TrueHoop: Nick Collison

TrueHoop TV: Rapid fire with Nick Collison

April, 16, 2013
Arnovitz By Kevin Arnovitz
NBA players spend a fair amount of their lives in hotel rooms, and this doesn't come without risk. The biggest danger?

"When there's not an electrical outlet near the bed, you have to plug your phone in away from the bed," Oklahoma City big man Nick Collison says. "So you have to plug in your phone away from the bed, or try to dig in behind the bed and get to the back and try to avoid a hand and wrist injury."

According to Collison, there's a culinary shift among NBA players, as Japanese grill house Benihana is threatening to unseat The Cheesecake Factory as the chain restaurant of the moment.

Finally, Collison discusses the prospect of an openly gay player in the NBA.

"I think at first there would be guys in the league who would have a problem with it," Collison says. "But I do think that once people got over the initial news of one of their teammates being gay, I think guys would be fine with it.

"It's the ignorance of not knowing someone," Collison says. "The fear of the unknown."

TrueHoop TV: Nick Collison

April, 4, 2013
Arnovitz By Kevin Arnovitz
When asked if being called a "Glue Guy" is a backhanded compliment, Nick Collison chuckles. He's grown accustomed to the label. After a storied college career at Kansas where he was a skilled shooter, rebounder and facilitator, Collison has carved out a career in the NBA as a leading doer of the "little things."

Collison visited with TrueHoop TV. In Part I, he talks about the trials of the Glue Guy, and how his Oklahoma City Thunder are looking headed into the postseason.

In Part II, Collison shares impressions of Thunder teammate Russell Westbrook, and how NBA fans and NBA players view "hard fouls" through different lenses.


Carmelo Anthony's game is more efficient

December, 19, 2012
By Justin Page & Evan Kaplan
ESPN Stats & Information

Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty ImagesCarmelo Anthony is putting up bigger, and better, numbers this season.
(The New York Knicks host the Brooklyn Nets, Wednesday at 7 ET on ESPN.)

The New York Knicks are coming off a loss on Monday to the Houston Rockets. They’re hoping to have Carmelo Anthony back against the Brooklyn Nets after missing the past two games with an ankle injury.

In two games this season against the Nets, Anthony has scored 80 points -- including a season-high 45 on Dec. 18.

In those two games against Brooklyn, Anthony made eight of 12 3-point attempts. Shooting behind the arc is one area of his game that has improved significantly.

Before this season, Anthony was a career 32 percent shooter behind the arc. That average has shot up to 45.5 percent (51-112) this season.

Long-range shooting isn’t the only area of Anthony’s game that has improved. He’s also shooting a career-best 46.8 percent on mid-range shots (which are 2-point field goal attempts taken outside the paint). Last season, he made just 38.9 percent from that distance.

Combined with making more than six free throws per game, Anthony’s true shooting percentage this season is 59.2, which would be the highest of his career. (True shooting percentage is a measure of shooting efficiency that takes into account field goals, three-point field goals and free throws.)

An improved True Shooting Percentage has resulted in higher efficiency from Anthony. His offensive efficiency this season is at a career-high 115.1 -- meaning the Knicks score 115.1 points per 100 possessions with him on the court. His highest offensive efficiency entering this season was 110.7 in 2008-09. When Anthony is not on the court, the Knicks efficiency drops to 102.6

Among players to log at least 100 minutes this season, Anthony’s offensive efficiency ranks third behind Nick Collison (115.5) and teammate Tyson Chandler (115.2).

Another reason the Knicks would like to see Anthony return? He ranks fifth in plus/minus at +167. He’s been on the court for 712 minutes compared to 445 off it and the difference has been noticeable. Per 48 minutes, the Knicks are outscoring opponents by 11.3 points with Anthony on the court, but are getting outscored by almost two points with him off the court.

Anthony is second this season averaging 27.9 points per game. If he maintains that for the entire season, he’d be just the fourth Knick to average at least 27 points per game for an entire season and the first since Patrick Ewing in 1989-90.

LeBron James' leap year

June, 21, 2012
Mason By Beckley Mason
LeBron James
Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images
LeBron has backed the Thunder into a corner with his impressive post play.

LeBron James spent the last two years learning how to win four feet of space.

Four feet. That's roughly the difference between where James was taking his shots during Tuesday night’s brilliant 26-point, 12-assist performance and where he was shooting a year ago in Game 4 of the 2011 Finals, a disastrous eight-point effort that was the first of three consecutive Heat losses.

Two years. That’s about how long LeBron James has been seriously committed to transforming his post game from an untapped resource to an unstoppable weapon.

Think back to last season. Is there really any doubt about whether this version of James would have manhandled DeShawn Stevenson and Jason Kidd?

