Originally Published: March 8, 2013

1. What The Scouts Are Saying

By Marc Stein | ESPN.com

Kevin Durant, Rajon Rondo, and Dwight Howard USA TODAY SportsDoes OKC have enough to stop Miami? How far can Boston go without Rondo? And can L.A. sneak in?

Twenty-ish games to go until the regular season gives way to the real season.

With teams generally right at or just a touch beyond the 60-game mark on their 82-game schedules entering the weekend, we're down to those 20-ish games and one last round of trusty takes from advance scouts who've again consented to provide some courtside insights into a handful of pertinent topics from around the league.

The following observations come from five scouts surveyed by ESPN.com this week, all of whom were granted anonymity so they could speak as candidly as possible about what they see while traveling to and then charting three to four games weekly to record every play their rivals run.


Western Conference scout on the Thunder's ongoing evolution:


"I really want to not like them because they play so much isolation basketball, but the bottom line is that they've consistently shown that they have two guys who can win you the game at the end. [Russell] Westbrook seems to have always had that confidence. [Kevin] Durant seems to be growing by leaps and bounds every week. It's scary to say, but this is an improving team.

"I don't want to compare them to the Michael Jordan Bulls, but there's a little something that reminds you of how [Chicago] got slapped around by the Pistons until they grew up and were ready to beat them. The Thunder is getting a dose of that now. All the playoff wars this team has already been through is giving them a real veteran feel.

"They've got some issues sometimes on offense that everybody knows about, but I think Scotty Brooks emphasizes the right things. You can't harp on these guys on every little thing. You gotta pick your battles, and he's consistent in what he's preaching when it comes to defensive effort."


Western Conference scout on Charles Barkley's contention that the Thunder won't be able to beat the Heat in a potential Finals rematch because they don't score enough inside to punish Miami's lack of size:


"That has merit. I don't listen to those guys a lot, but I agree with a lot of what Barkley says when I do hear him. He's a very traditional basketball thinker.

"But I just think Durant and Westbrook have defied the odds. I've watched them close out so many games. I think they can compensate [for a lack of inside scoring] with the way Durant and Westbrook turn defense into offense.

"It's a nontraditional approach, but the Miami Heat do the same thing in terms of makeup and their approach to the game. Is there really any difference between Chris Bosh and Serge Ibaka making their living offensively by shooting jump shots? The Heat have proven that you can win like that in today's NBA. Neither of them have the inside game that Barkley talks about, but both of those teams have coaches that demand consistent defensive effort. And more often than not, [both teams] are delivering that kind of effort.

"The problem OKC runs into is that there's no one in the Western Conference on the perimeter who can handle Durant, but then in the Finals he comes up against LeBron. Durant's used to having his way, but then all of a sudden he meets LeBron and there's resistance. He's met his match on all these isos.

"Miami is the only team OKC plays where Westbrook and Durant will [face] a duo that's more athletic than they are or has more juice than they do. But let me tell you something: Westbrook, erratic as he can be at times, is closing the gap on Wade. That could start to tip the scales a little bit."


Eastern Conference scout on whether anyone in the conference has a chance at upsetting Miami:

"They can be beaten by no team in the East. Not in a seven-game series. They've obviously started to turn it on and made anyone who was worried about [Miami] early in the season look foolish.

"I guess you could make the argument that Indiana can take 'em to six games, but they don't have a tested star to get them over the hump when it's tell-all time. That's a little bit too much to ask from Paul George or David West. You may not have noticed this, but LeBron's the same size as David West.

"It's going to take a team, a program, an organization like the Spurs to do the job. That's the only team I see capable. Oklahoma City before the [James Harden] trade, yes, but not after the trade."


Eastern Conference scout on the ceiling for the Rajon Rondo-less Celtics:

Rondo
Rondo

"I'll buy your [contention] that they're playing happier without him, but when it comes down to the big games, you need a couple a-holes. And Rondo is the leading a-hole Boston has. He affects the game like nobody else.

"During the regular season, I agree, he plays for stats too much, but when it comes to the playoffs, he's playing to win the game. He's definitely a diva and he definitely has his issues, but who does Miami have to game-plan for if Rondo isn't there? Paul Pierce is a warrior, but he's only going to be able to play 15 top-level minutes out of 30. [Kevin Garnett] is a defensive specialist at this point in time. The totality of the Heat overtakes the totality of the Celtics when Rondo's not there, but I still think he's in Miami's heads and the Celtics are in the Heat's heads when the teams are at full strength.

"Without Rondo, Miami wins that series in five."


Western Conference scout on LeBron James' ridiculous February:

James
James

"He's legitimately as good as advertised. And I'm not sure how many guys in this league can really live up to that. He's always been confident, but he plays now with a supreme level of confidence and total peace.

"I didn't want to like him as much as I like Kobe (Bryant), but he's on that level for me now. In crunch time, I still want Kobe to shoot it, but when I sit there (on press row) I literally marvel at LeBron's skill sometimes.

