Notes: Big men lift surprising Grizz
Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol are playing like legitimate All-Star candidates
Kobe Bryant has been spectacular, but he's playing a lot of minutes early
Several second-round picks from the 2009 draft have carved out roles
Now that the Grizzlies have climbed above .500 and Lionel Hollins has been named Western Conference Coach of the Month for December, the bandwagon is rolling for power forward Zach Randolph to be named to the All-Star team.
Randolph, who is averaging 20.4 points and 11.5 rebounds, joins perennial All-Stars Tim Duncan and Chris Bosh as the league's only 20-10 players as the midway point of the season approaches. Moreover, his beastly putbacks on the offensive glass have given the Grizzlies a style and identity -- both of which were on full display in last Saturday's impressive 128-103 victory at Phoenix. A year ago, Memphis finished last in the NBA in rebounds per game. This season the Grizzlies are third and have the highest rebounding differential over their opponents.
Randolph has earned his bad reputation by punching teammates (he broke Ruben Patterson's eye socket in 2003) and opponents (suspended two games for hitting Phoenix's Louis Amundson in the face last year) and for being arrested more than once. On the court, he's been regarded as an indifferent defender and a black hole on offense. But there have been no negative incidents early in his tenure in Memphis, and Randolph's ability to get -- and, increasingly, share -- the ball has more than compensated for defensive numbers that are slightly below average. (The Grizzlies allow 2.3 more points per 100 possessions when he's on the court than when he sits, but score 5.2 points more per 100 possessions.)
Randolph won't be voted in, because he's not even on the All-Star ballot. But his teammate Marc Gasol is, at center, and a compelling case can be made for the slimmed-down Spaniard to show up in Dallas on the elite squad instead of with the sophomore team in the Rookie Challenge. Among Western Conference centers on the ballot, Gasol ranks second in scoring (15.3) behind Amar'e Stoudemire (20.8) and is tied for second with Emeka Okafor in rebounding (10.0) behind Marcus Camby (11.5). (Clippers center Chris Kaman, who is not listed on the ballot, is averaging 20.3 points and 9.1 rebounds.)
Furthermore, according to 82games.com, Gasol's impact on his team's performance has been more positive than any of his rivals. While logging 72 percent of the Grizzlies' total minutes, Gasol helps Memphis score 5.4 more points per 100 possessions and allow 6.3 points less per 100 possessions, for a gaudy plus-11.7 points-per-100-possessions differential. Neither Kaman nor any center on the West ballot comes close to that number (Camby is next best at plus-8.2). And remember, the team Gasol is boosting is no longer a laughingstock, having beaten Cleveland, Dallas, Denver and Phoenix while winning 16 of its past 24 games.
The NBA cognoscenti are rightfully buzzing about Kobe Bryant's two buzzer-beating game-winners last week, but the dominant image I'll take from those games is Kobe's swan dive over Kings guard Sergio Rodriguez while trying to save his errant three-pointer from going out of bounds. With the Lakers down a point with 2:26 to play in the fourth quarter, Bryant's knees clipped the top of Rodriguez's shoulders on the leap forward, upending him into a headfirst landing partially broken by his arms as he rolled into the legs of patrons beside the Kings' bench.
The effort was both foolhardy and admirable, obviously borne of competitive zeal more than self-aggrandizement. It was a jaw-dropping spectacle quickly subsumed by the ongoing drama of the game, as the 31-year-old superstar quickly scrambled to his feet and raced back on defense as the Kings inbounded the ball. But it again underscored how much Phil Jackson and the Lakers blithely rely on Kobe's indomitable presence. He's averaging more than 32 points since fracturing the index finger on his shooting hand three weeks ago. He ranks eighth in the league in total minutes, and none of the players who have logged more time are older than 27. In terms of the career tread on his sneakers, among active players, only Shaquille O'Neal, Jason Kidd and Kevin Garnett, in that order, have more combined regular-season and playoff minutes than Kobe.
How has he managed such durable excellence? Good genes, no doubt, along with his now-legendary training regimen, impressive enough to intensify the attitude and workouts of LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony after they'd all been teammates during the 2008 Summer Olympics. But Kobe's attention to fundamentals also has played a role. Unlike most volume scorers on the perimeter, who grind their knees and ankles with jarring stops and starts, Kobe frequently deploys the more efficient footwork of low-post maneuvers -- the pivots and tight twirls -- more than 20 feet from the hoop. Being tutored by Hakeem Olajuwon -- perhaps the most ballet-oriented big man the game has ever seen -- last offseason has added to his refinement.
It has been Jackson's custom to ride his superstars -- Michael Jordan was also getting more than 3000 minutes per season well into his 30s, after returning from his flirtation with baseball. But Jordan's Bulls teammates were a healthier bunch than this year's Lakers, and Jackson's decision to keep levying heavy minutes on Kobe so early in what should be another marathon season is a subplot that bears watching. As Ron Artest gingerly returns from a concussion and Pau Gasol endures another hamstring injury, Kobe's consistency adds freight to his MVP credentials. But how will it affect his performance in June, when his Lakers plan to still be battling for a repeat title, possibly against an opponent with a much younger superstar (LeBron turned 25 last week, and Dwight Howard had his 24th birthday Dec. 8)?
The Bulls, already reeling from a brutal November schedule, had the kind of spectacular December pratfall that normally produces a toxic mixture of apathy with dissension in the locker room and forces a coach's head to roll.
In a 16-day period last month, Chicago sandwiched two 30-plus-point defeats around an embarrassing loss to New Jersey, got waxed by 26 three days later, then choked up a 35-point second-half lead in a home loss to Sacramento. Those who remembered personnel boss John Paxson's canning Scott Skiles on Christmas Eve two years ago began to assume he'd have another lump of coal coming for current Bulls coach Vinny Del Negro.
