Thursday December 9th, 2010

How has Blake Griffin recovered so thoroughly -- and confidently -- from knee surgery? The Clippers say his left knee is stronger than it was before he underwent surgery last January to repair the broken kneecap he suffered while landing after a preseason dunk 14 months ago.

"I spent so much time strengthening everything around it -- I strengthened the calf, everything, and I did it for both legs," said the 6-foot-10 Griffin, wrapping both hands around his lower thigh. "So when you put in the time, you dedicate the time ... I definitely feel just as strong."

The Clippers are 5-18, yet the top overall pick in 2009 is creating hope for better days while averaging 20 points on 51 percent shooting and 11.7 rebounds. He has revived the spectacular athleticism that defined him at Oklahoma two seasons ago. There was the one dunk in particular against the Knicks during which he looked as if he could have grabbed at the rim with his teeth. The truth, as strange as it is to say, is that the surgery helped him.

"I can't say that it's a positive situation," he said of the injury, and of course that's right. But then he went on to embrace the benefits of his year without playing basketball. For starters, his recuperation enabled him to slow down.

"I was thinking about it the other day -- somebody was talking to me about it," he said. "Looking back at the end of my college season, you start working out for the draft. You're going here, you're going there. Then all of a sudden the draft comes upon you, and then the draft is over; I came to L.A. and then I was working out, then summer league, you bounce from thing to thing to thing. Then last year it was like the season came up on me before I knew it."

He paused for effect.

"Sitting out all year, I know I really prepared the way I should. I tried to prepare last year [before the surgery] but it was just a whirlwind."

He slowed down, and now it's as if the game has slowed around him.

"I matured as a person and a player," he said. "I just learned a lot about the game. It's amazing how much you learn when you watch film. I always watched the NBA game, but I never watched it the way I did last year. You watch it from a different perspective when you know you're going to be going up against these guys.

"Just being up close and in the huddle in every game last year -- or in the home games anyway -- you know exactly how things are supposed to go. I'm not saying now I know everything or I know how to do everything the right way. But you get a better understanding, and I feel more comfortable, and the higher my comfort level is, the more successful I'll be."

The race for Rookie of the Year appears to be between Griffin and Wizards point guard John Wall, the No. 1 pick last June. But the 21-year-old Griffin acknowledges it isn't a fair fight. When I asked if he felt like a rookie, he admitted: "I can't say I do, because I feel comfortable and I know what to expect going into every situation. The only new thing for me is going into new arenas and kind of feeling those places out.

"I did everything I could to turn that into the best situation. I chose not to feel sorry for myself. There were days that I was thinking to myself, 'This is going to take forever just to be able to get back and play.' But actually, being out there now and my knee feeling the way it does now, it was all worth it.''

On to the mailbag, beginning with response to my statement that Pau Gasol is the NBA's best power forward ...

I would take Dirk Nowitzki over Pau Gasol any day. There isn't a single thing Pau does that Dirk can't do as well, and Gasol can't take over a game over like Dirk can. When Dirk is firing on all cylinders, he is as unstoppable as any player in the league. -- Russ, Dallas

I agree with the latter statement, Russ, but there is no big man who does more consistently at a high level -- rebounding, passing, defending -- than Gasol. Nowitzki has him beat as a pure scorer, but Gasol edges ahead when you consider across-the-board contributions. Gasol ranks No. 1 in the league in efficiency -- a stat that tabulates points, rebounds, assists, steals and blocks -- while Nowitzki is No. 6. I'm not saying that stat is the final answer, but it is a strong indicator of Gasol's versatility.

I'm a die-hard Lakers fan, dating three generations of fanaticism, but I disagree with you on Pau being the best power forward in the league. I'd gladly take Blake Griffin, Kevin Love or Tim Duncan [ahead of Gasol]. Pau seems to disappear whenever the Lakers need him most, just like he did in the Houston game last week. In Game 7 of the Finals, he nearly cost the Lakers the title with all those missed free throws. He's definitely top five, but not the best. -- Ali, Anaheim, Calif.

That Game 7 was a rough night for a lot of Lakers, but what I remember is Gasol's frantic work for 18 rebounds overall -- especially on the offensive glass, where he created nine second-chances -- that not only saved the Lakers but also showed he wasn't a softy as advertised in previous years. He outfought Kevin Garnett and everyone else in that game. Duncan is worthy of your respect, but I know the Lakers wouldn't exchange Gasol for Duncan, who is 34 and averaging a scaled-back 13.7 points in 28.9 minutes this season. For as well as Griffin and Love have played this year, the Lakers would not have won the championship last June if they had replaced Gasol with either one of them -- they could never switch back and forth defensively (or offensively) from power forward to center. Plus, both players are years away from proving they can play at a high level in a championship environment.

