1. Sizing Up Super-Sized Christmas Schedule
Maybe a five-course helping of Christmas Day games is too heavy for Phil Jackson to stomach.
Not a complaint you'll be hearing from us.
I have my own wish list for the NBA when it comes to the league's annual Dec. 25 lineup -- San Antonio versus Dallas one of these years sure would be nice if they're so intent on serving us a legit rivalry -- but I've also unreservedly looked forward to this occasion ever since the inimitable Bernard King hung a Christmas record 60 points on the New Jersey Nets to delight a certain geeky sophomore at faraway El Toro High School. Going back to when it wasn't so easy to find all these games on TV.
So I'll happily report to Staples Center for the Miami Heat's latest Hype Bowl and let Phil do the lobbying for time off ... which surely stems from the fact he pretty much never gets a Christmas off (See Box 4 below).
This is the third straight Christmas with five successive games broadcast on the ESPN/ABC family of networks and this Weekend Dime has the matchup-by-matchup breakdown, with Bernard's Knicks getting us started in their green uniforms against Chicago, to get you ready:
Bulls at Knicks, noon ET, ESPN/ESPN 3D
Safe guess: As long as Tom Thibodeau shows up to coach the Bulls, Amare Stoudemire won't be making a run at King's 60. You figure that Thibodeau, even without the injured Joakim Noah to anchor Chicago's D, will come up with the various schemes required to hold Amare under 40.
Yet there should still be plenty to see here, starting with the new and unfettered Raymond Felton and some prime time in the national spotlight opposite Chicago's Derrick Rose.
Felton is bidding to become just the fourth Knicks point guard ever to average nine assists or more for a whole season -- joining Mark Jackson (10.6 apg in 1987-88), Micheal Ray Richardson (10.1 apg in 1979-80) and, yes, Stephon Marbury (9.3 apg in 2003-04) -- but he certainly still has many more skeptics to convince than Stoudemire. So stayed tuned for what Felton can do in these circumstances, going head-to-head with an All-Star automatic in the East's backcourt like Rose.
Celtics at Magic, 2:30 p.m., ABC
Never in NBA history, before this season, had four teams recorded winning streaks spanning at least 12 games before Christmas. But Boston has to be regarded as the headliner of the group -- which also features San Antonio, Dallas and Miami -- thanks to the 14 consecutive wins that the Celts will tote into this Eastern Conference finals rematch with overhauled Orlando.
I suspect that the Magic, meanwhile, will emerge from this reunion having left the distinct impression that management was (perilously) thinking way more about Miami than Boston when it swung those two big shakeup trades last weekend.
If the teams meet again in the postseason, Boston will potentially boast a four-man platoon (Shaquille O'Neal, Kendrick Perkins, Jermaine O'Neal and Glen Davis) armed with 24 fouls to take on Dwight Howard. Orlando, by contrast, would no longer have a power forward with 3-point range and a proven ability to draw Kevin Garnett out of the paint like it had with Rashard Lewis.
Lewis has undeniably dropped off in a big and scary way since helping Orlando go all the way to the NBA Finals in 2009, but Hedo Turkoglu's reluctance to embrace playing time at the 4-spot for Alvin Gentry was one of the main reasons Phoenix was so eager to trade him. Playing Turkoglu at power forward against Boston for long stretches, furthermore, just doesn't sound feasible defensively. So you can make the case the Magic will miss Lewis against the Celts even this Lewis.
Which prompts us, yet again, to ask whether Magic general manager Otis Smith should have stopped at making one massive trade. Routing San Antonio with the Spurs playing on the second night of a back-to-back, impressive as the Magic looked Thursday night, isn't nearly enough to change the view here that holding off on the Gilbert Arenas gamble and focusing on the additions of Turkoglu, Jason Richardson and Earl Clark from Phoenix was the wiser play.
Can Dwight's peerless one-man-gang defensive presence and Stan Van Gundy's famed prodding of his players prove us wrong and reduce the amount of Orlando slippage on D that's so widely expected post-trade? Wouldn't be the first time someone made us look bad. But I just don't see how these two dice rolls, creating as many questions as they potentially answer, are going to move Orlando higher than its previous standing of No. 3 in the East's title-chasing pecking order.
