Sixers’ Hinkie gives up rebuilding project in Philly

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The Process is over.

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The controversial three-year reign of Philadelphia 76ers Jerseys president and general manager Sam Hinkie ended Wednesday with Hinkie’s resignation, clearing the way for two-time NBA Executive of the Year Bryan Colangelo to assume the team’s GM spot, where he’ll work alongside his father, Jerry, who was given full authority over the team last December by majority owner Josh Harris Jerseys as chairman of basketball operations.

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In the end, according to sources, Hinkie was unwilling to accept a power-sharing arrangement the 76ers wanted to create going forward, with Hinkie still part of the team’s decision-making structure. The idea was to have Hinkie and Bryan Colangelo work together — to “marry them up,” as was said Wednesday — with Bryan Colangelo handling the job of working with agents and other teams that Hinkie struggled with over the last few years.

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Agents and teams complained about his manner. Sources inside the 76ers’ organization also indicated problems getting Hinkie to trust others outside a small circle of confidantes and employees he hired.

It was clear around the league that once Harris brought Jerry Colangelo in — at the behest of the league, according to several sources, though Commissioner Adam Silver has denied any direct involvement — that Colangelo had full authority over the franchise. League sources maintain that Harris had grown weary both of the criticism he (and Hinkie) had received the last couple of years, and by the lackluster on-court product.

Jerry Colangelo immediately made changes, including bringing in former Suns and Lakers head coach Mike D’Antoni as associate head coach, pushing for the acquisition of point guard Ish Smith to solidify that position and signing veteran forward Elton Brand to help bring an experienced voice to the Sixers’ locker room.

Bryan Colangelo, who won the NBA’s Executive of the Year award in 2005 in Phoenix and two years later in Toronto, helped build the Suns’ “seven seconds or less” offense around D’Antoni and two-time league MVP Steve Nash, and then acquired or drafted four of the five starters — including All-Star guards Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan — for the Raptors, who are in second place in the Eastern Conference and won 50 games for the first time in franchise history this year.

GameTime: Bob Cooney On Hinkie’s Exit

Philadelphia Daily News’ Bob Cooney joins GameTime to discuss the stepping down of the 76ers general manager and president of basketball operations, Sam Hinkie.

Bryan Colangelo has been trying to get back into the league since being fired as part of an organization shake-up in Toronto in 2014. He has been linked to management jobs in Detroit and, most recently, Brooklyn, which interviewed him twice before hiring Spurs assistant GM Sean Marks last month as general manager.

Bryan Colangelo was also part of a group, along with his father, that tried to buy the Atlanta Hawks Jerseys last year before the team was sold to a group headed by billionaire Tony Ressler.

Hinkie came to Philadelphia in 2013 from Philadelphia with a mandate to take what had been a playoff team the previous two years down to the foundations in order to try and build a championship organization. Hinkie hired Brett Brown off the Spurs’ bench as head coach, giving him a four-year deal (at Brown’s insistence). The 76ers pushed the envelope in all areas of player development, monitoring their players’ sleep patterns, exertions and seemingly anything else that could be measured or timed.

He always gambled on superstar potential at any opportunity. He drafted Joel Embiid out of Kansas with the third pick of the 2014 Draft after one year in college, even though Embiid was coming off of a foot injury that has kept him from playing a single minute in two NBA seasons. Hinkie traded for the Draft rights to forward Dario Saric, considered by many to be the top prospect in Europe. But Saric has stayed overseas the last two years, though he is expected to come to the 76ers next season.

The Starters: Colangelo Joins Sixers

Will Colangelo change the direction of the franchise?

Stateside, though, the 76ers were dreadful in terms of their on-court results.

Philadelphia was 47-195 (.194) in his two-plus seasons as GM, and was vilified throughout the league for its indifference — or, as was more cynically suggested, desire — to losing as many games as possible to try and improve its position in the Draft. The 76ers didn’t make any attempt to sign free agents of significance, and didn’t hesitate to move any players, including 2014 Kia Rookie of the Year Michael Carter-Williams, in order to amass more picks.

Hinkie came to honor a three-word phrase — “trust the process” — which came to symbolize his controversial methods in Philly. He had lots of supporters in town, though it appeared more were frustrated and ultimately disillusioned by the plan. The 76ers’ attendance has cratered the last three years; currently, according to ESPN.com, Philadelphia is 28th in the league in average home attendance (roughly 14,800 per game) after finishing 30th and 29th, respectively, the previous two seasons.

But Hinkie’s maneuverings have produced a haul of future Draft picks, beginning this June, that could — one way or the other — reshape the franchise.

Philadelphia has its own pick,wholesale nba jerseys and as the 76ers are now assured of having the league’s worst record, they’ll have the best opportunity — 25 percent — of getting the first pick in the Draft. The 76ers can also swap first-round picks this year with Sacramento as part of a three-team deal last summer. They could also get the Lakers’ first-round pick, depending on the results of the Lottery.

With Embiid expected to finally make his debut next season, after surgery wholesale nba jerseys and treatment programs that have sent him to Qatar, along with Saric, the potential Draft picks and significant cap room this summer, the 76ers are poised to dramatically reshape their roster going forward around center Nerlens Noel and 2015 first-rounder Jahlil Okafor –though Okafor’s future in Philly is also up in the air after a series of off-court incidents marred his rookie season.

ESPN.com first reported Hinkie’s decision to resign0.

Longtime NBA reporter and columnist David Aldridge is an analyst for TNT. You can e-mail him here1 and follow him on Twitter2.

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‘Point forward’ more than a novelty for Antetokounmpo

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CHICAGO — Marques Johnson, who either was or wasn’t the first “point forward” in NBA history and either did or didn’t coin the term itself, left no room for equivocation Monday night.

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“Forget the ‘forward’ part — he’s just a point guard out there,” Johnson said of Milwaukee’s Giannis Antetokounmpo, the 6-foot-11 bundle of raw skills who has been running the Bucks offense for the past few weeks. “You can see, when the Bucks rebound the basketball … it really has given him a lot more energy. His eyes just light up when he calls for the ball and then pushes it up.”

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Now Milwaukee’s color analyst, Johnson, a five-time NBA All-Star for the Bucks and the Clippers, got thrown some ball-handling and play-calling responsibility by coach Don Nelson one day about 35 years ago. Thus he took his place in a timeline that includes Robert Reid, Paul Pressey, Scottie Pippen, Grant Hill, LeBron James and other wing-sized players who anecdotally have defined the unofficial and still fuzzy position of point forward.

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But the way Antetokounmpo has been playing over his past dozen games or so, he has looked for significant stretches like Isiah Thomas or John Stockton in a funhouse mirror.

Nightly Notable – Giannis Antetokounmpo

Giannis Antetokounmpo records a triple-double with 26 points, 12 rebounds and 10 assists against the Thunder.

He brings the ball into the front court, surveys the chess pieces with an unobstructed view over most of his defenders, then barks and points to get his teammates to their spots. Sometimes he shifts gears, attacking his man with his often-lethal mix of quickness and length. Other times he finds a cutter or hands off the ball to Khris Middleton or Jerryd Bayless and morphs from backcourt freak to frontcourt threat.

Little by little, the plan is to get him into more pick-and-rolls to further exploit matchups.

“The point forward position was just, initially, initiating the offense,” Johnson said. “Not really looking to get out in transition and be Magic Johnson but just to bring it up the court to try to relieve some of the pressure on the guards.

“But Giannis is pushing, probing, penetrating, kicking. With the prodding of Jason Kidd, he has taken it to a whole ‘nother level.”

Check out this level: In Milwaukee’s 10 games since the All-Star break, Antetokounmpo has averaged 19.1 points, 10.3 rebounds, 7.8 assists, 1.9 steals and 2.0 blocks in 38.5 minutes. Only two players in NBA history ever filled the first three categories so completely (19 points, 10 rebounds, 7.5 assists): Oscar Robertson for three seasons (1960-63) and Wilt Chamberlain for two (1966-68).

Antetokounmpo has three triple-doubles in this stretch, along with a 27-9-12 game against Minnesota on Friday. When the third-year player went for 27 points, 12 rebounds, 10 assists, four blocks and three steals against the Lakers on February 22, he had game highs for both teams in all five stats (something no player had done since James in March 2009). Antetokounmpo hit those marks again Sunday with 26-12-10-4-3 against OKC, becoming the first to have multiple stats lines crammed like that since Hakeem Olajuwon in 1989-90.

Olajuwon, of course, was 27 years old and a 7-foot center when he did that. Antetokounmpo is 21, stands just one inch shorter and is doing it as a point guard.

“It takes a certain level of skill, man,” said Johnson, the Bucks broadcaster. “To be that tall and be that comfortable dribbling the basketball, that’s not something a lot of guys 6-foot-7 and taller are comfortable doing. Especially going full-court against smaller defenders, protecting the basketball.”

Said Antetokounmpo: “The goal right now is, I’m always trying to be aggressive. I’m always trying to score first. I know that, if I try to score first, the defense is going to collapse — everybody’s in the paint. Now I’m sure there’s going to be some open guys.

