1. Scouts' Take: 20 Games To Go
It's an oft-repeated mistake that I'm reminded of every season when teams reach the 60-game mark.
Now we're at the NBA's quarter pole.
It doesn't happen after 20 games, no matter how many times I and other scribes have mistakenly said so. We reach the quarter pole when there are (roughly) 20 games to go on the schedule.
Which happens this weekend.
With all but five teams -- Boston, Toronto, Charlotte, Washington and San Antonio -- having played at least 60 games entering Friday's play, we move into the final quarter of the regular season with our third installment of observations from some of the league's top advance scouts, who attend three to five games every week to track the competition from as up-close as possible.
The following are views from five scouts -- granted anonymity so they can speak as freely as possible -- about various stretch-run hot topics:
Western Conference scout on the Lakers' status as title favorites:
"They're favorites, but I wouldn't say 'heavy' favorites. I see some holes in them. Kobe's not 100 percent. Their bench hasn't been great. Shannon Brown and Jordan Farmar are up-and-down. I don't think they're clear-cut better than everybody. I also think you've got to put the Mavs in there now [after acquiring Caron Butler and Brendan Haywood]. They match up with the Lakers a lot better now. Even Utah has come on so much and takes so much out of you in a seven-game series. I still like 'em, but the Lakers will have a harder time winning the West than people think."
Eastern Conference scout on the Cavaliers' outlook in the East:
"Cleveland is playing free and loose and they're going to keep blowing people out because there's nobody to slow them down right now. LeBron is going to play more power forward and they're just going to attack, attack, attack. But until they get those two big guys back [Shaquille O'Neal and Zydrunas Ilgauskas], they can't win the championship. They're going to need one or both of those guys to beat the Lakers. I think even against Boston they need the big guys. The problem is that they're going to have to change their style of play again when Z and Shaq come back."
"I think I want to see what happens down the stretch before I put Durant second. But outside of LeBron, he's a guy you probably wouldn't trade for anyone else in the league right now. Kevin isn't creating for other guys and he can't do what LeBron does on the defensive side. He's not making other players better like LeBron. But I don't see how you can name anybody else better to build around because of Durant's age. I couldn't believe it the other day when they said on TV that he's still only 21. Some people might choose Dwight Howard to build around because he's a big guy, but I wouldn't. I'd take my chances [for the future] with Durant."
Western Conference scout on the rookie of the year race:
"[Tyreke] Evans is going to win it and [Brandon] Jennings was up there early, but [Steph] Curry is going to wind up being the best player of the three. He's the ray of hope in Golden State because he's got the shots, he's got the moves, he's marketable and he's only going to get better. And I think his teammates like playing with him. He's a great shooter, obviously, but he's unselfish. He's looking to get other guys involved.
"Evans is obviously a talent, too, but my instinct is that not everybody likes playing with him because he dominates the ball so much. He's more of a point forward than he is a point guard. ... You can argue that [Curry's] numbers are inflated playing in Golden State's system, but you could have said that about a lot of rookies over the years. Most of the top rookies are on bad teams. Rookies of the year aren't coming from the Lakers. The issue is what the Warriors are going to do with [Monta] Ellis, because it's obvious that that team needs to be built around Curry, and Curry defers too much when Ellis is in there."
Eastern Conference scout on a potential Shaq-versus-Dwight Howard matchup in the playoffs:
"Is Shaq in Dwight's head? Yeah, somewhat. It kind of reminds me how Detroit used to give Dwight problems. But Shaq can only do it in spurts. Over the course of seven games, Dwight's youth and athleticism takes over. The biggest X factor in a Cleveland-Orlando series is whether Vince Carter shows up. If he shows up, they're a team that can go all the way. But Vince needs pats on the back and Stan [Van Gundy] is not that kind of coach. He takes every possession so personally."
Western Conference scout on this season's surprise team:
"People would probably say Oklahoma City or Memphis, but it's Milwaukee for me. They weren't picked very high in general after losing [Richard] Jefferson, [Charlie] Villanueva and [Ramon] Sessions and then they lost Michael Redd on top of that. Now they're in the playoffs and they have a chance to get all the way up to that fifth spot [in the East].
"The two big reasons are [Andrew] Bogut is playing at a really high level -- more so than ever, it's his team -- and Scott Skiles is a helluva coach. Bogut has finally found a coach that believes in him and that he believes in and it's working for him. This used to be Michael Redd's team, but he's taken control of that team and is starting to look dominant like people thought he could when he came out of college. He's had some injuries and some growing pains, but [Bogut] has grown into this role. Then you put Jennings and some good, tough role players around him, and Skiles does a great job with this kind of team."