Can't shake the feeling that just doing the Phoenix deal would have reduced the potential for long-term damage.
Heat at Lakers, 5 p.m., ABC
NBA Finals preview?
History says no since no two teams have ever squared off on Christmas Day and then later that same season in the championship series.
Biggest Christmas Day showdown ever between the Lakers and Heat?
Regrettably have to submit an undeniable no to that one, too, because it would be an indefensible exaggeration to suggest that there's more anticipation surrounding this matchup than Christmas Day 2004, when Shaquille O'Neal returned to Staples Center to tangle with Kobe Bryant as an actual opponent for the very first time after Shaq's exile to Miami.
There's still plenty of potential here for one of the games of the season, as long as Dwyane Wade is healthy enough to play. Two reasons: (A) LeBron James certainly hasn't disappointed in visits to Cleveland and New York in his last two Hype Bowls, and (B) Andrew Bynum's return and how much bigger that makes the Lakers doesn't change the fact that L.A. is suddenly almost as needy as the undersized Heat for a statement-game performance against elite opposition.
Although we obviously know what this group of Lakers can do on the game's biggest stage after a couple of championships -- which only lets us take the urgency angle so far -- Phil Jackson can't scoff at all about the Heat merely capitalizing on a favorable stretch of schedule when they won 12 games in a row. Not when the Lakers had played the easiest schedule in the league, through Wednesday's games, based on opponent winning percentage (.403). Nor when the Lakers have only one -- ONE -- win over a team with a winning record more than a third of the way through the season.
Surely those harsh statistical realities annoy Jackson far more than the fact he'll be coaching in a Christmas Day game for a record 18th time instead of spending the holiday with family.
Nuggets at Thunder, 8 p.m., ESPN
The loud and loyal NBA fans of Oklahoma City deserve a stage as big as the Christmas Day program to remind us all, as seen in the playoffs last spring against the Lakers, what kind of home-court advantage Kevin Durant and Co. have.
This divisional hookup with Denver also normally would have been an ideal opportunity for Russell Westbrook to announce to the nation -- if he hasn't already -- that the Thunder have their own Derrick Rose-esque source of explosion in the backcourt.
Truth is, though, that it'll be borderline impossible to give deep thought or appreciation to any of that stuff once you remember who won't be playing and why.
Engulfed by nonstop trade speculation since the summer, Nuggets star Carmelo Anthony has been confronted with true crisis and tragedy after the death Wednesday of sister Michelle, who succumbed to a pre-existing medical condition at 36 and left behind four children.
I honestly can't imagine thinking about much else once this game starts. Since this is supposed to the be the ultimate family season.
Blazers at Warriors, 10:30 p.m., ESPN
The Warriors haven't played on Christmas Day since 1984 at Portland. They've also never hosted a Christmas Day in their Oakland existence.
So it's a big deal in the Bay Area for another raucous fan base.
Yet there's no ducking the fact that two of the key names counted on to give this game some national traction are either out for sure (Brandon Roy) or no healthier than a maybe (Stephen Curry) ... and that the whole Roy situation and his concession this week that fears about never being pain-free are "sinking in" is about as somber as it gets on the floor.
It's basically up to Monta Ellis, then, to make this a spectacle with a few of those no-look, over-the-head flings off the glass in the lane.
(For the record: Ellis has three 40-point games this season -- in a league with just 13 overall to date -- and is one of just two players, along with Memphis' Rudy Gay, to average at least 40 minutes per game. But Portland, at 14-2, has the winningest Christmas record of any NBA franchise.)
2. Marc's Quote
"We have much bigger aspirations than just shuttin' everybody up."
That was Heat coach Erik Spoelstra, in a Nov. 27 pregame session with reporters, about an hour before Miami got throttled in Dallas and wound up holding a team meeting that lasted nearly 45 minutes.
And he wasn't exaggerating.
Spoelstra knows, maybe more than anyone on South Beach, that every season for the Heat is championship or bust, even though you'd struggle to find a single so-called expert now who thinks Miami's roster is championship-ready.
Yet you also have to believe that Spoelstra, deep down, feels some certifiable satisfaction about what the Heat have achieved in the past month, because he's hushed a lot of critics faster than you would have thought possible after a 9-8 start and this story about player discontent from from ESPN The Magazine colleague Chris Broussard two days after the defeat in Big D.