“I cannot take 30 jumpers a game. Got to have a balance. You’ve got to get your teammates involved.”

That is the point guard’s primary task, one that Antetokounmpo has embraced regularly now that Michael Carter-Williams has been lost for what’s left of the season for hip surgery, with Greivis Vasquez already sidelined by ankle surgery.

[Jason Kidd] is talking to me, giving me tips every day. It’s like having a cheat code.”

– Giannis Antetokounmpo

Kidd and the Bucks previously flirted with Antetokounmpo as a playmaker but never like this, as his daily job description. Necessity is one thing, ongoing competitive advantage and even historic positional breakthrough are quite different. Can this really become a thing?

“I think it’s feasible and he’s got the skill set to do it,” said Rockets interim coach J.B. Bickerstaff. “Because they have multiple ball handlers on the floor — I mean, Middleton can handle the ball, [Jabari] Parker can handle the ball, O.J. Mayo can handle the ball — so it’s not as if he’s the Chris Paul of that lineup and has to make all the plays.

“What it does is, it puts pressure on your defense and your matchups. You look across their board and it’s 6-11, 6-10, 6-10, 7 feet, with maybe one small guy. You’ve got some decisions to make as far as where you’re going to put your point guard.”

Antetokounmpo Triple-Double

Giannis Antetokounmpo notches a triple-double with 18 points, 17 rebounds, and 11 assists as the Bucks beat the Rockets 128-121.

The Bucks like their point guard right where he is: Learning the position from one of the best ever to play it. Kidd intentionally has been keeping things simple and straight-forward, limiting the nuances and complexities that make that spot the trickiest of the five.

“It’s just the progressions, just like a quarterback,” Kidd said of the biggest challenge for a newbie playmaker. “Being able to digest the first progression, second progression. Sometimes it’s you first, sometimes it’s the one who’s setting the pick or whoever the play’s for. Just understanding different passing lanes.

“But I think when you look at some of the guys like KG and Dirk and those guys who changed that [big forward] position, now you’ve got someone basketball jerseys cheap like Giannis being able to play on the perimeter and make plays for his teammates. It’s a different passing angle. I’m not that tall, but when you talk about Magic being able to see over the defense, it actually is an advantage.”

Said Antetokounmpo of Kidd’s tutelage: “Having J.Kidd talking to me after practice, before the game, after the game, it’s great. He’s talking to me, giving me tips every day. It’s like having a cheat code.”

All of this has been happening on the fly, with opposing defenses learning to counter Antetokounmpo as ball handler as they confront him. Using multiple defenders is one tactic. Oklahoma City essentially built a wall to block any blow-bys and force decisions. The Bulls had Mike Dunleavy or E’Twaun Moore back off him, basically challenging Antetokounmpo’s jump shot.

“Yeah, yeah, you’ve got to make him make shots from the outside,” Dunleavy said. “Because he’s so good in the paint. That’s the area you’ve got to try to make him beat you.”

Said Kidd: “This is still new. You saw Minnesota had [Ricky] Rubio guard him. Houston, [Trevor] Ariza was picking him up full-court. You saw a couple other guys loading up to him to make him more of a passer. You can start to see, guys are trying to wear him down. But what he’s done, he’s gotten off the ball and he’s starting to realize, ‘Hey, if there’s two on me, I can get it to a teammate and they can do what they have to do.’ ”

Bayless, a point guard by trade, said communication on the court needs to be Antetokounmpo’s top priority. But the 27-year-old veteran added: “He’s got intangibles you just can’t teach. As big as he is, the things he can do, nobody else can really do.”

Add to that the things Antetokounmpo couldn’t do until now — numbers falling into place deep into his third NBA season — and the prospects are thrilling. Or frightening, depending on the uniform you’re wearing or cheering.

“My confidence right now is really high,” Antetokounmpo said. “When I look at myself when I came in as a rookie and how I feel right now, it’s amazing. It’s a big difference. So I can’t imagine how I will feel in two years. I can’t wait for the future.”

The future, in all its lanky, cloud-piercing, play-calling glory, seems to be here.

Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA since 1980. You can e-mail him here and follow him on Twitter.

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Lillard, McCollum form bond, foundation for Blazers’ future

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The teammates that play together, hang out together and carry the Blazers together also managed to get injured together in the same game. And so, we’ve learned something else about the quickly formed bond between guards Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum: They even limp alike.

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This is bad, because the Blazers were missing their heart and soul Monday against the Hawks. But in a warped kind of way, this is good, because their two most important players once again have shown to be clearly in step even when those steps are painful.

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“They’re so much alike,” said Blazers coach Terry Stotts. “That’s why they’re great together. They compliment each other well because of the problems they cause for other people and their ability to create for each other.”

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Lillard has plantar fasciitis in his left heel and missed a game, a first for him in four-plus seasons; his streak of 275 straight games played is third-longest among active players. Also on Sunday against the Mavericks, McCollum sprained both of his ankles; he also sat against Atlanta but could return sooner. Lillard and McCollum perhaps carry bigger backpacks than any tandem in basketball, definitely from a buckets standpoint. They generate 44 percent of Portland’s points and just over half of Portland’s assists. Any basketball that the Blazers use have more fingerprints from Lillard and McCollum than pebbles.

GameTime: Blazing Forward

Steve Smith Jerseys takes a look at the stellar play from the Portland’s backcourt tandem of Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum.

With the Blazers in the beginning stages of a rebuild, Lillard and McCollum are all that separate the Blazers from being the Sixers of the Western Conference. Or close to it. The hope in Portland is that once the Blazers are ready to win again, McCollum and Lillard will still be in their prime and not worn down from the experience.

At the moment, they’re dangerous together, two smallish guards with the right amount of quickness and shooting to cause headaches and matchup issues for teams. Their development has been both effortless and rapid. They are more peanut butter and jelly than oil and water, showing no signs of conflict or inability to share the wealth and load.

“We’ve been talking about this for a long time,” McCollum said. “We knew this was inevitable. We knew it was going to happen eventually. We just didn’t know when.”

Actually, “a long time” is up for debate; this is just their third year as teammates and the first for McCollum as a full-time starter. Maybe the two of them had a hunch that, one day soon, they’d be a starting unit from the moment McCollum was drafted in 2013. At that time, it didn’t seem so close to happening. The Blazers were a 50-win team and McCollum was getting scattered minutes while playing behind Wesley Matthews, a solid player on both ends and seemingly a fixture at big guard for the future.

But basketball is a funny game. The Blazers never could break beyond the first round of the playoffs and were a secondary contender behind the likes of the Clippers, Spurs, Rockets and Warriors. They maxed out. LaMarcus Aldridge got free agent fever and left for the Spurs last summer, and that was the move that triggered a transitional shift in the franchise and brought Lillard and McCollum closer together.

I’m not sure there are too many teammates in basketball who are made for each other like we are.

– Damian Lillard on bond with Blazers teammate C.J. McCollum

Portland wisely decided to push the re-start button. The Blazers chose not to re-sign Matthews, also a free agent and he went to Dallas. Nicolas Batum was sent packing for Charlotte. Lillard was the only returning starter but everyone in the organization knew he would hardly be solo, from an impact standpoint. At 24, McCollum was more than ready.

His breakout happened in the playoffs against Memphis when he averaged 25 points in the final three games off the bench, and even before then, McCollum dropped enough hints along the way to make the Blazers feel confident about this season. He only played in 38 games as a rookie and averaged just 15 minutes in his second season because of injuries and sitting behind veterans.

Lillard saw enough in practice and, after developing a friendship with McCollum — the two are tight — knew about McCollum’s confidence and desire that left little doubt.

“When you’re friends with a guy and both guys want to see each other do well, it makes it easier for us to do what we’re doing together,” Lillard said.

He added: “Our stories are similar.”

Yes, they’re almost carbon copies. Neither was recruited heavily out of high school. They took the less glamorous road that weaved through speck-like schools; Lillard played at Weber State and McCollum at Lehigh. And they both stayed for four years, a rarity today. So they can relate.

“We understand each other’s game,” Lillard said. “I know what he likes to do, what types of passes I can throw to him, and in transition where he wants to go. And he gets what I’m trying to do. It works. I’m not sure there are too many teammates in basketball who are made for each other like we are.”

Lillard Goes for 30

Damian Lillard scores 30 points to lead the Blazers over the Pelicans.

After being drafted, McCollum became attached to Lillard almost immediately and was content to observe and absorb as much as he could while waiting for his chance.

“Best thing I’ve learned from him is patience,” McCollum said. “Also, how to control what you can control, your preparation, work ethic, confidence level and just continue to study. There’s a reason he’s an All-Star and a reason why he has his own shoe. With him, it’s not what you see, it’s what goes on behind closed doors.”