Eastern Conference scout on the most disappointing team in the league:
"It has to be the debacle that is the Wizards' season. With the [Gilbert] Arenas situation, I think it's safe to say that we've never seen anything like it. The Spurs will still make the playoffs. The Clippers and Pistons did have some injuries. Those teams are disappointing, but the Wizards had to retool their whole franchise in the middle of the year. They had their three All-Stars back together, new coach, high hopes. Now they're starting over."
Western Conference scout on the bottom of the West playoff races:
"I can't say that I've really studied the schedules, but I don't see San Antonio or Portland falling out [of the top eight]. San Antonio still has too much talent and pride for that. Portland just got [Marcus] Camby, who's a perfect short-term solution for them with their injuries [to Greg Oden and Joel Przybilla].
"The Grizzlies have had a great year, but New Orleans is the only team I see that can make a push. You have to respect the fact that Chris Paul could come back [from his knee injury] and they could reel off six or seven wins in a row. But what's going to happen with [Darren] Collison when Paul comes back? The rookie has been so good because he's had the ball in his hands. Collison is more of a penetrator than a shooter. He's not a guy who's going to make shots out there [as a shooting guard]. The last time they went through this, they put Collison right back on the bench. Can [Paul and Collison] play together now? I don't necessarily think so."
Western Conference scout on the best trade swung before last month's trading deadline:
"It's not even close. Dallas won the trade deadline when they got [Brendan] Haywood with [Caron] Butler. Haywood is much better offensively than anyone they've had in the middle. He's longer than you think when you're looking at him. And I think being traded to an organization like Dallas is going to rejuvenate Caron. He's an absolute handful when he's at his best and we didn't see that guy in Washington this year with everything that's gone on [with the Wizards]. The only thing I wonder is how they can find enough minutes for Butler and [Shawn] Marion to coexist, because they still need Marion's defense. But those are two significant upgrades."
2. Eastern Conference
The most important aspect of Michael Jordan's successful bid to purchase the Bobcats might be what it means in the coaching box.
Rumblings in NBA coaching circles have grown louder in recent weeks that Larry Brown was sure to leave the Bobs if Jordan did not wind up as Charlotte's new majority owner.
One source close to the situation says Brown's departure still can't be completely ruled out -- since you never know with Brown -- but the Bobcats aren't going to lose him against their will now.
The source, meanwhile, says that the expected opening this offseason with his old team in Los Angeles -- as opposed to a potential return to Philadelphia -- is the option that intrigued Brown most in recent weeks when Jordan seemed to be running out of time to top the bid fronted by former Houston Rockets executive George Postolos.
Brown has been mentioned as a possible successor to the under-fire Eddie Jordan in Philly, having maintained a good relationship with the Sixers since leaving for Detroit in 2003 and with his wife and children still living in the area. Brown, though, has likewise maintained a good relationship through the years with Clippers owner Donald Sterling after taking the Clips to two of the four trips to the playoffs (1992 and 1993) in the club's 26-season history in Los Angeles.
Some numbers of note in the East this week:
10: The Cavaliers are outscoring teams by 10.0 points per 48 minutes when Shaquille O'Neal is off the floor this season and by 3.7 points per 48 minutes when Shaq is on the floor.
447: Before their meeting Thursday night in Chicago, 447 days had elapsed since the last Grizzlies-Bulls game on Dec. 12, 2008. That's the longest current span that any two NBA teams have gone without playing each other.
30: John Kuester landed the Pistons' coaching job last summer in part because of his offensive pedigree, but he's struggling to generate anything positive from a group that lacks a dependable interior scorer and suffers from a glut of shoot-first guards. The Pistons, entering Thursday's play, ranked last in the league in 3-point shooting (29.6 percent as a team) and free throw shooting (71.4 percent). They're also 29th in team offense (92.4 points per game) and 27th in overall field goal shooting (43.9 percent).
12: Thanks to a sprained ankle that has cost him six games, Toronto's Chris Bosh is stuck on 12 games this season with at least 30 points and 10 rebounds, enabling Oklahoma City's Kevin Durant, with 14, to pass him.
I might be a bit biased, but Tracy McGrady's surgically repaired left knee couldn't be in better hands as he makes his comeback with the Knicks, who over the past two years have hired two leading injury-prevention specialists from abroad ... including one from my beloved Manchester City in England's Premier League.