"He's capable of playing any position on the floor except for the (center spot), as everyone knows, but my favorite thing about (LeBron's) game is his north-to-south driving ability. There's three guys in this league who, going north to south with the ball in their hands, I don't know how you stop them. It's James Harden because he's got that Eurostep, Russell Westbrook if he gets a running start ... and LeBron is the best at it. It's ridiculous."


Western Conference scout on Dwight Howard's defense:

Howard
Howard

"I've always struggled to buy into all the praise because, to me, when a guy specializes in blocked shots, that doesn't make you a Defensive Player of the Year. The biggest comparison, to me, is Tyson Chandler, who does so many things other than blocking shots. Switching on pick-and-rolls, taking charges, getting deflections and then also coming over to get the nice block ... Tyson is a legit do-everything defender for a big.

"But Dwight's activity doesn't come near what it was pre-back surgery, pre-shoulder [problems], pre-L.A. He tries to be physical once in a while, but if he can't block a shot, I'm not seeing the same guy we saw in Orlando. Not the last year in Orlando, but the few years before that, I thought he did a lot more and was way more active.

"I know he's talked about how hard it's been to get in game shape because of all the injuries, but I've seen him take the path of least resistance too many times. But maybe he has time to get in better shape before the playoffs."


Eastern Conference scout on the looming possibility of a Memphis-Denver matchup in the first round of the playoffs:



"The Nuggets are kind of like the Knicks of the West to me. Not in terms of style of play, but because you're basically talking about a team with a lot of good pieces. They could win a round -- they could even make it all the way to the [West] finals if the seedings are in their favor -- but it's a safer bet to say they're going to have trouble when they play teams like Oklahoma City, San Antonio, Memphis. Whoever it is that'll guard a little bit.

"I just think it's a bad matchup for Denver. [The Grizzlies] have Tony Allen and Tayshaun Prince to throw at Iguodala and Gallinari, and then they're too big inside for Denver. The Nuggets are going to wish they had one more consistent shooter if those teams see each other.

"And then Memphis will have problems against a good half-court defensive team like the Spurs. That's where they'll miss Rudy Gay, because they don't have that one guy that's going to take the big shot coming out of timeouts. Even with the Clippers, you know it's going to be Chris Paul or Chauncey [Billups]. Tayshaun isn't that guy, Tony isn't that guy, and Mike Conley is a complementary offensive player.

"For the regular season and the locker room and team joy, I think everyone's probably secretly ecstatic that they made the trade. But in the playoffs, good defensive teams can just load up on the other two guys [Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol]."


Western Conference scout on whether the Clippers could actually beat San Antonio or Oklahoma City in a playoff series:


"The Spurs will negate their athleticism because they move the ball so well, but I think they're a wild card to give OKC a real battle. Do I think they can actually win that series? No. But they have the potential to make those games crazy. And when you do that, when you put some chaos into the game, maybe OKC gets rattled and loses it. But I doubt it.

"The Spurs move the ball so well that the Clippers' athleticism doesn't have a chance to make an impact on the game. But a helter-skelter kind of game is good for the Clippers, and they can create that sort of environment [against the Thunder].

"Blake [Griffin] and Ibaka ... that's a matchup that the Clippers can win. DeAndre [Jordan] and [Kendrick] Perkins ... that's a matchup where DeAndre can at least get a push."


Western Conference scout on Milwaukee's acquisition of J.J. Redick and the Bucks' ceiling with Redick lined up alongside the smallish backcourt of Brandon Jennings and Monta Ellis:


"I don't think it's a long-run recipe for playing at a high level, but they are playing well with the three smalls. J.J.'s not a bad defender. He's not a stopper, but I don't think he's a liability. So as long as he's not [required] to guard a post-up [small forward] like Carmelo [Anthony], J.J. can guard. He runs off screens all day long, so he knows how to chase people off screens [defensively]. And he's quicker than people think.

"And they all play hard. That's one thing that [ousted coach Scott] Skiles got into [Jennings and Ellis]. I think they can play those guys together and stay in games, as long as they play hard, because it's a problem defensively to guard them.

"If they can just shade guys into the lane, [Larry] Sanders is back there to bail them out. I wasn't a fan [of his] two years ago, but he's learned to control his emotions a little bit and made a concerted effort to improve the midrange jump shot. His shot used to look bad, but if he's open at 16 feet now, I feel he's going to make it. And defensively he's just a beast. He gets overeager sometimes and gets in foul trouble, but he's super long and quick and has great timing.

"They're not beating Miami, but they'll make it interesting for a half at a time. And if they could get to [No.] 7 or 6 [in the East] and play somebody else in the first round, they could make some noise."


Eastern Conference scout on the Knicks' addition of Kenyon Martin:


"They're still just pieces and parts to me, but I like the addition of Kenyon Martin. He's hungry. He's tough. He's been in the playoffs. He can guard a few different positions, and he's got something to prove coming back from China and signing on a 10-day contract. ... That's unheard of for a No. 1 pick.