Lillard had a rapport with Aldridge but this is something different, and perhaps something stronger. Lillard had no issues with Aldridge but there was always an undercurrent of discomfort with Aldridge. Some say he felt the organization placed greater value on Lillard, which led to Aldridge bolting for San Antonio without giving much thought to re-signing with Portland. Aldridge put his Portland home up for sale before the playoffs began, then refused to ride home with the team when the Blazers were eliminated.

There’s no discomfort between the Blazers’ starting backcourt. Lillard is averaging 24.5 points and taking 20 shots, McCollum is at 20 points (up from 6.8 a year ago) and getting 17 shots. They’re carrying pails out of necessity; Portland lacks another natural scorer. Nobody else on the Blazers is averaging more than 11 points.

“When the opportunity came for us, we discussed it and the things we needed to do individually and collectively to be successful,” McCollum said. “I think we’re doing a good job so far.”

And the secret to the bond?

“When you have good cohesion and a feel for one another and develop a relationship outside of basketball, it makes it easier,” McCollum said.

Having a pair of young 20-point scorers is cheap basketball jerseys a big benefit when you’re reshaping the team for the future. In that sense, the Blazers aren’t exactly starting from scratch. They’ll take their lumps now, but their salary cap situation is very good, and the cap will rise in each of the next two summers. They also own all of their first round draft picks (top 14 protected next summer). With the right decisions, this can turn around fairly quickly.

At the very least, the Blazers backcourt is all set for now and, barring injury, for later. Two players sharing the same instincts.

“This is going well so far,” Lillard said, “and it’s still developing.”

Veteran NBA writer Shaun Powell has worked for newspapers and other publications for more than 25 years. You can e-mail him here or follow him on Twitter.

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Out-manned, out-gunned Grizzlies just fall short

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MEMPHIS — And so there nba jerseys cheap was Gregg Popovich, the famously obstreperous coach of the San Antonio Spurs Jerseys, sitting at the podium a few hours before the Spurs would tip off against the wildly undermanned Memphis Grizzlies Jerseys, who had lost 16 of their last 19 games. The Spurs entered the evening with a 2-0 lead in the series, and it seemed as if nothing could derail their progress.

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Popovich even flashed a smile and willingly fielded a question about something other than basketball. “I had a lot of favorite Prince songs,” Pop said, when asked to name a favorite tune, adding, “I think ‘Purple Rain’ is the one that hangs the longest.”

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Even yet another injury — earlier in the day, forward Jarrell Martin was ruled out for the rest of the postseason with a foot injury — didn’t seem to faze the Grizz. Three of the players on the Memphis active roster didn’t even dress for the game. Memphis coach Dave Joerger mostly employed gallows humor to deal with the situation, and while fans clung to the maxim “Believe,” there was a certain feeling of inevitability in the air at the Grindhouse.

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Except nobody told the Grizzlies they weren’t supposed to win. And they nearly messed around and held serve at home, before ultimately losing to San Antonio, 96-87, as the Spurs took a 3-0 lead in the series.

“I just give [the Grizzlies] a lot of credit tonight because of their physicality,” said Pop following the game. “The purpose they came with, the pride they showed, and then the mental toughness for 48 minutes. We did a good job of fighting it from time to time but we weren’t as consistent as I would have liked offensively, but I thought their game plan was great and their effort was even better, so that’s why it was such a good game.”

Nobody had a better effort than Kawhi Leonard. The Spurs got another stat-stuffing performance from the typically understated superstar, who had 19 points through the first three quarters before adding 13 in the fourth, to finish with 32 points, 7 rebounds, 4 steals and 5 blocked shots. (“I mean, hats off to the guy,” said Joerger. “He’s a heck of a player. He just keeps getting better and better.”)

The Grizzlies stayed in the game by relentlessly pounding the boards, finishing with 48 rebounds to San Antonio’s 39 and outscoring San Antonio 18-1 on second chance points. The slender duo of Matt Barnes Jerseys and Vince Carter started at the forward positions in a move that was more out of necessity than tactical. Zach Randolph started at center and played nearly 40 minutes, finishing with 20 points and 11 rebounds.

“The idea was to do that and play our better guys while we are playing small,” said Joerger. “Because, it’s a bang-bang adjustment to try to do that with the younger guys. You’re going to go down swinging.”

Heading into the fourth quarter, the Grizzlies were clinging to a 71-70 lead. With 4:38 remaining, a Barnes tip-in cut the Spurs lead to 83-81, which was as close as it would get. To put it out of reach, the Spurs ran Danny Green off a series of screens across the court, and he caught the ball along the wing and drained a three-point shot, making it 87-81. It was the kind of play the Spurs hold in their back pocket, just waiting to break out and shatter your spirit.

As the clock ticked down and it became apparent that the Grizzlies were out of chances, the fans in the FedEx Forum gave the remaining zombie Grizzlies a standing ovation. One fan held up a sign that read, “So proud of my team, all 28 of you.”

The franchise may have cycled through dozens of players this season, but no matter who was wearing the Grizzlies uniform, that grit and grind remains undeniable.

Lang Whitaker has covered the NBA since 1998. You can e-mail him here or follow him on Twitter.

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Simmons takes humbling path to earn role with Spurs

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He attended two junior colleges, the University of Houston for one season, went undrafted in 2012 and tried the American Basketball League before it folded. After all that, Jonathan Simmons was so not a NBA prospect that a year later, he was among the herd of NBA D-League hopefuls with, let’s face it, no real hope, who spent $150 for the privilege of being told to go away by the Austin Toros (the San Antonio Spurs Jerseys’ D-League affiliate).

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He couldn’t get a Summer League invite. He had to pay a minor-league team to watch him in a workout.

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The small detail is that that Simmons’ agent at the time put up the D-League entry fee, but same difference: Simmons left his home in Houston and drove roughly 175 miles west to Austin in 2013 because he was pretty much out of chances. If he couldn’t stand out in an open tryout where the majority of players, by his estimation, couldn’t dribble or pass and could barely shoot, he knew it was time to think hard about a career change.

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He stood out. Rather than being passed over again, Simmons made the Toros for 2013-14, and again in 2014-15. He was playing a lot, defending and shooting with range.

And then he really stood out.

Simmons — undrafted, overlooked, the guy who had to pay a minor-league team to give him a chance — has become the guy who is being paid by a major-league team this season. Not just any team either — the Spurs, the ultimate in stature.

An NBA rookie after two seasons in the D-League, he’s averaging 14.3 minutes in 51 games, a decent role for a newcomer on a team loaded with veterans and on pace for 69 wins. He is second in the class in defensive rating, seventh in field-goal percentage and first in long shots who paid out.

Simmons looks around the locker room and still can’t believe this is happening — “I do every day,” he said — and yet it is. He bought his way into the gym that day in Austin, but earned his way into NBA minutes.

“I definitely do” appreciate being in the league more than most players, he said.

“It took some perseverance to get here. With that being said it’s like you have no choice but to be humble about it and to appreciate every part of it and not take one minute for granted.”

One of the success stories of the season, for any player regardless of experience and for any team, has come close to being ranked among the top 10 rookies, only to be held back by the lack of a prominent role. Averaging more than 15 minutes just once in a month (January) that included at least 10 appearances has been enough of a hit to so far keep him off The Ladder that is down to the final few installments.

1. Karl-Anthony Towns, Minnesota Timberwolves

Last week’s ranking: No. 1

Towns Leads Wolves To Win

Karl-Anthony Towns scores 27 points and grabs 10 rebounds as the Timberwolves defeat the Wizards 132-129 in double overtime.

We have reached the point where it would be impossible to justify voting for anyone else for Kia Rookie of the Year. The leading contender from the opening month and the clear leader since about midseason has only one remaining challenge: whether he will be the unanimous winner of the award. The finishing kick to make it happen has included 22.3 points, 10.5 rebounds and 58.5-percent shooting in March, on pace to be his best full month for scoring and field-goal percentage.

2. Kristaps Porzingis, New York Knicks Jerseys

Last week’s ranking: No. 2

Porzingis’ Behind-The-Back Pass

Kristaps Porzingis passes behind his back to find Robin Lopez for the dunk.

He needed to find solid ground on offense, and got some. Porzingis is at 19.3 points, 47.7 percent from the field and 37 percent on 3-pointers the last six games. That span also included three blocks on three occasions and two on another, putting him in good position to hold off Towns for No. 1 in the category among rookies, an accomplishment in a season when two first-year players may finish among the top 10 of the entire league. Porzingis is currently seventh, Towns ninth.

3. Nikola Jokic, Denver Nuggets

Last week’s ranking: No. 3

Jokic Finds Faried

Nikola Jokic dishes to Kenneth Faried for the two-handed jam.

Jokic took advantage of the knee injury that ended Jahlil Okafor’s season early to move into third place with 14 double-doubles, behind only Towns and Porzingis, even while averaging a modest 20.9 minutes. The workload has increased to 25.1 minutes in March, mostly because of the defense and rebounding that has reached 8.5 boards this month, including eight, nine, 12, eight, four and 14 the last six appearances. That has moved Jokic to 6.6 overall, fourth in the class with a slight chance of climbing one spot to Okafor’s 7.0 but no real risk of being passed by Myles Turner (5.4). “He’s skilled,” one scout said. “Very skilled.”

