How is Devin Harris like a Béla Lugosi flick? How is J.J. Hickson like Joe Smith? You'll find the answers, like it or not, at the TrueHoop Network:

Josh HowardRob Mahoney of The Two Man Game: "On the court, Josh Howard lives and dies by his emotions.  That much is certain.  His highest peaks are brimming with confidence and joy, and his lowest valleys are shadowed by self-doubt and disinterest.  It's an influence that goes beyond momentum; Howard's emotions inevitably force him into a series of positive feedback loops, self-sustaining spirals that intensify and reinforce themselves over time...

His early career was characterized by nightly demonstrations of athleticism, hustle, and energy, a culmination of the rage of a man denied what he deemed rightfully his: a spot in the 2003 Draft lottery.  It should come as no surprise that Howard's determined play earned him consistent minutes and a concrete role on the team, which only fueled his confidence and provided him a bigger soapbox to voice the world's transgressions against him.  Howard thrived and, in turn, the Mavericks thrived.

Of course, that couldn't last forever.  Howard had earned a reputation as a premier defender, but that status faded as he became more of an offensive threat.  Defense is the work of peasants, and obviously something that emerging stars simply cannot be bothered with.  Next came the jumpshots: Crossover pull-ups, turnaround fadeaways, and contested jumpers in transition.  Becoming an All-Star talent meant taking All-Star shots, degree of difficulty be damned.  Lovely.

All of that was manageable, but then a mini-slump was amplified by the death of Josh Howard's mentor/father-figure and college coach at Wake Forest, Skip Prosser, his god-grandmother, and his great-grandmother.  Then, with the grieving Howard at his most vulnerable, the Mavs traded his closest friend on the team (Devin Harris) to the New Jersey Nets.  So much for support structure.

The 2008 calendar year was about injuries and bad press for Howard.  His on-court troubles were trumped by his inability to keep his name out of the headlines, but injuries hobbled the Mavericks' 'most important player' and rendered him almost completely ineffective as he struggled to return to form.

Enter 2009, where a rejuvenated Josh Howard is finally finding himself.  Howard's recovery from his various ailments still had Howard tentative in his approach, an issue that wasn't resolved until…the Mavericks brought on Darrell Armstrong as an assistant coach.  Does it make a lot of sense?  No, not really, but maybe all Howard needed was a familiar face and veteran influence to adjust his basketball compass...

It's strange that Howard's rise and fall are due to events that have very little to do with basketball: His own reputation, deaths to those closest to him, the distancing of a good friend, and reuniting with an old mentor.  Upon further inspection, though, should it really surprise us that an emotional, sensitive, and aware player is so affected by events outside his control?"

Tim DuncanTimothy Varner of 48 Minutes of Hell: "Duncan is out of tonight's contest with right quad tendonosis...This is the sort of injury that requires time to heal. Duncan and the Spurs are not helped by rushing him back. They need to give him as much time as he needs to get back to full strength, a difficult task this time of year.  But rest and relaxation may only go so far. One cannot turn back the clock just by spending a week on the dole...

Tim Duncan is getting old. This is a degenerative wear and tear injury. This is something his body is not able to make right.

Couple this with Manu's ankle struggles this season and the Spurs have yet more incentive to get on with the youth movement. They've added a few younger pieces this year, and they would do well to go into the offseason with a mind toward adding one or two more young bodies. In addition to getting younger, I prefer Popovich's minutes management program, up to and including letting his stars forego the rigors of back to back contests.  Let the league whine. The games don't count until May and June, anyway."

Devin Harris

Matt McHale of By the Horns: "[T]his loss was like watching one of those cheesy 1930s era horror movies where the monster keeps coming back to life over and over. Only in those flicks, a scientist either figured out the monster's fatal weakness or a mob of angry villagers burned down the mansion/laboratory/windmill it was hiding in. But Vinny doesn't do science and the Bulls players were all out of pitchforks and torches, so [Devin] Harris had his way during the Fourth Quarter of Doom...

And if I sound even remotely bitter, it's because I am. Harris was burning Derrick Rose, so Vinny Del Negro resorted to what's become his favorite 'trick' as of late: He benched Derrick for the final 4:52 of the fourth quarter. Before hitting the pine, Rose had attempted only one shot in the quarter. Vinny, of course, wanted to put a better defender on the court. But here's the problem: Devin scored 9 points while Derrick was in and then 10 points after Vinny replaced him with Kirk Hinrich."

THE FINAL WORD
Hoopinion & Roundball Mining Company: Two savvy perspectives on last night's Hawks-Nuggets game.
Celtics Hub: Is there such a thing as a "fair" trade involving an NBA superstar?
Cavs the Blog: J.J. Hickson will be a contributor down the stretch.  