"Toughness, grittiness, leadership ... he'll give them 15 or 20 minutes of that, and he'll rebound the ball. And it's a good mix to play [Martin] with or behind Amar'e [Stoudemire]. But that doesn't change my opinion on the Knicks. They're going to win a first-round series just because they'll beat somebody on talent, but they're not really built for the playoffs. When they play Miami, Indiana, Boston, even Chicago ... look how much Chicago is struggling to score and the Knicks have lost to them three times. So you tell me."


Eastern Conference scout on whether the Lakers will indeed make the playoffs


"They can. I'm not ready to say they will because I haven't studied their schedule, but it looks like Kobe's on a mission to make sure they don't miss out [now].

"They still can't stop anybody, but their players seem to be adapting better to [Mike] D'Antoni's system. And [Pau] Gasol's not there, so they don't have to worry about trying to play through the low post.

"But I wouldn't say, based on what I've seen, that they're playing dramatically better than they were. They're just a little bit more buttoned up."

Dimes past: Feb. 25 | 26 | 27 | 28 | March 1-2 | Sloan/MIT, Day 1 | Day 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | 7

2. Marc's Quote

Redick
Redick

"It's a sad trade deadline then."

Milwaukee's J.J. Redick, reacting to the suggestion that he was the darling of the NBA's 2013 trade deadline with some humor aimed at himself, after fears of the NBA's ramped-up luxury tax -- which will punish teams for contract mistakes way harder than ever before -- contributed to a deadline day of many moves but no marquee names.

Redick has been in the news a lot lately, not only in the wake of his trade to the Bucks but also for his views on some critical comments earlier this week from Dwight Howard. But the above sentiment from Redick was a leftover from our extended conversation in last week's Weekend Dime and came with a self-deprecating laugh, with Redick insisting that the disappointment in some quarters about the lack of a blockbuster before the trade buzzer doesn't faze him.

"I've got thick skin, man," Redick said. "I really mean what I said [about being] a hoops junkie. I watch NBA League Pass pretty much every night. My wife doesn't like it, but I'll watch the Bobcats and the Kings play if it's the only thing on. I just enjoy basketball, and I like to know what's going on in the league. But I don't take anything personally."

Which is a stance presumably easier to adopt after the steady stream of barbs he took after four years as a shooting guard/lightning rod at Duke.

3. There Are Exceptions

Last season's lockout, you'll recall, pushed the trade deadline back from the first Thursday after All-Star Weekend to March 15.

There are a handful of unused trade exceptions out there, as a result, that were created at the deadline last March but will quietly expire between now and next Friday because they were rendered useless after this season's Feb. 21 trade deadline. That's because teams that ultimately miss out on the playoffs aren't allowed to start trading again until April 17, with teams that make the playoffs only allowed to resume trading once they're eliminated ... or one day after The Finals for the respective championship combatants.

The biggest of the vanishing exceptions is the $13 million trade exception that Denver created in March 2012 when it dealt Nene to Washington. The other nine trade exceptions that expire next week were all valued at less than $1.5 million -- and thus not a must to list here -- but fear not: There are still 26 active TPEs leaguewide, headlined by Orlando's mammoth trade exception worth $17,816,880 which it created last August as part of the four-team blockbuster that sent Dwight Howard to Hollywood.

For the purposes of review, quoting the ever-helpful Larry Coon of NBA Salary Cap FAQ fame, teams manufacture trade exceptions when they take back less salary in a trade than they send away. And as Larry often reminds, TPEs can't be used to sign free agents or be combined with anything else in subsequent trades, not players nor even other trade exceptions. He also advises us to liken TPEs to department store gift cards that come with a one-year expiration date. Teams can use trade exceptions to take on additional salary in trades, but any remaining balance after one year is lost forever.

Here's a list, then, of the trade exceptions around the league that remain active, along with their expiration dates ... as well as a bonus link to Coon's recent piece on expiring TPEs:

4. One-On-One ... To Five

Robinson
Robinson

Five questions with Rockets rookie forward Thomas Robinson:

Q: What was your reaction when you got word that the Kings were trading you halfway through your rookie season?

A: Shocked. I think I reacted just like everybody else would react.

Q: Where were you when you heard?

A: I think I was on my way home from practice.

Q: And the best way to describe how you feel now? Insulted by it? Angry?

A: It is what it is. I came to a good situation, so it doesn't matter. I'm here now. Whole different situation. Whole different team. I thank God for giving me the chance.

Q: It's been such a crazy season in Sacramento. How jealous do you think some of those guys are that you were able to get out and go to a playoff team?

A: I'm not sure. I think they're happy for me more than jealous. I never had problems with my teammates. I never had a problem there, period. It's a business, and you've got to learn that as you go. Unfortunately, I learned that quicker than other people. You know that it's a business, so you can't take anything personally.

Q: Were you as surprised as some of us on the outside that the Kings drafted you in the first place when they already had DeMarcus Cousins?

A: Yeah, but like I said, I don't care about it now. I'm just glad to be here. Whatever happens happens. It's meant to be. ... I think [Houston will be] really good for me.