But Chicago has weathered the storm. Del Negro is still around and, miraculously enough, even after back-to-back losses following a four-game winning streak, Chicago is only a half game out of the final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference. The folks who want to ascribe the Bulls' better play to the return of Tyrus Thomas from injury are mistaking coincidence for serendipity. The athletic Thomas remains one of the NBA's worst decision-makers, committing 18 turnovers in his first six games back while the Bulls were minus-13 in the 140 minutes he was on the floor. Contrast that with Thomas' rookie replacement, Taj Gibson, who had just eight turnovers and boosted the Bulls to a plus-32 in his 132 minutes over the same stretch.
A better reason for the turnaround was inserting Kirk Hinrich over John Salmons as the starter beside Derrick Rose in the backcourt. Hinrich has 34 assists against only seven turnovers since the switch, a good fit with Rose, who has been more aggressive in seeking his own shot this season. Meanwhile, Salmons appears to be pressing less coming off the bench, scoring at least 15 points in four of six games.
Yes, Chicago dearly misses Ben Gordon after all, ranking ahead of only the Nets in offensive efficiency this season. Hinrich, in particular, needs to find his stroke. Charlotte gave him two wide-open looks in crunch time Tuesday and he clanked both of them. But Hinrich and Salmons both aren't going to shoot below 40 percent for the season, Rose seems to have put the ankle woes and sophomore doldrums behind him, Luol Deng is back in vintage form and Gibson is an upgrade over Thomas at power forward. The Bulls still look like the best of the sub-.500 playoff "contenders" in the East.
It's gut-check time for the Jazz, who have lost three straight to fall to 18-16 and are only 25-27 over their past 52 regular-season games extending back to last season. Burdened by Carlos Boozer's decision to exercise the option on the final year of his contract, the Jazz felt compelled to trade their top draft pick, promising point guard Eric Maynor, as part of a deal designed to lower their luxury-tax bill. That Maynor was dealt to the up-and-coming Thunder, who are fighting the Jazz for playoff spot, captures what feels like a changing of the guard in the NBA.
Utah continues to run coach Jerry Sloan's maze of back cuts and double screens to near perfection, ranking fifth in shooting and points in the paint. But Sloan's old-school disinclination to better utilize the three-pointer is starting to haunt the Jazz, who are mediocre on offense (16th in points per game and 14th in points per 100 possessions) because they rank near the bottom in three-pointers made and attempted. A healthy Kyle Korver would help shore up this weakness, but the fact remains that the three-pointer has never been integral to Utah's approach, a stance that is becoming increasingly less tenable as the game evolves.
At the other end of the court, Sloan's starting frontcourt -- especially Boozer --has trouble stopping people. According to 82games.com, when Boozer is in the game, the Jazz yield 110 points per 100 possessions, worse than the defensive efficiency of 25 NBA teams. Yet when Boozer sits, the Jazz permit just 98.8 points per 100 possessions, a rate stingier than the NBA's current defensive efficiency leader, Boston, which allow 100.5 points per 100 possessions. The splits for center Mehmet Okur are a little less drastic -- the Jazz permit 109.7 points per 100 possessions when Okur plays and 103.8 when he sits -- but still significant.
The bottom line is that the lack of outside marksmen coupled with porous defense from key players puts an enormous amount of pressure on Utah's offense to operate efficiently. The Jazz have shot 50 percent or better in 16 of 33 games this season, going 12-4. That means they lose twice as often as they win (6-12 record) when they don't make at least half their shots.
Vince Carter delivered the kind of glue-guy performance normally associated with Hedo Turkoglu during Orlando's recent win at Minnesota. With the Magic leading the woeful Wolves by just four points with 9:19 left to play, Carter entered the game and promptly handed out three assists -- two of them on three-pointers -- within two minutes to boost the lead to eight, then hit all five free throws down the stretch to secure the 106-94 victory. Though limited to 12 points, Carter chipped in six assists and three steals, had no turnovers and was plus-11 in 37 minutes.
"Vince is a smart guy who figured out very quickly that our 4-man [the power forward] was always going to be open in the corner on the high pick-and-roll," coach Stan Van Gundy said after the game, calling Carter's efficient night's work "very unselfish."
Carter hasn't exactly been a godsend for the Magic. His 39.3 percent shooting from the field is the lowest of his 11-year career, and he hasn't shot so poorly from three-point territory (31.3 percent) since his rookie year. His rebounds and assists are likewise at five-year lows.
Yet despite myriad injuries, the Magic (24-10) are just two games behind last year's pace, and it's worth noting that Orlando has been better both offensively and defensively when Carter is on the court. While Turkoglu puts up his typical numbers in Toronto, it's important to remember that the Raptors are on the hook for $53 million through 2014, by which time Turkoglu will be 35. Carter, who turns 33 later this month and is owed a combined $33 million this year and next, needs to have more games like his performance in Minnesota.
And finally, a shout-out to the best second-round draft class in recent memory. No fewer than five second-rounders are averaging at least 16 minutes, led by Detroit's Jonas Jerebko (27.8 mpg) and including Houston's Chase Budinger (18.2), New Orleans' Marcus Thornton (17.4), Memphis' Sam Young (17.1) and San Antonio's DeJuan Blair (16.5). Throw in undrafted guard Wesley Matthews in Utah and the two second-rounders (Jeff Pendergraph and Dante Cunningham) pressed into service by the injury-ravaged Blazers, and you've got a raft of unlikely success stories.
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