Andy Barr was City's chief physiotherapist and joined the Knicks this season as a performance specialist.
He was recruited to work with Dave Hancock, who was plucked from another of England's leading soccer teams -- Chelsea -- to serve as New York's director of training and conditioning.
Hancock will receive one of the highest honors in his profession this summer when the Knicks loan him back to the English national team to join England's training staff for the World Cup in South Africa. The Football Association, which governs the sport in England, urged the Knicks to let them borrow Hancock for a month.
3. (Jersey) Numbers Game
Few believe him.
Upon switching from No. 8 to No. 24, Kobe Bryant insisted that he gave serious thought to choosing the latter as a Lakers rookie in 1996.
Lots of us ignored that story and merely assumed that Bryant merely wanted to go one digit better/higher than His Airness, or was trying to tell us he was three times the player he was when he entered the league.
Such is the nature of these midcareer number swaps. We are conditioned to disbelieve any explanation we get and/or assume that only deep-seated business agendas drive the decision.
LeBron wears No. 6 with Team USA, counts a famous former No. 6 (Julius Erving) as his second-favorite player of all time behind Jordan and points out that his first child was born Oct. 6 and that his second was born in the sixth month, June.
Even if you're convinced that James is just trying to create sales buzz with a new number -- or if it irks you that he doesn't hold the same no-one-should-wear-his-number reverence for Erving and Bill Russell that he has for Jordan -- it's fairly clear that LeBron has a legitimate history with/fondness for No. 6.
You can be sure, though, that you'll continue to hear ongoing skepticism about his motivations.
To which we feel compelled to add six f-a-c-t-s about the official request LeBron filed to switch to No. 6 if he's still in Cleveland next season:
Here are six:
1. It's by no means a binding promise that he's staying in Cleveland, but don't forget that this development matters only if LeBron stays with the Cavs, because players can pick any available number they want when they switch teams. It's only when players do not switch teams that they must formally apply to the league office for a number change by March 5 of the previous season.
2. Only five NBA teams have retired No. 6. Boston (Bill Russell), Philadelphia (Julius Erving) and Phoenix (Walter Davis) all took that number out of circulation to honor past greats; Orlando and Sacramento did so to honor their fans.
3. If he indeed wears No. 6 with whomever he plays for next season, LeBron will eventually become the seventh player inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame after wearing No. 6 at some point in his career, joining Erving (inducted in 1993), Patrick Ewing (2008), Tom Gola (1976), Buddy Jeannette (1994), Neil Johnston (1990) and Russell (1975).
5. Fifteen active players wear No. 6: Denver's Arron Afflalo, Milwaukee's Andrew Bogut, Bobby Brown of the Los Angeles Clippers, Miami's Mario Chalmers, New Orleans' Tyson Chandler, Phoenix's Jason Hart, Portland's Juwan Howard, Utah's Othyus Jeffers, New Jersey's Courtney Lee, Oklahoma City's Eric Maynor, Washington's Mike Miller, Adam Morrison of the Los Angeles Lakers, Chicago's Flip Murray, Detroit's Ben Wallace and Atlanta's Mario West.
6. We're fairly certain LeBron is not switching to No. 6 because he's currently tied for sixth in the league in dunks with 97 throwdowns this season.
P.S.: James is currently one of nine active players wearing No. 23. The others: Stephen Graham (Charlotte), Toney Douglas (New York), Wes Matthews (Utah), B.J. Mullens (Oklahoma City), Jason Richardson (Phoenix), C.J. Watson (Golden State), Martell Webster (Portland) and Lou Williams (Philadelphia).
4. Western Conference
You can smell the wishful thinking from here.
Darren Collison is putting up huge numbers as Chris Paul's fill-in (see below), which naturally prompts teams around the league to dream that Hornets owner George Shinn -- once he realizes that he's paying just $1.3 million to Collison this season compared with $13.5 million for Paul -- will consent to trading CP3 this offseason.
Don't count on it.
Back on Christmas we ran through some of the reasons why the Hornets, even when they were over the luxury-tax threshold earlier this season, wouldn't even consider the prospect of trading Paul. One source with knowledge of the Hornets' thinking reiterated this week that nothing has changed since then, especially since the Hornets are now under the tax line and suddenly have two promising young assets besides Paul: Collison and fellow rookie Marcus Thornton.
Paul's future will remain a popular topic because of his ability to become a free agent in the summer of 2012 and the Hornets' standing as a .500 team. But given his immense profile in New Orleans and the fact that Paul almost exclusively makes basketball viable in Saints territory, it seems far more likely that the Hornets would try to move Collison to fill another need.