4. Justise Winslow, Miami Heat Jerseys

Last week’s ranking: No. 5

Justise’s Strong And-1

On the break, Justise Winslow takes it to the hole, draws the foul and hits the running floater.

He is shooting 47.3 percent on 6.6 attempts per game in March in what will be a third consecutive month of improved shooting, moving Winslow at 43.2 percent overall. It’s far from a big area of impact, but the push toward respectability in that area is an important sign of progress in developing into more than a one-way player capable of helping only on defense. The team in a tight race in the middle of the Eastern Conference playoff pack is sold — the Heat are playing him 30.5 minutes overall in March and nine in the fourth quarter, more than any rookie.

5. Devin Booker, Phoenix Suns

Last week’s ranking: No. 8

Booker Shines In Sacramento

Devin Booker leads the Suns scoring 26 points versus the Kings.

He is averaging 22.7 points per game in March even while struggling behind the arc (28.0 percent) after breaking 50 percent in two previous full months. Imagine the scoring numbers with Booker anywhere close to his past play there. As it is, he has at least 26 points in three of the last four games and seven of his last 14. Now to see if it’s enough to halt Towns’ season-long strangle hold on Rookie of the Month in the West.

6. D’Angelo Russell, Los Angeles Lakers

Last week’s ranking: No. 4

Russell’s Fiery Feed

D’angelo Russell fires the bounce pass ahead of the defense to Larry Nance Jr. for the big-time flush.

The January and February that showed why the Lakers took him second have been replaced by the offensive struggles of March that has been too much of a reminder of the slow start the first half of the season. Russell is shooting 40.2 percent this month with only nine more assists (42) than turnovers (33) in 14 games. He is at 34.9 percent the last five games with six assists total and has shot 25 percent or worse in four of the last eight.

7. Jahlil Okafor, Philadelphia 76ers Jerseys

Last week’s ranking: No. 6

Towns (18.3 points cheap nba jerseys per game) has pulled away enough to essentially end the possibility that Okafor (17.5) could still finish first in the class in scoring, with no chance that Porzingis (14.3) will catch Okafor for second. By playing 53 games before being sidelined by a knee injury, Okafor fail to reach the qualifying minimum of 62 appearances and will not make the final league-wide scoring rankings. He is currently 33rd.

8. Myles Turner, Indiana Pacers Jerseys

Last week’s ranking: No. 7

Kia Awards: Myles Turner

Myles Turner is a nominee for the Kia Eastern Conference Rookie of the Month.

He is third among rookies in blocks, sixth in rebounding, eighth in shooting and seventh among rookies in scoring. The follow-up to winning Rookie of the Month in the East for February has been a slight struggle, though, with drops from 29.8 to 25.1 in minutes, 51.0 to 41.7 in shooting and 1.8 to 1.4 in blocks. It will be interesting to see whether the minutes continues to decline if the inconsistent production continues as the playoffs near and every outcome has big implications for Indiana’s playoff hopes.

9. Josh Richardson, Miami Heat Jerseys

Last week’s ranking: No. 10

The story keeps getting better. After not playing more than nine games any previous month, after shooting 25 percent in December and 23.5 percent in January, Richardson should be among the contenders for Rookie of the Month for the Eastern Conference. His dream-sequence of a March includes shooting 56.8 percent overall, 63.5 from behind the arc (on 33-for-52 shooting), 29.1 minutes and 12.8 points. Richardson has not only surged to No. 1 in the class in 3-point shooting, his 50.0 for the season leads the pack by a wide margin.

10. Trey Lyles, Utah Jazz

Last week’s ranking: Not ranked

Lyles is on pace for his third consecutive month of 45 percent shooting or better, especially noteworthy because it comes with occasional 3-pointer. The minutes haven’t always been there — 25.1 in January, followed by 10.2 in February and back to 15.8 in March — but the No. 12 pick has shown why many front offices regarded him as such a promising stretch-four prospect. What hasn’t gotten the same attention is that Lyles has also had good moments on defense.

Dropped out: Emmanuel Mudiay (9).

Scott Howard-Cooper has covered the NBA since 1988. You can e-mail him here and follow him on Twitter.

The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Turner Broadcasting. Trending

Gawking a natural byproduct of James’ unique NBA career

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In This Week’s Morning Tip
Top 15 Rankings: Thunder rise, Raptors slip
Which team has been this season’s most disappointing squad?
Q&A with Houston Rockets center Dwight Howard

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I am a man in love with words.

cheap authentic throwback nba jerseys

Given a chance to do something memorable or say or write something memorable, I will always choose the latter. (Perhaps it’s because God, in the Supreme Being’s infinite wisdom/sense of whimsy, looked upon me at birth and said, ‘he shall have no athletic abilities whatsoever.’)

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Finding the right word to perfectly describe a situation or setting is very important to me. It delights me that there is a word that is used in one setting, and one setting alone, and it perfectly describes its situation.

The word is “rubbernecking.”

The Association: Cleveland Cavaliers Jerseys

Take an all-access look at the defending Eastern Conference champion Cavaliers as they make their playoff push.

It refers to the traffic jam that occurs on the other side of a road or highway, opposite the side on which an accident has occurred. It is not used in any other context, because it is not applicable to any other context. (You usually only hear it on the radio on the all-news station during the local traffic report, as in “accident on I-495 West; rubbernecking delays on 495 East back to the American Legion Bridge.”)

But why do people rubberneck?

What is it about seeing an accident on the other side of the road that compels us — all of us — to slow down and take a good, long look at what happened? We are fascinated, and horrified; ohmigod, look at that car. He’s still in the car! Ohmigod. Is there an ambulance coming? Jeez, that’s awful. We are repulsed by what we see; we can’t get enough of it. We slow down, like the firefighters in”Roxanne,” and take a good … long … look.

Yet, in a different context, I understand the concept of rubbernecking.

Because, what LeBron James says fascinates me.

And what LeBron James says horrifies me.

I can’t turn away.

Fascinates, because James is the living embodiment of what every player dreams about becoming: the employee who answers to no one in the company. His world is the confluence of so many factors which never seemed possible: no player could ever make so much money off the floor that he literally doesn’t need the (max) paycheck from his team (among his many investments: Blaze Pizza, which James said last week started with two stores, tripled sales last year and doubled the number of restaurants around the country).

No African-American athlete in a team sport has ever been given the autonomy to put his imprint on an entire organization, on the floor and off, and never be blamed/fired/traded after any failures. (Michael Jordan desperately wanted the Chicago Bulls to trade for Walter Davis. Jerry Krause never did so. That was, Krause thought, part of the job — to say no.)

Horrifies, because James is not a boxer, or a tennis player, rightly concerned only with himself and his well being. In those sports, the individual is ascendant. If Serena Williams doesn’t like what her hitting coach is doing with her serve, she would be expected to change the coach — she’s the one out there by herself trying to win and make money. Same with Tiger Woods, who’s gone through any number of coaches over the years. It’s his swing.

But James plays a team sport. Chemistry in a locker room does not exist in a vacuum, nor is it guaranteed to remain once acquired. It is in constant flux, always vulnerable to outside influence or internal discord. Every day in an NBA locker room is a question: why should I sacrifice for you? Or for him?

The Cavaliers, as we have seen much of this season, are still not sure about the answer.

This is not all James’ fault. But he does not appear that he’s leading his team toward solving the riddle. He leads by deed, by practice. His words are another matter.

James told Bleacher Report’s Howard Beck last month, in a story published last week, about his desire, before his career is over, to play with his close friends Carmelo Anthony, Dwyane Wade and Chris Paul. James said he would like to play with them for “at least one, maybe one or two seasons … I would actually take a pay cut to do that,” as he put it. “It would be pretty cool. I’ve definitely had thoughts about it.”

GameTime: Jason Lloyd

Jason Lloyd of the Akron Beacon Journal joins the GameTime crew to discuss the current state of LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers Jerseys.

Say what?

I don’t think James was saying he would leave Cleveland in June for, say, Miami or Los Angeles. But I don’t think he was saying something off the cuff. He has thought about this, and he wants it to happen — or at least as much of it as possible. Maybe not Wade, but Anthony and/or Paul, for example.

Here’s the problem, if you’re currently getting dressed in the same locker room with James is this morning.

James is 30, not 20. He’s already in his 13th NBA season, with another two-plus years of playoff wear and tear on his body — not to mention the strain of his three Olympic team appearances. He’s not going to play another decade. If he truly wants to play with ‘Melo, D-Wade, etc., it’s not some far-off, next decade notion. It’s something that would have to happen sooner rather than later. And keeping him in Cleveland would require GM David Griffin to take apart the Cavs’ current core of Kyrie Irving, Kevin Love and/or Tristan Thompson.