Give Spoelstra some props as he prepares to step into the visitors coaching box at Staples Center just down the sideline from Phil Jackson and his 11 rings. Quality wins remain scarce for Miami so far, but the NBA's second-youngest coach at 40 has the Heat running and responding at levels that have impressed his peers no matter how soft their schedule has seemed since the stop in Dallas.
As uncomfortably (and unfairly) warm as his seat was when Miami was flirting with .500, as detailed here, Spoelstra never flinched after LeBump and the over-the-top furor that followed LeBron James' grazing his shoulder in apparent frustration as he stormed back to the bench for a timeout against the Mavs.
Spoelstra took a few key steps of his own to get the hushing underway:
1. He had a sitdown with James immediately after Broussard's story ran and never backed down publicly about how he planned to coach the team, giving the distinct impression that Spoelstra is going to keep preaching what he believes in no matter how hot his seat gets.
2. He started making a concerted effort to get James private time on the floor at the end of the first and third quarters without Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh flanking him, giving LeBron confidence-boosting game conditions reminiscent of his Cleveland days.
3. And he started playing Mario Chalmers ahead of Eddie House, which put a better perimeter defender on the floor, brought more movement to an often stagnant offense and ignited James and Wade by allowing them to attack from more customary angles than when they were both masquerading as point guards.
Even Phil might have something nice to say when he's inevitably asked to rate Spoelstra in his pregame session with reporters on Christmas Day.
3. Latest Melo-Drama
The Nuggets, according to sources briefed on the teams' discussions to date, have greeted the Mavericks' inquiries with "nothing but pushback" every time they've called to check on the status of Carmelo Anthony's availability.
Reason being: Dallas can't come close to the package New Jersey can assemble, which includes two probable lottery picks in addition to prized rookie Derrick Favors.
One source close to the process says Denver remains "heavily" focused on trying to complete a deal with New Jersey, while New York obviously continues to rank as the other standout team in the Melo chase because the Knicks are overwhelmingly regarded around the league as Anthony's favored destination.
To read the full ESPN Dallas blog post, click here
4. Western Conference
Kings co-owner Joe Maloof is trying as hard as he can to hush rising speculation about the job security of his coach and his general manager, insisting to both AOL FanHouse and CBSSports.com in the early hours of Friday that Paul Westphal and Geoff Petrie are not on the verge of being fired with Sacramento mired in a 2-21 nosedive.
Sources with knowledge of Sacramento's thinking, however, counter with the claim that the fact Westphal and Petrie are both under contract beyond this season and the money owed them as a result is largely what's saving the pair.
One source maintains that Petrie -- architect of the Kings' glory-days teams in the early 2000s but whose ongoing inability to successfully reload the roster led to a steep pay cut in December 2009 -- is actually in greater jeopardy than Westphal, despite the increasing tension between Westy and some of his players.
Petrie is pushing for another coaching change now, sources said, but that stance has likewise endangered the GM since it was Petrie who convinced Joe and brother Gavin Maloof to extend Westphal's contract through 2011-12. The Kings have been through a string of coaches since Rick Adelman's ouster in 2006 and Petrie's most recent trade acquisitions -- most notably Carl Landry and Samuel Dalembert -- have also failed to pan out. Which has only further soured his bosses.
Teams that have been calling in hopes of pilfering rookie forward DeMarcus Cousins via trade, meanwhile, continue to be told that Cousins isn't available, no matter how many times he clashes with Westphal. Yet it remains to be seen how long the Kings' historically deliberate (too patient?) nature holds up before the changes do start.
The Cousins-Westphal relationship has become a daily distraction, Tyreke Evans hardly resembles last season's Rookie of the Year -- with no one quite sure if it's an injury issue (plantar fasciitis) or something bigger -- and the losses just keep piling up at a haunting rate.
How frightening? Sacramento is (yikes) 17-65 since a 13-14 start last season that seemed to signal the start of a resurrection Petrie has been pursuing for years.
Some numbers of note in the West this week:
27.5: If the season ended today, Kevin Durant's current scoring average of 27.5 points per game would be the lowest to lead the league since Allen Iverson's 26.8 points per game in the lockout-shortened 1999 season.