Not that you'll get any such hints from Jeff Bower. The Hornets' coach/general manager insists that Paul and Collison can and will play together -- no matter how much Paul is used to having the ball -- when his All-Star returns from knee surgery to try to nudge New Orleans into the playoffs.
"I see two guys that have the same makeup," Bower said. "They play the game with the same mentality. They measure everything they do based on winning and how the team is doing.
"I'm excited to see them together. I do think they can [function in the same backcourt]. Not the whole game, of course, but I think they can play together and Chris can be a dynamic scorer off the ball. And Marcus Thornton can be a dynamic scorer with them."
12.6: The Suns' Amare Stoudemire leads the league in interior scoring this season at 12.6 points per game in the paint, followed closely by Memphis' Zach Randolph (12.5) and Milwaukee's Andrew Bogut (12.5). Utah's Carlos Boozer and New Jersey's Brook Lopez are tied for fourth (11.8).
155: Hornets rookie Marcus Thornton has scored 155 points in his past six games, which is the highest point total for a six-game stretch for any rookie drafted in the second round or later since Jay Vincent's 159 points for Dallas in a six-game span from April 1 to 11 in 1982.
7: Darren Collison's recent run of seven consecutive games for New Orleans with at least 18 points and nine assists made him just the second player in NBA history -- following Oscar Robertson in 1960-61 -- to put together that kind of stretch as a rookie.
5: The Elias Sports Bureau -- which supplies us with so many of the amazing tidbits we get every week -- says Kevin Durant's 39 points and 10 rebounds and Russell Westbrook's 30 points and 13 assists in Oklahoma City's win Tuesday over Sacramento marked the first time in league history that two teammates aged 21 or younger posted a 30/10 game on the same night.
5. Marc's Quote
"You could get a little physical with those guys [last season], but not anymore. They were a little smaller. They didn't have the depth that they do now. They're longer. They have a much better team now."
Indiana Pacers guard Dahntay Jones, comparing the new-look Dallas Mavericks to the team ousted by Denver in five games -- with Jones starting at shooting guard for the Nuggets -- in the second round of the playoffs last spring.
6. Leading Men
Last season, Dwyane Wade gave LeBron James competition for the MVP award. This season? The King's got a new challenger. (See Box 1.)
7. Most Dominant Quiz Ever
With the help of irrepressible ESPN researcher Pete Newmann, we commemorate Shaquille O'Neal's birthday -- Shaq turns 38 on Saturday -- with a pop quiz.
Answers can be found in Box 10.
How well do you know The Diesel?
1. How many backboards/basket supports has Shaq broken in his NBA career?A) 1
2. This is Shaq's 18th NBA season. How many times has he been an All-Star?A) 13
3. Shaq has played in the NBA Finals for the Magic, Lakers and Heat. How many players have done what O'Neal is trying to do with Cleveland by reaching the Finals with four different teams?A) 0
4. Shaq was the No. 1 overall pick in the 1992 NBA draft. How many players from that or earlier drafts are still active in the NBA?A) 0
5. Shaq is one of how many active players to average 20 points and 10 rebounds for their career?A) 2
6. When O'Neal was announced as one of the NBA's 50 greatest players, how many seasons had he completed?A) 4
7. When Shaq left the Magic for the Lakers as a free agent in 1996, it was a seven-year deal worth how many millions of dollars?A) 85
8. O'Neal won the league's MVP award in 1999-2000. How many times has he finished second in the MVP voting?
9. Shaq will play in fewer than 70 games this season for the third time in the past four seasons, but how many postseason games has he missed through injury?A) 0
10. Shaquille O'Neal has appeared in movies with each of the following actors except?A) Carmen Electra
B) Drew Barrymore
C) Uma Thurman
D) Nick Nolte
8. Cake Time For Shaq
Don't worry, Diesel. We didn't forget your b-day just because you're out six to eight weeks.
9. Chatter Box
10. Quiz Mastered
Answers to the Shaq pop quiz in Box 7:
5. B (Boston's Kevin Garnett and San Antonio's Tim Duncan are the only others)
6. A (The NBA's 50 greatest players were announced Oct. 29, 1996, just before Shaq's fifth season)
8. B (1994-95 with Orlando and 2004-05 with Miami)
9. B (O'Neal has played in 203 of 205 possible playoff games, missing only two because of a deep thigh bruise in Miami's second-round series against Washington in May 2005.)