When's Couper Moorhead profiled James' evolving post game before last year’s playoffs, he stressed that James had become very effective when he could catch the ball with deep post position. In his first season with the Heat, James had improved from visibly uncomfortable on the block to capable of a quick drop step or jump hook, usually with one or no dribble.

In the 2011 Finals, the Mavericks worked hard to take those looks away by fronting James on the low block. In fact they succeeded by forcing him into the exact same position, 18 feet away from the hoop in what's called the "mid post," from where James is now destroying the Thunder.

A review of Game 4 in Dallas shows LeBron catching an average of approximately 16 feet from the rim on his 11 field goal attempts. That's right where he was launching his moves against the Thunder in Game 4, but it's no longer where James starts that necessarily determines where he finishes.

There’s no secret to this development, it’s the product of literally hundreds of repetitions. Despite playing in fewer games, James was in the post nearly 120 more times (about twice as often) in 2012 than he was in 2011, according to Synergy Sports. He didn’t shoot as high of a percentage as he did last season, but he put in the time to make playing from the post, and not just finishing with deep position, second nature.

On Tuesday James and the Heat reaped the fruit of that labor. Time and again, James patiently worked his way toward the basket for layups and hook shots in close. On average, James managed to get seven feet closer to the rim before letting fly with a shot compared to just two feet closer a year ago.

James’ actual jump shot fared no better a year later than it did when Dallas made him look decidedly average. The real difference is that James is just better at getting to his kill zone, particularly out of the high or mid post, than he was last year, allowing him to bring his fantastic passing and finishing skills to bear.

The Heat’s X's and O's have changed a bit, but mostly those adjustments are a reflection of Heat coach Erik Spoelstra's commitment to feeding James over and over in that pocket off or just below the elbow. That’s the spot occupied by the power forward in Miami’s offense, a position James once resisted playing but now enthusiastically inhabits.

As a result, James is spending relatively little time running high pick-and-rolls against Oklahoma City. Rather, he often begins many possessions as a screener in the corner or high post. After an initial action designed to loosen up James' defender, he demands the ball. He catches the ball 16-19 feet from the rim, and goes to work. It's easy to diagram and nearly impossible to deny.

Or at least it was in the second quarter of Game 4, when that simple look fueled Miami's dramatic rally. As the Heat trimmed the lead from 13 to three, James made three shots at the rim and assisted to six different Heat players.

Keep in mind that getting James to turn his back to the basket anywhere outside of 10 feet used to be a major victory for the defense. He had (and still has, at times) a tendency to go to his baseline fall away or step back jumper, a comparatively good result for the opposition.

But go ask James Harden about how that strategy is working today.

Late in the third quarter of Game 4, James caught the ball just off of the elbow on the right side of the court. Harden immediately ceded ground, backing up in a desperate plea for James to please just shoot the wide open shot.

No dice.

James surveyed the floor to figure out where the defensive help would likely come from, then pivoted and moved into Harden with his back. As his Heat teammates ran interference on the other side of the court (and it should be mentioned that his teammates have gotten better at this, as well), LeBron kept his eyes to the middle, scanning for open shooters or a double-teaming defender, and calmly pushed Harden closer and closer to the paint.

Finally, just eight feet from the rim and with Harden summoning every ounce of strength to push him away, James spun baseline off of Harden's shoulder, elevated, and dropped in an almost casual jump hook off the glass that would make any coach grin with pride -- well, except the coach who has to figure out how to stop it.

See, with his size, vision and willingness to hit the open man, James is the last player on the court you want to double team. James won two MVP awards in Cleveland by leveraging these talents on drives the the basket. In the playoffs, however, it becomes harder and harder to find those driving angles and thus trickier to manipulate the defense and find shooters.

So, just as many people advised him to do in unsolicited columns, tweets and shouts at TVs, James found a work-around by developing a new skill set basically from scratch.

It wasn't easy and it didn't all happen at once. It wasn't long ago every James jumpstop in the post was so over-exaggerated you could almost hear him thinking: "OK, now I'm going to try this new move."

But James stuck with it and now floats from post to perimeter without a second thought, at home anywhere on the court. Players often lean on what they know when the pressure is most intense, so it's telling that James is leaning on his post game in the Finals.

The question now is how do you slow James down without leaving shooters alone on the perimeter?

That's Scott Brooks and the Thunder's unenviable task. OKC is playing by the old book on stopping James: use speed and length to keep between him and the basket and fight to front in the low post. Get low and be physical with him and he’ll pass the ball.

But now James is so locked in with his post game that it seems like Nick Collison or Serge Ibaka may be better suited to single-covering him than even ace wing defender Thabo Sefolosha.

Realistically, the only remaining weakness in LeBron’s entire game may be his outside shot, a rare NBA skill that generally improves with age.

Having seen decisive evidence of the hours upon hours of work James logged to become one of the best back-to-the-basket players in the game, who would bet against James also becoming a better outside shooter?

Indeed, who would bet against him at all?