Seriously: how do Irving and Love digest an on-the-record comment from James that he’d not only love to play with his equally high-profile friends, but that he’s thought about it a lot? The whole preamble to what James said was significant detail on how James and Wade had tried to convince Anthony to sign a short contract in 2007 that would have made him, like them, a free agent in 2010 — and free to come to Miami. (Instead, Anthony signed a five-year deal with the Denver Nuggets.)

James is his own nation-state. Nobody in Cleveland has the juice to publicly chastise him for much of anything, other than coach Tyronn Lue saying maybe he shouldn’t yuk it up with Wade at halftime of a game the Cavs are trailing by 21.

The Starters: Cavs Need Enforcer?

Is LeBron talking about Kendrick Perkins or does he mean something else?

Words matter.

Caveats follow.

Of course Irving and Love knew the pluses and minuses of what being in the LeBron fishbowl would be. Both never seriously considered free agency when the opportunity was available. Irving took a five-year, $90 million max extension in 2014, the first domino that led to James’ return. Love re-signed in Cleveland last summer for $110 million.

Some point out that James actually said all this Feb. 8, just before NBA All-Star 2016, when he was about to play with ‘Melo and D-Wade on the Eastern Conference All-Star team, and may have had the dream scenario on his mind. (Devil’s Advocate here: one could argue that’s even worse, as the Cavs were in the midst of one of their better stretches in late January and February, just after firing David Blatt, winning 10 of 12 games. Why would he pick that time to talk about playing with other guys?)

And: James is entitled to dream — “fantasy basketball,” as someone who knows him well said Sunday — without it being taken literally. I’d love to date Halle Berry, except for one small detail. Well, she’s not small; she’s 5-foot-4. And we’ve been married for almost 17 years. (Hi, honey! Love you!)

And, yes, James’ every utterance is parsed within an inch of its life by an insatiable media that overanalyzes everything he says and does (the words “click bait” are muttered in the Cavs’ organization when discussing local and national stories written about James). Surely, his comment that he’d quit the game if he’d been on a team that blew a 13-point lead in the last minute of a game (as Northern Iowa did in the NCAA Tournament) played long and loud in the Hawkeye State. And that is not fair.

Nor is the speculation that James was sending some kind of secret message last week by unfollowing the Cavs’ official Twitter account and other Twitter accounts. (The explanation from his camp was he was getting ready for the playoffs by eliminating potential online distractions; as he also unfollowed Sports Illustrated’s Lee Jenkins, to whom he gave his first-person account of returning to Cleveland in 2014. He has become a confidante, so this certainly seems like a reasonable explanation.) But that’s also the reality of someone who lives a large chunk of his life on social media.

The bigger issue is not what James said, but that he once again has complete impunity to do so.

Dan Gilbert tried tough talk, in hilarious Comic Sans fashion, in 2010. Four years later, he begged the man he called “our former hero” in that missive to come home, mistakes having been made (the passive voice seemingly always the voice in which public figures acknowledge their errors; not “I screwed up,” but “screw-ups occurred”). And Gilbert has been pretty quiet since.

The Starters: Biggest Threat To Cavs In East?

Brent Barry joins The Starters to discuss which of the Heat, Raptors or Pacers has the best shot at knocking off Cleveland.

And there is no one in the locker room remotely capable of saying or doing anything that he would feel compelled to heed. Understand this: there are maybe four or five people on earth that could do so, which is part of the challenge of putting a team around James. His knowledge of the game is unassailable; his physical gifts still formidable. There really aren’t that many other people who can tell him much about basketball. Alpha males don’t have antennae for non-alphas.

That is Griffin’s fault.

The Cavs thought tabbing Lue as Blatt’s replacement would at least put a person in charge that James would respect, and hold accountable, and he does. But it’s still a heavy lift for a young coach who’s just finding his own voice and does have to coach the rest of the team as well.

This is the problem in Cleveland: James is still well worth all the drama. When he is feeling good and fully engaged, as he was at the Garden Saturday against the Knicks in a triple-double performance, he is still one of the two or three best players on earth. He is still capable of putting a team on his (aching) back and will it to The Finals. He can still bring that championship to the ‘Land.

But the clock is always, always ticking in LeBron’s world, with his next big thing always right around the corner.

We will all be rubbernecking.

TOP O’ THE WORLD, MA!

 

(previous rank in brackets; last week’s record in parenthesis)

1) Golden State [1] (4-0): They’re 66-7. They’re going to break the Bulls’ record. I never really thought that was possible. But it is. And they will.

Sixers vs. Warriors

Klay Thompson goes off for 40 points as the Warriors beat the 76ers 117-105.

2) San Antonio [2] (2-2): You thought The Great Resting would stop just because the Spurs beat the Warriors a week ago?

3) Cleveland [3] (3-1): There’s no chance this could have ended well, for either party.

4) Oklahoma City [5] (3-0): Defensive Rating during seven-game win streak: 101.8 points per 100 possessions, No. 6 in the league; 100.1 points per game allowed, No. 5 in the league.

5) L.A. Clippers [6] (2-1): Blake Griffin should return from his four-game suspension next Sunday and the team has gone 28-14 in his absence this season. Yes, they still have Chris Paul, DeAndre Jordan and J.J. Redick, but that record is remarkable. Props to CP3 for showing amazing leadership this season.

6) Toronto [4] (1-2): Raptors can finally reach the 50-win plateau for the first time in franchise history with a win tonight over the Thunder (7:30 ET, NBA League Pass).

Raptors vs. Pelicans

All five Raptors starters score in double figures as they defeat the Pelicans 115-91.

7) Boston [8] (3-0): Still says here that the Celtics may wind up being the team that finally beats Golden State at Oracle.

8) Miami [9] (2-1): Josh Richardson numbers, post-All-Star break: 19 games, 27.3 minutes per game, 11 ppg, 55.8 percent shooting, 61.4 percent on 3-pointers, True Shooting Percentage in March of .689.

9) Atlanta [10] (3-1): Dennis Schroder present and accounted for, sir!

10) Charlotte [11] (3-1): One and a half games out of third in the Eastern Conference, a game behind third-place Atlanta in the loss column. Charlotte has not had a top-four team in the East since the first iteration of the Hornets’ franchise, then in New Orleans, finished fourth in 2002.

Hornets vs. Bucks

Nicolas Batum scores 25 points along with eight rebounds and seven assists to lead the Hornets past the Bucks, 115-91.

11) Memphis [7] (1-2): Grizzlies current offense: give the ball to Lance Stephenson. Clear a side. Watch. They could do a lot worse.

12) Indiana [12] (3-1): Per the NBA, the Pacers’ win over Philadelphia last Monday at Bankers’ Life Fieldhouse assured Indiana of a 27th straight season with a winning record at home, the longest current streak in the league.

13) Detroit [15] (3-1): Getting Tobias Harris from the Magic for Brandon Jennings on the short list for Sneaky Good Trade of the Year.

14) Portland [13] (2-1): Losing Meyers Leonard for the season is a blow to the Blazers’ upset chances in the first round.

15) Utah [NR] (2-1): Favorable schedule for the Jazz in its fight with Houston and Dallas for the final playoff spots in the west: Utah plays six of its last nine games at home and doesn’t go east of Denver in any of its last three road games.

Jazz vs. Timberwolves

Derrick Favors scores 19 points and Gordon Hayward adds 18 as the Jazz defeat the Timberwolves, 93-84.

Dropped out: Dallas [14]

TEAM OF THE WEEK

Brooklyn (2-1): Back-to-back impressive wins over Cleveland and Indiana, plus a five-point loss to one of the league’s hottest teams, the Hornets. The Nets’ young guys (Sean Kilpatrick, Shane Larkin, etc.) are making the most of their chance under interim coach Tony Brown — who’s not doing a bad job making a case for himself, either.

TEAM OF THE WEAK

Dallas (0-3): Mavs’ defense in March: 112.8 points per game, 3-10 record, currently out of the playoff race in the Western Conference.

NOBODY ASKED ME, BUT …

 

Who’s been the most disappointing team in the league this season?

This is not an objective question, “disappointing” having many different starting points (though it’s hard to imagine real disappointment in Philly or Brooklyn, two teams hip-deep into rebuilding). Every team not in the playoffs or in the playoff chase is obviously not happy. Even teams that are currently in can believe they should be in a better position.

But the question isn’t unfair. Expectations are a real thing, and how a team deals with them is an important part of assessing whether the players, coaches or management in place on a given team has been up to the challenge.

You can take the talk radio approach and say everyone should be fired and/or traded. That’s not the suggestion here. One season’s disappointment can fuel a resurgence the following year.

Witness how the Raptors have rebounded from getting swept in the first round last year, or how OKC has returned to form after injuries to Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook kept the Thunder out of the 2015 playoffs.

There are a few teams who have underachieved this year.

Many people thought the Milwaukee Bucks were ready to take the next step — including us at NBA TV, who did a Real Training Camp with them in Wisconsin before the start of the season. Milwaukee had come on strong the second half of last season and gave the Bulls a real fight in the first round of the playoffs. The Bucks were long and a defensive menace of a team, with Giannis Antetokounmpo leading the way. They added one of the top free agents on the market last summer in center Greg Monroe.