Much has been made over Miami's holes outside of the Big Three, namely a serviceable point guard, overall player depth and a stopper in the paint. If I recall, the LeBron James and Chris Bosh signings were technically sign-and-trades with a boatload of picks going to the Cavs and Raptors. So with no draft picks and already enough trouble filling the roster with no cap room, plus a potential cap shrinkage after the new collective bargaining agreement, how exactly is the Heat's roster supposed to change? -- Alex, San Francisco

For starters, someone decent will likely be bought out in February and be interested in filling one of those roles for Miami, because it happens every year. But you raise an interesting point beyond this season: What if a hard cap is installed that leaves Miami with no room to add players? Under the current rules, a team like Miami (or even the Lakers, who have the league's most expensive roster) can add free agents as "exceptions" to the cap each summer. But what if those exceptions are abolished under the new collective bargaining agreement? Because no one knows the rules for the next CBA, it can't be taken for granted that a team like Miami will necessarily be able to fill in with free-agent exceptions or other signings after this season.

My knee-jerk reaction to your belief that the Magic should trade for Carmelo Anthony was to pen a protest, since I am not a Melo fan, and would be appalled if the Bulls made a move to get him. However, I would agree that Orlando would be the perfect fit for Melo -- Orlando has a severely flawed offense that relies on inconsistent shooters to make outside shots, and relies entirely on Dwight Howard for defense, rebounding and an inside presence. The Magic's offense would still be flawed with Melo, but he would be a considerable upgrade over what they have now, and he and Howard have completely complementary skills. I suppose the only questions are (1) whether Melo would want to go to Orlando and (2) would the Magic have anything that would entice the Nuggets? -- Ron, Chicago

The Magic have very little in the way of expiring contracts, no young talent with high upside and their franchise success dictates that their draft picks will be in the mid-to-late 20s for years to come. Any trade that sends Anthony's expiring contract -- he's due $17.1 million this season -- to Orlando is likely to burden Denver with additional salary commitments. Do you think the Nuggets are looking to surrender their best player and take on more money as a result? That's why it will be hard for Orlando to assemble a deal.

How could you not mention Seattle as a likely destination if the Hornets move? Is the NBA stupid enough to forgo a city with 40 years of NBA tradition to encourage the Hornets to move to another backwater location like Memphis and Oklahoma City? Outside of the Chicago idea, nothing makes more sense than to return the NBA to its rightful place in Seattle. -- Ben, Seattle

The league was stupid enough to leave Seattle in the first place. I don't name your city as a landing place because there are no prospects for a new arena there. There was no appetite to build one for the Sonics, despite their 40-year investment in the area. So now we're supposed to believe that Seattle will be inspired to come up with a lavish new building to lure back a league that ran out on your city not so long ago?

Why should Seattle want anything to do with the NBA? The NBA ruined its relationship with the city, and in the meantime, you have pro football and baseball to go with a new soccer franchise that couldn't be more popular.

Maybe if someone were to purchase an option to buy the Hornets contingent on moving the team to Seattle, and then that prospective buyer was able to leverage the option to create a new arena in northwest Washington -- maybe then it could happen. But I just don't foresee a widespread demand for any of that.

Given the increased likelihood of a lockout next season, as well as the uncertainty of the Hornets' franchise and their next move, do you think contraction or a merging of teams could be a viable option for both the NBA and the players' association to consider? If owners can't afford to make do with their teams, the NBA should step in and do the same thing they did with the Hornets and purchase the team. NBA franchises need to be profitable on both a micro- (the owners) and a macro- (leaguewide) economic level. It may take away jobs from players, but it will strengthen the overall league play. I think a 28-team (or maybe less) NBA would be more beneficial than the current 30-team structure. -- Qumar, via Facebook

I don't see the league embracing the idea of contraction. That would send a message to current and prospective owners that the NBA isn't a growing business, and that owners have overvalued the league's prospects by spending big money to buy franchises. From Stern's point of view -- and the players are adamant that his perspective is wrong -- contraction from 30 to 28 teams won't fix the core problem of too much money going to the players. If the owners are allowed to keep a majority of league revenues, as Stern argues, then the league will be on a path to growth.

If Stern is able to install most of his agenda in the next CBA only to find the NBA is still in trouble financially, then maybe contraction will be the next step. Before you see cuts in ownership, you're first going to see the league trying to extract cuts in player salaries.

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