Spurs, Parker look to roll at home in Game 5

June, 4, 2012
By ESPN Stats & Info
Matthew Emmonsj/US PresswireTony Parker needs to get back on track if the Spurs are going to win Game 5.
The Western Conference Finals head back to San Antonio for Game 5 tonight at 9 ET with the series knotted at two games apiece.

Spurs Keys to the Game
The San Antonio Spurs are looking to bounce back after suffering back-to-back losses following their near-record 20-game win streak. Both of those losses came on the road, however, and a return to the AT&T Center should provide a spark to the Spurs.

The Spurs are 6-0 at home this postseason, and the big difference has come on the offensive end. They are averaging 15 more points per game at home than on the road, and have thrived around the basket at home, where they are outscoring their opponents by 17 points per game in the paint.

Tony Parker needs to get back on track if the Spurs are going to take Game 5. He really struggled in Games 3 and 4, averaging just 14 points per game on 41 percent shooting.

He wasn’t as efficient running the pick-and-roll, making just 2-of-7 shots on those plays in the last two games, compared to 9-of-15 in Games 1 and 2.

In Game 3 the Spurs failed to produce on the interior, scoring a postseason-low 22 points inside five feet in the loss, nearly half has many points as they averaged in that area in the first two games.

In Game 4, San Antonio couldn't contain the Thunder's perimeter shooting. The Thunder were 19-of-37 (52 percent) from 15 feet and beyond on Saturday, after the Spurs had held them to 42 percent shooting from that distance in the first three games.

Thunder Keys to the Game
It may seem that the Oklahoma City Thunder have seized the momentum by winning Games 3 and 4 on their homecourt, but history suggests that is not necessarily true.

According to the Elias Sports Bureau, entering these conference finals, 66 teams did what the Thunder did, winning Games 3 and 4 of a best-of-seven series after losing the first two games. In only 13 of those 66 instances did the team that evened the series with two wins go on to win the series.

In winning the last two games, the Thunder received huge contributions from their “non-Big 3” – Nick Collison, Serge Ibaka and Kendrick Perkins. That trio nearly tripled their scoring output in Games 3 and 4 compared to Games 1 and 2.

Thabo Sefolosha has been the key defensive player for the Thunder in their two victories over the Spurs. Over the last two games, the Spurs are averaging almost 20 fewer points per 48 minutes when Sefolosha is on the court compared to when he is on the bench.

He has been effective limiting the Spurs guards on pick-and-rolls and when coming off screens. As the on-ball defender in those situations in Games 3 and 4, he allowed just four points (2-of-7 shooting) and forced five turnovers on 12 combined plays.

Stat of the Game
The Spurs have won each of the last five best-of-seven series they have played in which the series was tied 2-2 after four games. That is the second-longest current streak of its kind in the NBA behind the Los Angeles Lakers, who have won eight in a row, according to Elias.

OKC's familiar -- and unfamiliar -- attack

June, 3, 2012
Arnovitz By Kevin Arnovitz
Serge Ibaka and Kevin Durant
Ronald Martinez/NBAE/Getty Images
Serge Ibaka and Kevin Durant are making shots for a team that looks nothing like it did 72 hours ago.

Before Game 3 of the Western Conference semifinals between the Thunder and the Lakers, Metta World Peace was asked to name the No. 1 item on his to-do list. His response was quick.

"Top-lock Durant on that wide pin-down," World Peace said.

Top-lock meant denying Kevin Durant use of that down screen to pop out to the top of the floor for his favorite shot.

"You have to force him away," World Peace said. Otherwise, Durant would get the ball exactly where he wanted it. If he's able to catch, turn, elevate and release, there's not much anyone can do about it. That's usually true even if the big man switches out on him. It all happens so quickly that there's no time to react.

Early on in Game 4 of the Western Conference finals, Kawhi Leonard defended Durant well on that wide pin-down on the weak side. Durant has perfect timing on this number. Like Dirk Nowitzki, he never leaves too early and he's usually able to slither around his defender, no matter how well that defender is positioned.

Leonard wasn't all-world -- it's not as if he diverted Durant to Tulsa on any of these sets -- but the rookie never got fooled in the first half. Both he and Stephen Jackson ably distributed their attention between Durant’s movements and the position of the ball. Durant’s first field goal didn’t come until about two minutes before intermission.

After halftime the Thunder trimmed the pin-down to something tighter and less elaborate, while adding a wrinkle. Rather than rely solely on the big men, the Thunder used Russell Westbrook more frequently as the screener. And irrespective of who laid out the screen, Durant ran a shorter distance and caught the ball much closer to the basket.