The Association: Milwaukee Bucks

Vince Cellini has the story of a Milwaukee Bucks team trying to fight through a slow start to prove that last season was no fluke.

But the Bucks haven’t sustained their momentum. They’ve fallen off a cliff defensively, dropping from second in Defensive Rating last season (99.3 points per 100 possessions) to 19th this season (105.6). The offense has improved some with Monroe and the return of a healthy Jabari Parker, along with Antetokounmpo taking over for the injured Michael Carter-Williams at the point. But Milwaukee is not going to make the playoffs in an improved (but hardly formidable) Eastern Conference.

At least the Bucks have time on their side: Antetokounmpo, Parker, Khris Middleton, Carter-Williams, rookie guard Rashad Vaughn and reserve big Johnny O’Bryant are all under 25. Maybe we were all just a year or two early in announcing the Bucks’ arrival.

Houston is also a prime candidate. The Rockets laid the blame for their poor start at coach Kevin McHale’s feet, but Houston has been the same .500-ish group after firing McHale on Nov. 18 that it was before. Coaching isn’t the problem. McHale and interim coach J.B. Bickerstaff know what they’re doing, and this is basically the same team that made the run to the Western Conference finals last year.

But even though James Harden has established career bests in points, rebounds and assists this season, the Rockets have regressed. Harden Vines have again become all the rage, showing his inattention to defense. Power forward has been a mess all season, with Terrence Jones injured and ineffective in 2015-16 and Houston willing to move Donatas Motiejunas to Detroit in a since-rescinded trade. Josh Smith Jerseys walked away in the summer to the Clippers, but his return in a January trade hasn’t re-awakened his stellar play from last season.

James Harden’s Mixtape

Check out James Harden’s sick NBA Mixtape and tune in to Saturday’s Primetime ABC game as the Rockets take on the Chicago Bulls at 8:30ET!

Michael Beasley, fresh off a stint in China, has already become one of the team’s best and most important players.

The Rockets have slipped some this season at their bread and butter, 3-pointers. They were 14th in 3-point percentage in 2014-15 (34.8 percent), but rank 22nd (34.4 percent) this season. That’s not a catastrophic fall there. Where Houston has gone over a cliff this season is defense.

Last year, the Rockets were sixth in the league in Defensive Rating, allowing 100.5 points per 100 possessions. They were tops in the NBA in defending 3-pointers last season, allowing just 32.2 percent. Their opponent’s Effective Field Goal Percentage, which factors in the impact of threes on overall shooting, ranked 24th in the league (.486).

We just haven’t found any consistency, and that’s the struggle we’ve been having. It’s the same team. We didn’t have a really good start, and it kind of carried throughout the entire year.

– James Harden, on his Houston Rockets’ struggles

All those numbers are worse this year. Much worse.

Today, Houston is 22nd in both Defensive Rating (106.1 points per 100) and defending 3-pointers, with their opponents’ percentage up to 36.3 percent. Their opponents’ Effective Field Goal percentage is up to 52.8 — almost a 180 from last year — as Houston has gone to eighth worst in that department this season.

It’s all left the Rockets in a dogfight with Utah and Dallas for the last playoff spot in the Western Conference.

“We have some really good games, and then we just let up a few,” Harden said Tuesday.

GameTime: Western Conference Playoff Race

The GameTime crew discusses the Western Conference playoff race as the season winds down.

“That’s kind of been our model all year,” he continued. “We just haven’t found any consistency, and that’s the struggle we’ve been having. It’s the same team. We didn’t have a really good start, and it kind of carried throughout the entire year. And a lot of injuries and things like that kind of nagged around. Like I said, it’s been tough. These last 10 or so games, we’ve been better. Just trying to figure it out and get as many wins as we can.”

Yet the Washington Wizards Jerseys is in even worse shape than the Rockets. The Wizards are 2.5 games behind eighth-place Detroit in the East with nine games to play, making them an increasingly long shot playoff team (even though they have the tiebreaker over the Pistons).

This was not supposed to happen. Washington was looking to build on last season, make another extended playoff run, and wait for Kevin Durant to sign on the dotted line. The Wizards gambled, bringing in a bunch of veterans on short deals to preserve cap room for Durant and to eventually extend Bradley Beal. But the gamble, so far, has backfired.

Washington has had its share of injuries, but the failures this season to become a pace-and-space offense — which directly led to a collapse of a defense that had been one of the league’s best the last few years — are much more to blame.

The Wizards have had a half-dozen inexplicable losses for a team looking to build on a second straight semifinals appearance. Among them: a sweep by the Nuggets this season, a loss to the Bucks just before the All-Star break and home losses to the Lakers, Knicks and Timberwolves, the last in double overtime on Friday after Washington blew a seven-point lead with 2:23 to play. (The Wizards were not helped by an unusual number of missed calls down the stretch.)

Timberwolves vs. Wizards

Karl-Anthony Towns scores 27 points and grabs 10 rebounds as the Timberwolves defeat the Wizards 132-129 in double overtime.

“We have too many hangovers,” Wizards coach Randy Wittman said Friday. “We win four in a row, you lose five in a row. Then we come right back and win five in a row. Now, what’s this (loss) going to be? We play Atlanta back-to-back; they’re a good team. They played hard, and they were better than us that night. We were better than them the night before. Now, you’ve got to end that.

“You’ve got to win six out of seven, then you’ve got to make it seven out of eight. And we’ve had a tough time all year when you’ve got a (winning) string going, and you lose a tough game, or you lose, and it just carries over. And it carried over (Friday).”

After seeing Paul Pierce and Otto Porter maul the Raptors in the first round last year, and almost pull off an upset of the Hawks in the semifinals with Wall missing three games (broken hand), the Wizards believed they needed to go small and shoot 3-pointers this season.

They benched Nene Jerseys, who had teamed with Marcin Gortat the previous two years to make Washington almost impregnable in the paint, in favor of Jared Dudley, who was just coming off of back surgery. (It’s hardly all Dudley’s fault, but even when healthy, he’s a very undersized four.)

I think at the start of the season we didn’t talk about team defense. We were worried about playing up-tempo and not focusing on that.

– Washington Wizards Jerseys star John Wall

Porter has been good, but not the player he was in the playoffs last year, when he averaged 10 points and 8.0 rebounds in 33 minutes, and shot 37.5 percent on 3-pointers. But all of that pales to Washington’s defensive regression.

Last season, the Wizards were fifth in the league in Defensive Rating (100 points per 100 possessions). This season, they’re 15th (103.9). Last season, the Wizards were ninth in points allowed (97.8). This season, they’re 21st (104.4). Last season, they were tied for 14th in opponent 3-point percentage (.349); this season, they’re 27th (.369).

“We lost a lot of games we should have won, just being terrible defensively all year,” Wall said. “That’s the reason why we’ve lost basketball games, because you couldn’t guard one on one, just stopping teams from rebounding the ball and stuff. I think at the start of the season we didn’t talk about team defense. We were worried about playing up-tempo and not focusing on that. And then when we got focused on that, we was a good defensive team again.”

The Wizards have turned up their D of late and boast a 102.2 Defensive Rating so far in March. But it might be too late. To be fair, two weeks remain in the season. Maybe the Wizards can catch fire, get right and sneak in. But, right now, it’s hard to think of a team that expected more coming into the season and has accomplished less.

How on earth did they wind up in this predicament?

“I wish I knew, Beal said Friday. “I wish I knew. I wish I knew.”

… AND NOBODY ASKED YOU, EITHER

Eureka! From Matt Brubaker:

I know it is only one game, but the Spurs’ defense of Stephen Curry looked an awful lot like Oscar Robertson’s comments on how to defend Curry. Do you think the Big O’s strategy was proven right by Pop and crew? Or was it a case of a superior effort given by the fresher team against a Warriors squad on the back end of a grinding stretch of games over the past week and a half? Either way let’s all hope we find out over the course of seven playoff games.

Inside Access: Warriors vs. Spurs

In a highly anticipated meeting of the two top teams in the NBA, the Spurs evened the series out at one game apiece with the Warriors.

It’s hard to take too much from any one game in a season, Matt. The Spurs had a good night defensively, but the Warriors had one of their worst shooting nights this season. As the scientists like to say, correlation does not imply causation. That’s not to say the Spurs can’t beat Golden State four times in a playoff series, only that there’s no magic bullet to beat a team that’s 66-7. It will take some combination of adjustments, luck with injuries and good fortune — that is, someone in blue and gold that hasn’t missed many open shots all season will have to do so at critical moments in May or June.

Minnesota Nice. Very, very nice. From Assi Peles:

I’ve been watching Timberwolves games this season and Karl-Anthony Towns has been a monster.

He’s winning the ROY award by a landslide an, IMHO, he is the best player on his team (Andrew Wiggins included).

Could you comment on who he reminds you of most? Is he a young KG, or a young(er) Anthony Davis Jerseys?

All things considered (injuries) is it fair to say he has a higher ceiling than AD? Or that he is already better??