(Photos by Kent Horner, Rocky Widner, Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images)

The Shootaround

January, 29, 2009
1/29/09
9:02
PM ET

A Spurs fan misses the old Suns.  Hating the Lakers unconditionally is as clichéd as bandwagoning.  Dallas hits its open shot.  Counter-intuition reigns in the TrueHoop Network: 

Los Angeles Lakers

Josh Tucker of Hardwood Paroxysm: "Look, I get that you hate the Lakers. I really do. But going off like a ticking time bomb every time the Lakers get a break, and then looking the other way when they get a raw deal, doesn't make you clever, witty, or insightful. It makes you boring, predictable, and tired, not to mention completely unoriginal.

While we're at it, so does criticizing Lakers fans for being 'bandwagon fans,' or for being arrogant, smug, or condescending. Your anti-Lakers bandwagon is just as cliché, and your self-righteous attitude toward Lakers fans is just as arrogant, smug, and condescending." 

Phoenix SunsGraydon Gordian of 48 Minutes of Hell: "The Phoenix Suns have become a complete enigma to me. In some sense, they are struggling mightily. Compared to the gaudy regular season records they have posted for the last several years, their 25-18 record looks mediocre. As opposed to being in a race for home court advantage throughout the playoffs, they are in a race for the playoffs itself.

Shaquille O'Neal is having what some are calling an All-Star caliber season, but in order to do so he has displaced the comfort and effectiveness of many of his teammates. Coming into the season, Suns fans were talking about how Amare Stoudemire might make a run at MVP. Now Amare is rumored to be on the trading block. For years, Nash was the golden boy of the NBA: Exciting to watch and always a gentleman, win or lose. But in recent months he has betrayed his frustrations regarding the current state of the team. That being said, I have no doubt the boys in purple and orange will have their game faces on come this evening. When the silver and black come to town, the players formerly known as "fun-and-gun” get serious.

I have never been a defender of Mike D'Antoni. I always thought '7 Seconds or Less' was a flawed system and that Popovich could consistently outcoach D'Antoni over the course of a 7 game series. But, in some ways, the Suns-Spurs rivalry of old is something I dearly miss. Yes, the memories and malice remain. But, the presence of D'Antoni made the rivalry about so much more than two fan bases driven to the edge of insanity by their anger."

Josh HowardRob Mahoney of The Two Man Game: "To be honest, I've been really reluctant to do this recap.  Or any recap for this team, really.  Every win is 'hopefully something to build on' and a 'statement game,' and every loss is a 'wake-up call.'  How long until this team starts to form a cohesive on-court identity and actually plays with some consistency, one way or another?

I did find relief in at least one way, though: the Mavs can make open shots.  That's better than what they've been doing lately.  Josh Howard in particular was absolutely stroking it, and that's a sight for sore eyes.  That 12-footer on the baseline is going to be there for Josh, whether he has to spot-up or create.  Another weapon for the arsenal, supposing it's not just a product of a Warriors complex."

THE FINAL WORD
Wizznutzz: The ESPN Trade Machine now includes Don Rickles and a live lion. 
Knickerblogger
: The Knicks are playing their best ball of the season...the video.
By the Horns: Introducing the Dull-Negro-Meter.


(Photos by Harry How, Sam Forencich, Nick Laham/NBAE via Getty Images)

Playgrounds

September, 17, 2008
9/17/08
6:27
PM ET

I really feel like I should be writing about the big news stories of the day, Josh Howard's lapse of judgment, and Gilbert Arenas's knee surgery.

But holy cow, haven't I written those exact stories three or four times each already? Has anything much changed?

We know the Wizards will be fine, because they have done this before. And as John Hollinger points out, after the departure of Roger Mason, Jr., DeShawn Stevenson can play some point guard when Dee Brown and Antonio Daniels are tired.

And we know Josh Howard speaks his own version of the truth (which is admirable) even if the timing and general lack of coherence undermine his cause (which is not). By being a celebrity, and addressing incendiary issues of civil rights around a microphone, fair or not he risks presenting himself as an actual civil rights leader. Like the 2008 Nelson Mandela or Martin Luther King Jr. He's a really nice guy, and his heart is in the right place, but he must not let himself get confused with a civil rights leader. He just made a mistake here. Nothing too exciting about it, from where I'm sitting.

Ok, ok, it turns out I did have a little bit to say on those topics.

But really, I think the most important thing for you to read is this nice story about Antawn Jamison building a playground in Louisiana.

About a year ago, I had the opportunity to interview the Dallas Mavericks' Josh Howard.