6: Grant Hill is bidding to become just the sixth player in history to average better than 14 points per game over a full season at the age of 38, joining Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Michael Jordan, Karl Malone, Reggie Miller and Robert Parish.
0: The Spurs have not allowed an opposing center to score 30 points in a game this season, but did surrender 29 to Dwight Howard in Thursday's heavy loss in Orlando. Over the past six seasons, Howard remains the only starting center to reach the 30-point mark against San Antonio more than once. Howard has done it twice; Pau Gasol and Al Jefferson once each.
13: Kobe Bryant will play in his 13th Christmas Day game Saturday, as will former Lakers teammate Shaquille O'Neal, tying Kobe and Shaq with Dolph Schayes and Earl Monroe for the league record.
10: In addition to the record 18 Christmas Day games he will have coached after the Lakers play host to Miami, Phil Jackson also played in 10 games on Christmas in an 11-year span from 1967 through 1977.
Look for Blazers coach Nate McMillan to draw interest from Bobcats owner Michael Jordan as a potential long-term replacement for Larry Brown should McMillan and the Blazers part ways after his contract expires at season's end. The respected Paul Silas was a natural interim choice for Jordan -- given that Silas lives in Charlotte, had been attending many Bobcats games and badly wanted the job when it went to Brown's predecessor, Sam Vincent -- and badly wants to win Jordan over to score the job permanently. McMillan, though, has a strong advocate in the organization in Bobcats president Fred Whitfield. Sources with knowledge of the Clippers' thinking insist that Chris Kaman, contrary to one report, has not been made available to interested teams. Offering the center as a means to convince someone out there to take on Baron Davis, one source insisted, does not appeal to L.A because centers are too hard to replace.
5. One-On-One ... To Five
Five questions with Pistons guard Rip Hamilton:
Q: When this team struggles, how often do you and Tayshaun [Prince] and Ben [Wallace] start talking about the glory days? Or is it better to not even go there?
A: We talk about it. You can't help but talk about it sometimes when you're losing games. It's tough, man. It's very tough. You're used to being in wars, night in and night out, making a long run in the playoffs. And now the mindset's totally different.
Sometimes you talk about [the glory days] just to keep you sane. But I think the most difficult part is when you play against teams that you used to dominate for so many years. That's what hurts the most. When [those teams] beat you up, that's the worst.
Q: Does the fact you've already won a ring make the struggles any easier?
A: I think our patience is a little bit better in this situation. If we didn't ever win it and didn't know what it took to win, I think we would have gotten a lot more frustrated.
We're all used to playing 40-some minutes, night in and night out, and now you might play in the fourth quarter or you might not. But we still gotta be professional, still be leaders in a way where we don't get frustrated with time and shots and things like that. We've always been about team and we're still going to be about team.
Q: But it seems like we've been hearing stories about turmoil with this team and player relationships with the coach [John Kuester] from the minute the season started.
A: Everything is exaggerated when you don't win. In every NBA locker room, you're going to have [stories] about tension. When a team has so much success and we're winning all the time and then when you don't win? People are just going to nitpick on each and every little thing. That comes with the territory when you don't win basketball games.
Q: There were [offseason] rumblings that you were almost traded to Charlotte for Tyson Chandler and your name comes up a lot now [in trade speculation]. How closely are you following that stuff?
A: I really don't. I really don't follow up on the rumors. There was a lot going on this summer with people talking about me and Tay, different trades. But I think, [with only] two or three years in the league, I'd have been caught up in it. Now being in my 12th season? [You] just play.
Once you get caught up in it, then that stirs up a whole new mix. I'm here [in Detroit]. I put my jersey on every day. The city has been so good to me, the organization has been so good to me, it's just like: "You know what? Play. Leave it on the line. Don't get caught up in any trade rumors."
Q: Do you think we've really seen the last of Sheed? Is [Rasheed Wallace] really retired?
A: He said he is, but you know never know with Sheed. I think he's still got a lot in his tank. But with that, who knows?