This became the Thunder's bread-and-butter over the final seven minutes of the game, after the Spurs closed a double-digit deficit to only four. The Thunder had lived a charmed existence for most of the game. Kendrick Perkins' shot chart looked like Kevin Garnett's, and Serge Ibaka appeared poised to set a record as the most proficient single-game playoff performer in NBA history. Many of those opportunities resulted from aggressiveness on the part of of the perimeter scorers, but now was the time to cash out on Ibaka's jumper (6-for-6 from 15 and beyond at that point) and turn to what was most familiar and reliable.

As Westbrook said after the game, "When teams start to make a run we gotta go to our first option -- and that's Kevin."

The Spurs were helpless. They tried sending double-teams when forced to switch Parker onto Durant at the elbow. When figuring out if -- or precisely when -- to help Parker on Durant proved to be too advanced of a decision for Leonard to make possession-by-possession, Gregg Popovich reshuffled the deck. He assigned Jackson to Durant and Ginobili to Westbrook. Didn't matter.

After an entire second half of bludgeoning the Spurs with this, after making them scramble their defensive assignments, after basically telling the Spurs that they will be tormented every trip down until they figure out how to defend this action, what did the Thunder do then?

They sent Durant back door, where James Harden found him at the rim with a floating lob of wholesomeness. The bucket extended the Thunder’s lead to nine with less than three minutes remaining in the game, and a free throw still to come for Durant.

If only that were it. The Thunder went back to the conventional pin-down on the next possession, and the one after that, and the one after that. Over a nine-possession stretch, Durant scored 16 points, extending what was a slim four-point lead to nine.

With the entire Spurs defense spooked each time Durant caught the ball at the elbow, Durant went into playmaking mode. With just over a minute left and the lead cut to six, he drove the ball right at Ginobili (back on Harden). Perkins stepped into to pin Ginobili down as Harden flared to the arc. Durant kicked the ball out to Harden for a 3-pointer that effectively iced the game.

Serge Ibaka's 11 field goals (and two shooting fouls drawn):
  • Baseline cut on the weak side to the basket, where he was the recipient of a high-low pass from Kendrick Perkins off an inbounds play.
  • Face-up 19-footer above the top of the circle off a pick-and-pop with Harden. Both defenders committed to Harden, which left Ibaka wide open.
  • Face-up 17-footer just inside the key. Sefolosha attacked off a broken play and scrambled the defense, leaving Ibaka uncovered.
  • Slam dunk on a dive to the basket. Fisher drove baseline, which drew Duncan away from Ibaka at the high post.
  • Slam dunk after playing pick-and-roll with Durant. Ibaka trailed just behind, as Durant split the defenders and drove the lane.
  • Baseline 15-footer on the left side, where he was left open after Duncan lent help on Durant's penetration.
  • Fouled at the basket after receiving another interior pass from Perkins off, yes, another inbounds play. Ibaka made both free throws.
  • Obscene cuff dunk one-on-one against Duncan. Four passes on the possession.
  • Duck-in at the basket. After Durant beat Leonard baseline in isolation on the left side, Duncan had to step out to help, leaving Ibaka unmanned. Ibaka made both free throws.
  • Face-up 16-footer on the left side. Durant went right off the pick, kicked the ball out to Westbrook, who swung it back to Ibaka.
  • Face-up 15-footer at the nail. When the defense shifted to Durant, Ibaka flashed to the stripe, where Durant found him.
  • Face-up 17 footer on the left side. The Harden-Nick Collison angle pick-and-roll on the prompted the kickout to Ibaka on the weak side.
  • Tip-in off a missed Harden jump shot. Ibaka established position on DeJuan Blair early and Blair never had a chance.

Ibaka's Game 4 bounty underscores a dominant theme that has emerged for the Thunder: Individual exploits can be fueled by mutual cooperation. Every single one of these 13 possessions was assisted (though none was credited to Durant when he hit Ibaka trailing on the drag screen). When the Thunder were in isolation, Ibaka made himself indispensable on the weak side, as he should because when you have guys like Durant, Harden and Westbrook attacking, a lot of perimeter defenders are going to be beat, which means a lot of players guarding Ibaka are going to have to step out and clean up the mess.

Ibaka won't drain six mid-range jumpers on a nightly basis -- nor would Oklahoma City want to see him taking that many long 2s in the flow of the offense. But he should be among the league leaders in duck-ins. So long as he's as quick to fill open space, and so long as the scorers remember he's there -- both unequivocally true in Game 4 -- he should be one of the most menacing weakside players in basketball.

It's always tricky praising a defense that surrenders more than 110 points per 100 possessions, but in the first half, the Thunder did a very nice job of protecting the paint and a reasonably good job on containing the Spurs on the perimeter.

When Thunder defenders sank to help near the basket, they were still mindful of what was lurking along the arc and in the corners. One of the benefits of switching on two-man offensive actions is that doing so requires fewer rotations. And fewer rotations mean shooters are left with little open space, and passing lanes are much harder to create.