Kia Awards: Karl-Anthony Towns

Karl-Anthony Towns is a nominee for the Kia Western Conference Rookie of the Month.

To answer your last questions first: no and no. But Towns does resemble Davis. I’d say their ceilings are equally high; both demonstrated early they can get after it at the defensive end, both at the rim and in space (watch Towns’ work here Friday night against Bradley Beal). Scouts knew Towns could shoot it in high school, though he didn’t get to display that much at Kentucky. While he wasn’t prolific from the perimeter before going to Lexington, Davis has expanded his range rapidly since turning pro.

But, he can’t stress this enough, he loves my work. From Barry Benjamin:

I get it, the MVP watch is a very rough measure of an overall body of work. It’s entirely subjective. It’s DA’s own personal opinion, to which you are eminently entitled — it’s your column!

But: Durant and Westbrook at No. 3 and No. 4? Shouldn’t winning count for something in the MVP analysis? Your column dropped Sunday night/Monday morning on March 14. From the All-Star break to your column dropping, OKC played 12 games. They lost eight of them. Eight! They’re record since the All-Star break was 4-8! That’s ‘tuurrrible’ as one of your colleagues might say. And OKC still gets not one, but two MVP candidates? Come on, DA!

I just read somewhere about how great Damian Lillard is — oh yeah, it was right above your MVP analysis, in that same column! Chris Paul’s Clippers squad drops off big time when he’s off the floor! Kyle Lowry is bulldogging the Raptors to the No. 2 spot in the East! And you go with two (not one, but two!) guys whose team dropped eight of 12? You’re better than that DA!

What could I possibly be thinking, putting the two guys most responsible for a team being 51-22 and winners of seven straight (including vs. San Antonio on Saturday night) on my MVP Watch list? Of course I should have Lillard, of the 38-36 Blazers, ahead of Durant and Westbrook, or players on other teams whose records are worse than OKC’s. Because one bad stretch during an otherwise very strong season is what should determine MVP status. I guess.

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MVP WATCH

(last week’s averages in parentheses)

1) Stephen Curry (26.3 ppg, 4.5 rpg, 8 apg, .473 FG, .857 FT): Fascinating reporting by Ethan Strauss on how Under Armour got Curry in its stable (with a major assist from the unlikely Kent Bazemore), while Nike stood by and did next to nothing to keep him.

2) Kawhi Leonard (23.5 ppg, 7 rpg, .514 FG, .778 FT): Missed last two games with a right quad contusion.

3) Kevin Durant (24.7 ppg, 8.3 rpg, 5.3 apg, .560 FG, .769 FT): KD’s decision to wear his new KD Elite 8 PEs with built-in knee-high compression socks was not met with universal love.

4) Russell Westbrook (21.7 ppg, 8.3 rpg, 10.7 apg, .451 FG, .900 FT): A list of guys in the last 20 years that bring it every night like he does: Dennis Rodman, Allen Iverson, Alonzo Mourning. There are others, but that’s good company.

5) LeBron James (29 ppg, 8.5 rpg, 8.5 apg, .564 FG, .742 FT): All right-thinking people are praying for a Cavs-Heat semifinal playoff series, with LeBron going against his old squad — who will hopefully have a healthy Chris Bosh able to give Miami quality minutes off the bench.

I’M FEELIN’ …

1) If you know the man at all, you know Craig Sager will keep fighting, and never, ever give up. See you in the playoffs, my dude.

The Starters: #SagerStrong

The Starters show their support for Craig Sager, who continues to fight a battle with cancer.

2) There is nothing intelligent that can be said about the terror attack in Brussels that has killed more than 30 people, with hundreds injured. We can only be glad that many survived, including Hall of Famer Dikembe Mutombo, who was in the airport when the bombs went off.

3) I did not know that the Rockets had brought Clifford Ray in to help coach Dwight Howard. Good for them. He is a proud and talented man who has won a championship, and has only wanted to help make big men better players. Glad someone has given him a chance.

4) I crossed paths with Fran Dunphy for a brief period in the 1980s, when he was on the bench at American University and I was an undergrad there who helped out in the athletic department. But I’ve admired him for many, many years as he moved on to bigger and better things, ending up at Temple, where he’s coached the Owls with distinction for many years. And so I’m not surprised at all that he not only took a brutal loss in the NCAA Tournament last week with grace, and allowed an 11-year-old boy to ask him a question after that brutal loss in the postgame news conference. He not only took the question, but answered it in a beautiful way that made the boy feel good. That is what “Sir Francis” has always done, because he did the same for me and other kids at AU so many years ago.

NOT FEELIN’ …

1) A state can do whatever it wants if it believes such actions reflect the will of its citizens. So, the North Carolina General Assembly is free to call a special session to pass legislation that essentially reverses an anti-discrimination ordinance passed last month by the Charlotte City Council.

But private businesses — and, the last time I checked, the NBA is a private business — have the right to take actions reflecting the will of their employees, too. I can’t and don’t speak for the NBA, but it’s hard to believe the league would want to do business in a state whose legislators can pass a bill allowing businesses to discriminate against gay men and women, using the flimsy pretext that a man could potentially use a woman’s bathroom for predatory purposes by claiming to be transgender. Next year’s All-Star Game is in Charlotte. It does not have to remain in Charlotte. And it should not remain in Charlotte if this remains the position of the General Assembly. The NBA has 27 other cities (I am assuming it wouldn’t return immediately to Toronto, where this year’s game was, or go to L.A., where the 2018 game has been awarded) in which it can have its showcase event.

This league celebrated when Jason Collins came out. It has been there for people like Rick Welts, the Warriors’ CEO and the highest-ranking openly gay executive in team sports. It has chosen a side, consistently, over the years — the side of inclusion and acceptance. By allowing the All-Star Game to remain in Charlotte in the face of this legislation, it will be on the opposite side. And that would be wrong. The league put out a statement Thursday saying it is “dedicated to creating an inclusive environment for all who attend our games and events” and that it is “deeply concerned that this discriminatory law runs counter to our guiding principles of equality and mutual respect and do not yet know what impact it will have on our ability to successfully host the 2017 All-Star Game in Charlotte.”

It is right to give North Carolina time to assess whether it really wants this law to remain on the books. But the league needs to make its position clear: if the law stays, the NBA will not be in Charlotte next year. Period.

2) The Bulls don’t just look tired and bad, and nothing like a contender at present. They look like a team that’s already not heeding their coach, after less than a year. And that is scary stuff if you’re the management that hand-picked Fred Hoiberg to replace Tom Thibodeau.

GameTime: Bulls’ Woes

The GameTime crew discuss what is wrong with the Bulls as they chase a playoff spot.

3) Bad news on Anthony Davis Jerseys’ knee, but it could have been worse, one supposes. At least he won’t have to have his shoulder cut on as well.

4) RIP, Ken Howard — aka, The White Shadow”, one of the most memorable shows of my adolescence. It was so rare in those days for there to be a TV show not only with people of color, but people of color in authority over their white counterparts. That Ken Reeves, the former NBA player turned high school basketball coach portrayed by Howard, has to comply and work with Principal Jim Reeves (played by Ed Bernard) — and, later, Principal Sybil Buchanan (Joan Pringle) — was a power structure not seen on TV in the ’70s.

BY THE NUMBERS

$102,800,000 — Maximum price of construction costs to be borne by the city of Minneapolis as part of the projected $129 million renovation of Target Center, scheduled to begin in May with a targeted completion date in the fall of 2017. The substantial remodeling will include a new main lobby of the building (including a five-story glass wall), enhanced club and dining options and a new scoreboard that will be installed this summer.

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10,684 — Announced attendance at Pepsi Center for last Wednesday’s game between the Denver Nuggets and Philadelphia 76ers, though substantially fewer people actually showed up after a March blizzard brought more than 19 inches of snow to the Denver area. The weather was so bad referee Rodney Mott couldn’t get in, leaving officials Derek Richardson and Sean Corbin to ref the game. At least those who braved the conditions and came out got to see this at the end.

Mudiay’s Game Winner

With four seconds to go in regulation, Emmanuel Mudiay connects on a game-winning half-court prayer to seal the win for Denver over Philadelphia.

38 — Regular season victories for the NBA D-League’s Sioux Falls Skyforce, the Heat’s affiliate, tying the D-League record for wins in a single season. With one win in either of its last two games, Sioux Falls, currently 38-10, will break the record of 38-12 set in the 2011-12 season by the L.A. D-Fenders. The Skyforce plays at home Tuesday against Iowa.

Q&A: DWIGHT HOWARD

 

Joy has been replaced by job.

That one-letter switch is pithy, to be sure, but nonetheless an accurate representation of the change in Dwight Howard’s demeanor these days. Long gone — perhaps, simply, now withheld from public view — is the goofy, gangly kid who did a devastating impression of his then-coach, Stan Van Gundy, and reveled in the attention that came with being the game’s best big man.