(Editor's note: This interview was conducted before a recent Detroit News story quoted a team source -- citing Hamilton's three ejections this season and a game he missed with a reported upset stomach as evidence -- as saying Hamilton had "quit" on the team. Earlier this week, Pistons president Joe Dumars responded by issuing a strongly worded statement in full support of Hamilton, amid months' worth of speculation that Hamilton's hard-to-move contract has been shopped in trades as aggressively as Dumars can try to move him while the Pistons are up for sale.)
6. Golden Boy
With Brandon Roy out and Steph Curry's status uncertain, Monta Ellis headlines the last game of the Christmas Day marathon. (See Box 1)
7. Eastern Conference
Comparisons to the unbridled fear Cleveland lived with for years about LeBron James leaving -- and all that fretting proving justified in spite of all the expensive moves made by the Cavs in hopes of convincing their Ohio-reared superstar to stay -- have been plentiful since Orlando's two big trades last weekend.
The similarities are obvious. Dwight Howard can leave the Magic in free agency in the summer of 2012, just as LeBron did last summer and just like Magic draftee Shaquille O'Neal did in the summer of 1996 when he bolted Central Florida for Los Angeles. So Magic GM Otis Smith felt he could no longer wait to make changes and also felt he had to swing as hard as he could when his chance came.
Yet one source close to the process said this week that there was at least one other trigger that led to Smith's finally acquiring Gilbert Arenas, which has been anticipated in some precincts for nearly a year because of the close bond they formed when Arenas was breaking in with Golden State and Smith was breaking into team management on Chris Mullin's staff.
The Wizards and Arenas, according to the source, had at last begun to discuss a buyout that the Wiz had maintained for months was unrealistic to even consider with so much money (more than $60 million over the next three seasons after this one) still left on Gil's contract.
Had buyout terms been reached, Arenas suddenly would have become a free agent, which would have scuttled any possibility of trading for him after Smith figured for months that no other team would dare trade for him first. A buyout also surely would have widened the field of teams willing to consider gambling on Arenas after the gun incident in Washington last season which ultimately earned him a 50-game suspension, since the price would have been a lot lower.
Amid all the second-guessing of Smith's gambles, however, is another interesting debate: Wouldn't it have just been cheaper for Washington to buy out Arenas rather than absorb the two years and $44 million left on Rashard Lewis' contract after this season?
Some numbers of note in the East this week:1,000: Ben Wallace appeared in his 1,000th regular-season game in Detroit's win Wednesday night at Toronto, making him the 95th player in history to reach that plateau but the first to do so without a single 25-point game. (Big Ben, though, did score 29 points for the Pistons in a first-round playoff game at Philadelphia in 2005 and had a 23-point game against Toronto earlier this month.)
28: Dwight Howard is up to second among active players with 28 career 20-point, 20-rebound games. Shaquille O'Neal leads active players in that category with 34 but began his career in 1992-93. Howard's first season was 2004-05. Since Howard's rookie season, Kevin Garnett is closest to Howard's total of 28 20-and-20 games with eight.
8: Derrick Rose has eight 30-point games for the Bulls this season, equaling his career total coming into the season.
143: Nearly half of Amare Stoudemire's 288 baskets so far this season -- 143 to be exact -- have come inside of 5 feet.
82: Milwaukee's Brandon Jennings, who will miss four to six weeks after surgery on his fractured left foot, was the only rookie in the league last season to start all 82 games and only the sixth since 2000 to do so, joining Carmelo Anthony in 2003-04, Dwight Howard and Andre Iguodala in 2004-05 and Mario Chalmers and O.J. Mayo in 2008-09.
One aspect of the Magic's trade with Phoenix that hasn't been discussed much: Orlando did create a trade exception worth $6.3 million that it can use to take on additional salary in deals through Dec. 19, 2011.
Whether the Magic actually use that trade exception with such a high payroll already remains to be seen, but they did also save more than $4 million in luxury-tax payments after their two trades, dropping from $24,019,804 over the tax threshold to $19,591,145.
The Wizards, meanwhile, did have to take on a little extra money this season for the right to exile Arenas and reinforce John Wall as the new face of the franchise, going from $442,929 under the salary cap to $1.4 million over.
8. Ripped Off?
'Tis the season for unrest? Reports suggest Rip Hamilton is upset with the Pistons. (See Box 5)