In both Games 3 and 4, the Thunder were usually looking to recover at the first opportunity after the switch, and that's where their collective speed and size comes in so handy. Durant and Ibaka don’t have to stress. They both have the length to stay with most big men, and both have the quickness to stay with guards. But if they believe, for whatever reason, it’s important on a given possession to restore the original matchups, they can teleport themselves back in position in an instant because they’re that quick.

In short, the Thunder are no longer putting themselves in the position to have to make the lesser of two bad choices, which is how the Spurs generally beat you. But if you can hold down the fort for 18 seconds without getting stretched, or having your guard get taken out by a screen, or being forced to send your center to step out on penetration, then the Spurs have to find someone to create for himself. And that's not their game.

Few teams have the luxury to say, “Why fight over 60 screens if we don’t have to?” But the Thunder have the flexibility to run the coverages that makes the most sense for them. In the process of this discovery, they’re coming into themselves as a defensive unit. It's not yet constant, and there are still some occasional snafus late in possessions, but they looked as comfortable defensively in the first half Saturday night as they have all postseason.

Inside Collison's unique contract extension

November, 23, 2010
Stein By Marc Stein
Leave it to Oklahoma City Thunder general manager Sam Presti to conceive a contract extension for glue-guy forward Nick Collison that forces me to consult every salary-cap reference book I can find.

This is a fun one.

Sources with knowledge of the contract specifics told that the value of the four-year extension that starts in the 2011-12 season is a modest $11 million and change. Highly favorable numbers for the Thunder.

However ...

The Thunder -- as a team slightly more than $6.5 million under the salary cap before re-signing Collison -- took advantage of that below-the-cap status to unexpectedly award Collison all of their space as a signing bonus that takes his 2010-11 compensation to a whopping $13.3 million.

Signing bonuses in extensions are usually pro-rated through the life of the contract. Teams under the cap, though, can apply the entire signing bonus at the time the extension is signed, as long as the bonus doesn't exceed the available cap space.

So Oklahoma City's motivation here is fairly obvious, no matter how out of place it looks to suddenly see All-Star dollars attached to Collison's name in this season's NBA salary documents ... and then a smaller figure for the next four seasons combined.

This is OKC's thinking:

With Nick Collison now scheduled to earn $3.3 million in 2011-12 -- and with his salary descending all the way to $2.2 million in 2014-15 -- Oklahoma City has secured a valued member of its rotation at a very cap-friendly price. That will put the smallest possible drain on its payroll in coming seasons when the Thunder have to accommodate the extension raises due to Kevin Durant as well as future extension recipient Russell Westbrook (and possibly Serge Ibaka).

Flush with other assets to use in potential trades, Oklahoma City made the determination that it couldn't do anything better with that $6.5 million in leftover cap space from the summer before the space vanishes June 30.0, when the space vanishes. It remains to be seen how risky the strategy of giving Collison such a hefty bonus is, since the cap space could have been offered up to other teams in trade discussions between now and the Feb. 24 trading deadline, but OKC isn't known for its gambles and is surely convinced it didn't really take one here. (Don't forget that Presti will always give nearly as much consideration to how a player fits into his team's culture as the player's skills.)

Collison, meanwhile, naturally couldn't resist opting for long-term security in these uncertain times. He can now face the prospect of a lockout this summer and potential contract rollbacks in a new CBA knowing he not only has that security but also the added bonus of getting a substantial safe-from-rollbacks chunk of extra change immediately.

The Wizards actually (and quietly) did something similar when they extended Andray Blatche's contract in September, but the jumps in Blatche's deal weren't nearly as dramatic as the notification teams received Tuesday that Collison's salary-cap number for the 2010-11 season is now $13,270,000.

And if you're wondering why the Thunder did this with Collison as opposed to one of their more prized youngsters, it's simple: He's the only player they regard as a definite keeper who is currently eligible for an extension.

Jeff Green's window for an extension, remember, closed Oct. 31. And Westbrook won't even be eligible for an extension for the first time until July ... and only then if there's no lockout.

The precise year-by-year breakdown:

2010-11: $13,270,000 (Upped from $6.75 million with a signing bonus of slightly more than $6.5 million)
2011-12: $3,272,997 (First year of extension)
2012-13: $2,929,332
2013-14: $2,585,668
2014-15: $2,242,003

*Extension totals $11,030,000 over four years

7 curious things about the upcoming season

August, 20, 2010
Arnovitz By Kevin Arnovitz

Jed Jacobsohn/Getty Images Sport
Forget about the hoopla in Miami, and let's talk about the basketball.