I jumped at it because I knew him to be a frank talker. I have this notion that one thing the world does not need is more athletes saying the same meaningless things again and again.

Howard is, by reputation, a straight shooter, and a truth teller. Someone who speaks like a regular guy, even if it means getting his hands dirty once in a while. (We all know that scene from Bull Durham, right, where the veteran teaches the rookie how to never say anything interesting. That is not Josh Howard, and I applaud that.)

So I did a bunch of homework, watched video, and got ready for the interview. It became clear that one big untold story about Josh Howard was how he ended up on the Mavericks at all. He was drafted 29th, even though just about everyone had him ranked as a top ten talent, and he has always played as one.

There must have been some knock on him, right? Some reason ... To me, that was a real question. I asked a lot of basketball experts, and people all said the same thing: they had heard that teams were scared by his alleged use of marijuana. I heard it from several people who were in a position to know, and decided that as it related directly to how he got to the team he's on now, it was an inextricable part of his basketball story, and something I had to ask him about -- even if he was likely to duck it.

Plus, if people around the league were saying it about him, but it was not true, this would be a chance for him to set the record straight.

We talked for about a half hour, and he said a lot of bold things. For instance, he said that he felt team owner Mark Cuban's sideline antics did hurt the team sometimes. He talked about politics, money, and yes, marijuana. All things that many people leave alone -- and let's be honest, if Howard's first priority were his own career advancement, endorsements and the like, he likely would have been quiet on those topics.

I wrote up the interview and published it on TrueHoop, kind of crossing my fingers that people would not fly off the handle about any portion of the interview. There was a flutter in the Dallas press about his criticism of Cuban, but that was about it. All in all, I felt the talk was a glimpse into his character, which made him come off like the reasonable and lucid guy I felt I had talked to.

The comments on that post (there has been some technical trouble, and almost all of them, sadly, were wiped out) were very reasonable and sober-minded. There was no big hoopla. People by and large thought Josh Howard seemed like an interesting and refreshingly honest guy.

A year passed.

On Saturday, an update to my story was in the Dallas Morning News (and subsequently on the Morning News Mavericks blog). That apparently inspired a radio interview in Dallas, that featured heavily on ESPN and elsewhere.

And now we're in a situation where the marijuana part of the story has been separated from the "getting to know Josh Howard" part of the story. Whereas people who read the entire initial interview seemed to think Howard came off lucid and balanced. People who only know, essentially, that he told reporters he smokes marijuana occasionally in the off-season, probably think he's just a nut.

I hope you'll read the whole thing.

Now, I'm fine with people debating the relative merits of marijuana. That's probably healthy.

But I'm a little sad that people will judge Josh Howard by this one element of his character.

Especially when -- what is the news here exactly? It's hard to even find presidential candidates who haven't done what Howard says he has done. The club of people who have smoked pot has membership in the millions. Has anyone here ever spent any time on a college campus? At a rock concert? I swear I smelled pot smoke in the bathroom at the Sixers game this very night.

That lots of people smoke marijuana is not news. That some athletes smoke marijuana is maybe borderline news -- but not new. We all knew that, too. It has been reported again and again in various ways. Not too long ago, a Deadspin post cited this very same Josh Howard interview, and declared that pot use was too mundane to get anybody upset anymore. (Another tiny example: check out this interview about the champion 1977 Portland Blazers.)

No, to me the thing that's new here is someone lacking the willingness or ability to obfuscate, lie, or duck the question. We're not alarmed that one young person smoked pot. We're alarmed that anyone admitted it.

I'm a guy who named his blog TrueHoop. I love the truth. I can't stand being lied to. I can't stand that lying to the media is business as usual. I think the truth is important, because although it may cause problems in the short term, in the long term it less us all learn.

I am reminded of Aubrey McClendon. He is an owner of the Seattle SuperSonics. He told a reporter last summer what we now know, via recently publicized emails, to be the truth: he and his fellow owners always intended to move the team to Oklahoma City.

His sin was the same as the sins of his co-owners. McClendon was the only one who didn't lie about it, however.

McClendon was, however, the only one to see punishment from the NBA. He was fined a quarter-million dollars. What the fine was for was never well explained.

Is McClendon the worst guy in that ownership group? In my book, his candor makes him 4% more likable than the other owners.

Same goes for Josh Howard. He's one of a zillion pro athlete pot smokers. I can't see why all the other pot smokers should be rewarded for lying, while Howard is hung out to dry.

The good news, however, is that I suspect it will not end up being that big
of a deal. My bet is that in six months we look back at this and learn that the biggest news about this news is that it's not news.

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