He wowed with his cape-clad dunks in the 2008 Dunk Contest, having loved the “Superman” moniker he gave himself. He has since been injured and blamed and shunned, the target of constant prodding from another great center who started his NBA career in Orlando, Shaquille O’Neal. He blew up the Magic when he grew tired of Van Gundy’s demanding style, and even after Orlando fired SVG, Howard pushed to be moved — first to the Lakers, where he spent a miserable year with Kobe Bryant, and then to Houston as a free agent, where the idea was that Howard would grow old playing next to James Harden.

Howard Muscles Into Dunk

Dwight Howard uses his strength to power into the lane for a two-handed dunk over his defender.

But that decision has seemingly curdled as well.

The same team that got to the Western Conference finals less than a year ago has fallen apart, now fighting just to get into the playoffs. Houston fired coach Kevin McHale after 11 games, but the Rockets are no better without him, and the subpar season has led to friction and speculation — friction between Howard and the organization, which explored trade options for him before the deadline in February, and speculation that Howard will bolt this summer in free agency, having had his fill of watching Harden’s dominance of the ball (he told USA Today’s Sam Amick in an extended interview last week that he has “no hate in his heart” for Harden).

At 30, Howard is still averaging a double-double this season, but his recurring back problems look to have slowed his offensive game significantly. His search for his lost joy continues.

Me: From the 30,000-foot view of someone who hasn’t been with your team all season: why are you here, scrambling just to make the playoffs, after having such a great season last year?

Dwight Howard: I don’t think we’ve played our best basketball all season long. We’ve had our highs and our lows, and we haven’t been as consistent as we need to. And that’s why we’re in the position we’re in.

Howard Rejects The Shot

Dwight Howard goes up and punishes the shot attempt by Jerami Grant.

Me: The numbers in March have been better defensively. What has changed or improved?

DH: Well, I just think our communication is one thing. And the trust, especially on the defensive end. You have to be able to trust your teammates. Because sometimes you may be reluctant to go if you don’t think your teammate is going to be behind you. It’s just small things that we have to fix, and I think we’ve done a better job of that.

Me: You said something in the USA Today interview that was interesting about shots. When you get a lot of shots, you have put up numbers this season.

DH: Well, I didn’t actually say that; it was Sam (Amick). I don’t really pay attention to that. I just know that I have to do whatever it takes for my team to win. I think James has done a good job of scoring, you bring in Michael Beasley, who’s done a good job of scoring. I have to really focus on helping our team defense. All of us have to do a better job on defense, and the offense will be easier. But we have to focus in on the defensive side of things: how can we help each other? Because there’s going to be mental breakdowns, there’s going to be times when people get beat on backdoors and guards get beat coming down the lane. And we have to be the protectors. I think we’ve gotten a lot better at it. And I think by the time the playoffs come around, we’ll have everything down pat.

Me: What is most encouraging about the way you’re playing, and what concerns you the most?

Do all of the things that can show our value on the floor. Just play hard and everything else will come from that.

– Rockets’ Dwight Howard on big men in today’s NBA

DH: Well, I think our defense has been pretty good. Our communication has been a lot better. Just like with any relationship, the biggest thing is communication and trust. It may take a while, but I think our communication and trust has gotten a lot better. The thing that I think can concern our team is just being consistent. We haven’t been able to be consistent all year, and I think the more consistent we become as a team, the better we’ll be, and you’ll see more wins than losses.

Me: How surprising is that? This is basically the same team from last year that went on that run.

Howard Sends It Back

Dwight Howard goes up for the massive rejection on Rudy Gobert.

DH: It is. But this is a totally different season, and I think teams are playing us a little differently than they did last season. And they’re really attacking us. We have to understand that. We have to know that every team watched us play and make that run to get to the Western Conference finals. They’re going to come out and try to destroy us, and we have to be ready for that.

Me: Let me amend what I said before: you’re right. You didn’t talk about shots. But you did say that because of the way the game is played today, big men don’t seem to be as valued as in years past.

DH: I think if you watch a team like Golden State, they shoot more threes than just doing postups and stuff like that. I think everybody is kind of taking that same style of play on offense, where they have one big on the floor. They call it ‘small ball’ now. It’s not just me, but I look at all the guys around the league — DeAndre [Jordan], you’ve got Andre Drummond, you’ve got those guys that are in the paint. It’s small ball now, so everybody’s forcing us out to play guys like Draymond Green, all those stretch fours. So it’s a different style of play. When I first came into the league, it wasn’t as much. Now, it’s like every team is doing it. It’s a pretty good strategy, but it’s just something the game has evolved into.

Me: Do you think it devalues big men?

I don’t take any of the stuff he says to heart. I understand that he has to do a job, and his job is to motivate me. And at the same time, he has to be one of my hardest critics, because he played the same position.

– Dwight Howard, on his relationship with Shaquille O’Neal

DH: I just think we’ve got to do more to show our value. So instead of focusing on the things, instead of letting things frustrate us, we’ve got to do all the little things — block shots, rebound, deflect balls, go for steals. Do all of the things that can show our value on the floor. Just play hard and everything else will come from that.

Me: But every guy wants to touch the ball, no matter what position they play.

DH: That is true. Like I said, our job has to be, let’s focus on the things that we can control. That’s our energy, our effort and rebounding. That’s something that nobody can take away from us.

Me: You have changed agents, and you’re now with Perry Rogers, Shaq’s agent.

DH: Yes, sir.

Me: Why?

DH: Well, I just felt like he has an opportunity to just focus on me. Any other agent, they have a lot of different clients and stuff like that. I felt like he was able to just focus on me. I think he’s a really good guy.

Me: Did you know him at all before?

DH: Not at all.

GameTime: Dwight Howard Discussion

Isiah Thomas and Brian Shaw discuss Dwight Howard’s play as of late.

Me: So Shaq introduced the two of you?

DH: He did, actually. So I had a great conversation with Shaq, not just about having an agent, but basketball and life and all that stuff. And he introduced me to Perry.

Just like with any relationship, the biggest thing is communication and trust.

– Dwight Howard

Me: Would you say your relationship with Shaq has improved over the last few years?

DH: I don’t think that we’ve had a bad relationship. We’ve sat down and talked about different things, and why he’s done what he’s done. He’s like, ‘I just want to push you.’ Kareem [Abdul-Jabbar] and Wilt [Chamberlain], he said, did it to him, all of the centers he watched growing up, they tried to find ways to motivate them. That’s what he feels like he has to do with me. I don’t take any of the stuff he says to heart. I understand that he has to do a job, and his job is to motivate me. And at the same time, he has to be one of my hardest critics, because he played the same position. I’m never going to be upset about that. I don’t think a fan would really understand, because they’re just watching. But I totally understand.

Me: The stickum stuff. I know you said you used that for years, right?

DH: Yes, sir.

Me: So what do you do now?

Howard Ball Drama

Dwight Howard rubbed his hands on the ball before a free throw. After some confusion, the ball was thrown out of the game.

DH: Nothing. I just go play. I never knew that it was anything illegal, because I’ve been using it. I’ve never hid it from anybody. It’s been in plain sight. From the first time I used it, I’ve used the powder. It basically does the same thing as the powder. I just didn’t want the powder all over my hands when I’m playing. So I didn’t know there was an issue. If there was, I apologize for people thinking that it was. But that’s not my focus. I just can’t get a deal with Elmer’s Glue now.

Me: There have been big guys like Kevin Willis that had small hands. Is your hand size at all an issue with why you used it?

DH: Well, I just know that putting a lot of lotion on and all that stuff, it affects how the basketball feels. So I used to use the powder. I’ve used the rosin stuff. I also used the stuff called Power Grip. That’s on the floor, all this stuff is at every arena, at every scorer’s table. Just try to find ways to not let the ball just slip. And it’s not like I’m playing football where I needed to catch touchdowns or anything like that. If anything, I probably have to stop using it, because it does mess up my free throws. I just think it was blown out of proportion.

TWEET OF THE WEEK

— Lakers guard Nick Young (@NickSwagyPYoung), Wednesday, 1:10 p.m., reacting to a Twitter critic who said “you ain’t never gonna see @NickSwagyPYoung pass the ball.”

THEY SAID IT

“There are some teams, it’s going to be hard for him. The Warriors, for example, where you have to be up and double-team some players and rotate and sometimes (have the big men) be on smaller players. There are some other teams that are maybe a little slower and he’s going to be huge.”

— Manu Ginobili, on the potential impact of 7-foot-3 rookie center Boban Marjanovic on the Spurs’ playoff chances this year.

“We give out name cards to keep track. ‘Hi, my name is …'”

— Grizzlies’ Coach Dave Joerger, on the incredible run of injuries his team has suffered this season and the resulting signing and playing of players that don’t know one another — or the coaches, for that matter.

“I got my rest last season and earlier this year. I’m good.”

— Kevin Durant, to local reporters in Oklahoma City, on whether he needed to sit out a game or two down the stretch of the regular season in order to be fresh for the playoffs.

Longtime NBA reporter and columnist David Aldridge is an analyst for TNT. You can e-mail him here and follow him on Twitter.

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