The basketball in Miami
The concentration of talent in Miami has created a dramatic storyline the NBA hasn't seen in years. In late October, the narrative will finally give way to live basketball, as the offseason machinations fade into the background. Fans and observers can debate whether a team of LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh in Miami is healthy for the NBA, and the Heat's first final-possession scenario will likely launch silly arguments about who rightfully deserves to be called "the man" in Miami. Lost in the cacophony of hysteria is the single most fascinating question headed into the 2010-11 season: What will the Miami Heat's 94 or so possessions look like on a nightly basis? How will James play off Wade and vice versa? How do you defend a Wade-James pick-and-roll? Will we see a lineup of Eddie House, Wade, Miller, James and Bosh (talk about the end of positional orthodoxy!)? Will Bosh benefit from the disproportionate attention opposing defenses will have to devote to the perimeter? And how will Bosh handle the more workaday duties of being the big man down low? However you feel about what's transpired since the beginning of July, the experiment being assembled in Miami is a basketball lover's dream. If you find Miami's personnel unlikable, then root like hell for the opposing defense. Either way, you won't be disappointed.

The blueprint in Oklahoma City
The Thunder emerged last season as the most promising young outfit in the NBA. They finished with 50 wins and gave the Lakers their toughest Western Conference playoff series. Then, this offseason, they extended a max contract to Kevin Durant and fortified their bright young core by adding Morris Peterson, Daequan Cook and first-round draft pick Cole Aldrich. In some sense, general manager Sam Presti's decision to essentially stand pat might have been one of the the boldest move of the offseason. Many executives with a talented core and some money to spend would've committed to a high-dollar addition, but Presti stayed the course. He's banking that the maturation of Durant, Russell Westbrook, Jeff Green, James Harden and Serge Ibaka will continue and vault the Thunder over of the scrum in the Western Conference. Is he being realistic? Can the Thunder ride a frontcourt of Green, Nenad Krstic, Ibaka, Nick Collison and Aldrich into the ranks of the NBA elite? Can a team that sustained no major injuries last season decline to add a single major pieces and still pick up 5-10 wins? The answer to these questions will give us an idea of how much "upward trajectory" is worth in the NBA.

Andrew D. Bernstein/Getty Images Sport
Steve Nash and Amare Stoudemire: Beautiful while it lasted

The power of Nash
Amare Stoudemire provides us with one of the best controlled experiments in recent years.
Watching him run the pick-and-roll with Steve Nash in Phoenix for eight years, we grew to regard Stoudemire as one of the most prolific power forwards of his generation. In New York, Stoudemire will benefit from the presence of coach Mike D'Antoni, who conceived many of the schemes that enabled him to flourish, but will be without Nash for the first time since 2004. How will swapping out Raymond Felton for Nash affect Stoudemire's game? Back in Phoenix, a 36-year-old Nash will have to replicate what he did during his 2005-06 MVP season when Stoudemire missed virtually 79 games -- cobble together an offense with imperfect parts. How Stoudemire performs without Nash as his dance partner and how Phoenix fares with an offense that will be more reminiscent of their 2005-06 season -- when Nash maximized the versatility of Shawn Marion, Boris Diaw and Raja Bell -- will tell us a lot about Nash's enormous impact on the game he plays as beautifully as anyone.

The defense in Chicago
The Boston Celtics' return to the NBA's upper echelon was predicated first and foremost on their defense. They unleashed a pressurized force field designed and implemented by Tom Thibodeau, and ultimately adopted by other teams around the league, including the Los Angeles Lakers. This June, the Bulls tapped Thibodeau to fill their head coaching vacancy. He joins a Bulls team that put together a strong defensive season last season, finishing 10th in efficiency. Skeptics might look at Derrick Rose -- whose defensive instincts are a far cry from Rajon Rondo -- and Carlos Boozer and conclude that Thibodeau doesn't have the personnel to succeed the way he did in Boston. Yet in 2007, Thibodeau took a quintet that featured Ray Allen (who had a horrendous defensive reputation coming from Seattle), an undisciplined big man in Kendrick Perkins, a second-year point guard in Rajon Rondo who'd started only 25 games and made them one of the best defensive units in basketball. With Joakim Noah anchoring the interior, the lanky tandem of Luol Deng and Ronnie Brewer on the wings, Boozer's sharp basketball IQ and Rose's gifts, Thibodeau should have the tools to sculpt a top-5 defense. If the Bulls buy in, we'll have a better understanding whether Thibodeau's kind of tactical expertise is transferable -- and an inkling of just how dangerous the Bulls could be.

The reign in Los Angeles
A calm has set in over Los Angeles, where the Lakers went about their offseason business with all the fanfare of a routine annual checkup. While the rest of the basketball universe was focused in on LeBron James and south Florida, the Lakers quietly added veterans Steve Blake, Matt Barnes and Theo Ratliff and re-upped head coach Phil Jackson. Even when the Lakers were stringing together three consecutive titles at the beginning of the millennium, there was always a swirl of intrigue surrounding the club. That's no longer true, as the Lakers have assumed a posture of professional incumbency the league hasn't seen in quite some time. Will the Lakers ride the precision of their system, the collective experience and poise of their core and the natural attributes of their defense to a fourth straight Finals appearance? Barring serious injury, is there anything that can disrupt the Lakers' rhythm? Is a successful formula ever in danger of becoming predictable?

The patience in Portland
Before the Oklahoma City Thunder became next year's model, the Portland Trail Blazers were on the brink of creating something special. The sketch of a winner was stenciled on the Rose Garden floor -- an all-powerful wing primed to take big shots, a talented power forward oozing with finesse, a defensive and rebounding force in the middle and smart supporting players who embraced their roles. Injuries and disruption turned the 2009-10 campaign into a holding pattern, but the pieces are still in place for the Trail Blazers to achieve. Health remains a concern, as Greg Oden will try to return from a fractured left patella. But if the big man can log 2,000 minutes, Portland should be able to complement their Top-1o offense with the kind of dogged rebounding and efficient defense that made them a popular No. 2 pick headed into last season. The question those with an affection for Portland don't want to ask is, how bright is the team's future if he can't?

The possibility of youth
The appeal of the league's top-rated rookies runs much deeper than individual performance. Their presence can ripple beyond whatever spot on the floor they happen to occupy. Blake Griffin not only has the power to explode to the rim every time he touches the ball, but he also has the potential to transform Baron Davis into the joyful point guard the world fell in love with in the spring of 2007. John Wall's well-honed instincts won't just fill up the box score, but also could revive a fan base in Washington that was teased with meaningful basketball a few years ago, only to watch their franchise return to the wilderness. DeMarcus Cousins could become the Kings' more formidable presence in the frontcourt since Chris Webber left, but more important, he and Tyreke Evans have a chance to redefine what big-small combos can do in the rapidly changing pro game. "Upside" is a word thrown around a lot in June, but watching that potential unfold produces unique findings. And that's why we watch.

Ron Artest supplants Trevor Ariza as the three-man in the Lakers' triangle. Celtics fans bid a wistful farewell to fan fave Leon Powe. And is Paul Millsap the right guy for OKC's front line? 

Artest & ArizaRob Mahoney of Hardwood Paroxysm: "[Ron] Artest only makes sense offensively in situations where his skills can be utilized without damaging the team concept. Los Angeles, home of the triangle offense, is not that place. Artest's tendency to stop the ball, throw possessions into the wind, and take what can only be described as 'Ron Artest Shots' can't fly well with Phil [Jackson], with Kobe [Bryant], with Pau [Gasol], with Tex Winter, or with just about anyone who has come to know and love (or at least respect) the most dominant offensive unit in the game. The Lakers ... were able to dissect a fantastic defensive team in the Finals because the talent was there and the system was there. Artest brings plenty of one, but substitutes the other for generally poor basketball IQ and the possibility of going bonkers at any particular time. Sweet. On top of that, the Lakers seem to be severing their ties with Trevor Ariza. Signing Artest is doing more than showing Ariza the door. It's pushing him out, throwing his stuff out on the lawn, and handing Ron a molotov cocktail ... The true delight comes in the fact that Ariza could function within the system at a level we can never expect Artest to. Trevor made a habit out of deferring on offense, and perfecting a few offensive skills in his ability to hit the three from select spots and his tremendous finishes ... This team clearly competes at a different level with Ariza on the floor, and that's a credit to just how hard he's worked on his game."

Leon PoweZach Lowe of Celtics Hub: "I really hope Leon Powe knows how much Celtics fans like him and will miss him. We all know why that is -- the well-documented childhood difficulties, the never-ending series of knee injuries that seemed to happen right when he was turning a corner, and the way Leon responded to all of it by working even harder. He's a bit of a cliché fan favorite, actually -- the scrappy role player who overcomes personal and professional obstacles to contribute to a championship team. But let's talk about basketball. There was something that drew me to Leon Powe from the moment I saw him play: He's a bit awkward ... Leon is not pretty to watch. You see -- almost feel -- every bit of effort it takes him to put the ball on the floor, lower his shoulder into a taller defender and flick a one-handed shot toward the rim. He can't leap much without a head of steam, and he's not quick or explosive enough to beat his defenders with spin moves or dribble-drives ... He often pushed off with his left hand to create the minimal space he had. Every time he attacked the rim, I cringed, expecting an offensive foul. The shots, once released, look a bit like blind tosses toward something approximating the correct area of the rim or the backboard. And they always seem to bounce around the rim and off the backboard before going down. And they went down 52 percent of the time, and 57 percent of the time in the '08 championship season ... He is a graceless, below-the-rim player for the most part, and I love him for it."

Paul MillsapRoyce Young of Daily Thunder: "I think the organization sees Uncle Jeff [Green] as its power forward. But if they sign [Paul] Millsap, I guess we'll know they think differently. Unless of course Millsap is being signed just to take Nick Collison's spot, which would be great if the Thunder could sign Millsap for the same money they're paying [Nick] Collison. But that probably has about as much chance of happening as me getting a 10-day contract. Millsap is a nice player. He was excellent in Carlos Boozer's absence last year and that great play earned him what's sure to be a nice contract. But the Thunder's fairly stacked at power forward. Of course there are Green and Collison, but what about D.J. White who played just seven games last year? White looked pretty darn good in those games and with some added weight and a little refining, what's to say he's not going to be an excellent backup big man? Or even Serge Ibaka? He's coming over and playing in the summer league. Maybe he blows management away and makes the roster as an extra big. Now you're jammed full of power forwards, but one of them you just signed for five years and $40 million. To me, signing Millsap isn't a very [Sam] Presti-like move. It seems like a rushed, let's-get-better-right-now move instead of the planned, calculated progression Presti has had since he took over. Signing Millsap would make you either take some clothes to Goodwill or make you completely rearrange everything."

Bucksketball: An open letter to Detroit fans, re: Charlie V.
The Two Man Game: Welcome to the Big D, Marcin Gortat.
Orlando Magic Daily: A concrete-heavy photo tour of the Magic's new home for 2010-11. 

(Photos by Jeff Gross, Steve Babineau, Melissa Majchrzak/NBAE via Getty Images)

LeBron James used to be the superstar doing his best with a marginal supporting cast -- now that man is Dwyane Wade.  Meanwhile, the Thunder's supporting cast came up big in Dallas -- but the Lakers' laid an egg in Phoenix. The TrueHoop Network casts a wide net over the NBA

LeBron James

John Krolik of Cavs the Blog: "This might have been my favorite LeBron game of the year. With real stakes on the line playing a real team, LeBron scored a pretty 42 with a True Shooting of 80%. And the perimeter game! Absolutely thrilling. I'd much rather see that than what he showed against Milwaukee. There was absolutely zero heat-checking involved in the making of those threes. The breakdown:

2 in the open court on broken plays in the up-and-down playground basketball stretch of the first quarter.

2 on a move where he got space on the perimeter, took one hard dribble forward and went straight up into a shot with his momentum taking him towards the basket.

1 on a pick-and-pop with Mo Williams during crunch-time

1 on a back-tap that came right to him after he ran the same play with Williams, but Williams elected to shoot. Also during crunch-time.

The new stroke he's been trying to get himself into seemed in full effect tonight -- he didn't fade, he kept the elbow in and the wrist extended, and he kept his lower body quiet. The ultimate goal is to have perimeter moves from 15-18 or behind a pick-and-roll that can get clean, repeatable looks from high-efficiency spots on the perimeter. If that isn't there, working off the ball and being patient for perimeter looks like LeBron was tonight is infinitely preferable to indiscriminately jacking up bombs off the bounce to show everyone you can."

Dwyane WadeMatt Moore of Hardwood Paroxysm: "Wade has taken this ragtag team, filled with rookies (Beasley and Chalmers), fringe players (Joel Anthony, Daequan Cook), and veterans considered past their prime (Jermaine O'Neal, Udonis Haslem) and have turned them into a cohesive unit. That they were overwhelmed tonight was not about a fundamental flaw, a lack of resolve, or a weakness borne from their chemistry. They were simply overrun by numbers...

Wade...was a leader of men, and a force of nature all at once. No one goes from 0 to 100 on the steal as fast as Wade. Not Ellis, not Barbosa, no one...

He won't clear 50 wins. But he's brought this team from the ashes, answered his critics, has them in line for the playoffs, some quality wins, and his numbers are off the charts. Points, rebounds, assists, steals, and even blocks. He's done more with less, and he's doing it by setting crowds on fire and leading a young team.

I'm starting to believe Dwyane Wade may really be the 2008-2009 MVP."

Russell WestbrookRoyce Young of Daily Thunder: "Before the game, I worried that this might be a borefest seeing as OKC only had one part of its three-part fun team. Russell is a joy to watch, but without KD and Uncle Jeff, I wondered if it would be any fun watching Nick Collison and Kyle Weaver grind out possessions. And the funny thing about it is, this was probably the most enjoyable game of the entire year from a pure basketball standpoint. For four quarters there was awesome ball movement. For four quarters there was tight, no-room, suffocating defense. For four quarters, five guys (on one team) worked together as one. It was beautiful. Not to take anything away from Jeff Green and KD, because give me them back tomorrow please, but what an effort by the Thunder scraps -- and I mean that in the nicest way possible."

Queen City Hoops: More Brett Hainline wizardry -- a study of Emeka Okafor's defensive efficiency, broken down by the height of his opponent.
Roundball Mining Company: A close look at the events surrounding 'Melo's suspension.
Forum Blue & Gold: Is the Lakers' bench a cause for concern? 

(Photos by Victor Baldizon, Victor Baldizon, Layne Murdoch/NBAE via Getty Images)