The trade deadline sits like an inviting target four weeks away for the Trail Blazers, who have remained in playoff contention despite a recent six-game losing streak. Couldn't they make a deal to improve their unproductive bench and enhance their chances of reaching the postseason?
For Portland general manager Neil Olshey, it remains a question laden with risk. The Blazers may be able to come up with a short-term deal to increase their production. But that same deal may also damage the long-term goals of a young roster and ruin a formula that has been succeeding beyond anyone's expectations.
"That's the thing -- nobody ever looks at that,'' Olshey said. "They look at Player X averages 11 points a game, and your bench guy averages five. OK, but Player X could take my young guys and have them running the streets or out at night or in the locker room in their ear. Destroying that asset far outweighs the benefit. It's the old, 'Are you more valuable than your problems?' And that's what you've really got to analyze.''
This is going to be the trick for every team approaching the Feb. 21 deadline, and the Blazers serve as an exquisite example because they're so close to earning a playoff spot. Before defeating Indiana 100-80 on Wednesday to end the six-game skid, the Blazers' last 10 games -- four consecutive wins followed by six straight losses -- had been decided by six points or fewer. The obvious weakness is their skimpy bench from which no one is contributing more than 17 minutes or five points per game.
[GOLLIVER: Midseason grades for all 30 teams]
"You have Damian Lillard and Meyers Leonard and Nicolas Batum -- these young, talented guys,'' Olshey said, the first two being rookies and the third a fifth-year player. "You've got to ask yourself: Does a player that you bring in that might be considered a fringe character guy, if he takes one of these [young] guys down with him, does losing one of them justify having a guy maybe that can give you three or four more points a game?''
The "risk-reward factor,'' as Olshey puts it, has been crucial to Portland's unanticipated success this season. The Blazers looked like a lottery-bound group heading into camp. The reason they were 20-15 after beating the defending champion Heat at home on Jan. 10 is because Lillard has emerged as the Rookie of the Year favorite while Batum, J.J. Hickson and Wes Matthews are having career years in support of big man LaMarcus Aldridge. It turns out to be no accident that they're playing well together.
"We compete every night,'' said Olshey, who is in his first year with Portland after leaving his job as Clippers GM last offseason. "They give great effort. Guys are playing hurt. They play together, they share the ball, they're getting better as the season goes on. We're certainly a much better team today than we were back in October, and we really are a sum of the parts. You break down our roster and you say, 'They're in a rebuilding mode.' And then you look at what the total team approach has been with Terry [Stotts, the first-year coach] and you say, 'They've exceeded those expectations.' Because they are the kinds of guys that play every night no matter what our record is."
Though the three oldest Blazers are combining for only 6.2 points off the bench, Olshey is convinced that Ronnie Price, Sasha Pavlovic and Jared Jeffries have contributed to Portland's winning mindset.
"They are three of the classiest veterans I've been around,'' Olshey said. "They know why they're here -- to help Meyers get better, to help J.J. Hickson know what it takes.''
So often you hear GMs bragging about such players insincerely, in hopes that the undue praise will encourage those veterans to prioritize the team's needs. In this case, however, Olshey has to be speaking the truth because there is no other explanation for Portland's success. This team is absolutely maximizing its potential, and the only reason for it is that the Blazers are pulling together as few NBA teams are able to do.
Portland had been seeking leadership at point guard for years. Last year the Blazers employed five of them, including Raymond Felton, Jamal Crawford and Jonny Flynn, a former No. 6 pick of the Timberwolves. Because Olshey believed in Lillard's temperament and integrity, the GM let go of all of the veteran competition and openly referred to Lillard as the franchise point guard so that he wouldn't be looking over his shoulder. Other more entitled rookies might have exploited that kind of approach, but it has brought out the best in Lillard, who is averaging 18.3 points and 6.6 assists while leading his class in minutes (38.5).
[SI.com writers hand out midseason awards]
Olshey was widely second-guessed for retaining Batum after the small forward received a four-year, $46 million offer sheet from Minnesota last summer. It appeared to be much too great an investment for a complementary player who had never averaged more than 13.9 points. But like Timberwolves GM David Kahn, Olshey saw unexplored potential in Batum. Now 24, he is an emerging two-way star who joins Lillard and the 27-year-old Aldridge to form a young trio through which Portland can grow.
"When we hired Terry, we felt the only way Nic can live up to the contract is if he can do more than just be a corner shooter and a versatile defender, that we've got to get more production in multiple areas out of him,'' Olshey said. "One of the reasons we hired the coach after putting the team together was we really felt Terry's approach was best suited for this roster composition. And you're seeing it now.''
Olshey finds himself in this unexpected position, with a playoff-contending team that has performed better than anyone expected as the trade deadline approaches. Considering that team-minded contributors will be hard to find at the deadline, and taking into account the precious environment that the Blazers have been able to develop this season, the smartest move may be the hardest one to make -- to show confidence in this group, to exhibit patience and wisdom and, in the end, to make no move at all.
? Having exhausted all other options, the Lakers try talking to one another. They met before their Wednesday morning shootaround in Memphis, as reported extensively by the Los Angeles Times. Coach Mike D'Antoni talked about slowing down the offense while urging his team to focus on its horrid defense. Steve Nash said he didn't care which style they play as long as they all feel comfortable. Kobe Bryant admitted he can be "hard to play with" and then asked Dwight Howard if that bothered him.
"I think this will be the start of a new season for us tonight," Howard said a short time later to reporters. He had not contested Bryant during the team meeting, and he appeared to take the dialogue to heart. He said it was wrong of him to complain Monday about taking only five shots in a loss at Chicago. "That was immature," Howard said. "It starts with me. I have to be more of a player out there on the court and not worry about anything, not complain. Just do what I do best."
The Lakers entered the game at Memphis acting as if it was a road playoff game they absolutely needed to win. Then Howard aggravated his right-shoulder injury, sat out the second half and said he will be examined Thursday by a specialist. The Lakers were outrebounded 52-34, and outscored in the paint 60-34, and beaten for the fourth straight game and 10th time in 12 games, 106-93. They appear to be incapable of playing with one another, while Phil Jackson's reputation rises higher than ever.
[Lakers to consider possibility of Howard trade?]
? The lockout makes sense (from one side of the bargaining table). News of the Kings' proposed sale to a group in Seattle inspired the following tweet from LeBron James: "So the Kings getting sold for 525M!! And the owners ain't making no money huh? What the hell we have a lookout for. Get the hell out of here''
He quickly amended his typo: "#lockout! My bad. U know what I meant."
Players all over the league knew what James meant. Here were the badly managed Kings, with access to little TV revenue and no prospects for a new arena in their small market, selling for $175 million more than the original Sonics had cost Clay Bennett in 2006.
Two days later, Forbes was valuing the average NBA franchise at $509 million while rating the Knicks and Lakers as the first teams to be worth at least $1 billion. "The increase,'' Forbes explained, "is due to higher revenue from television, new and renovated arenas, and the NBA's new collective-bargaining agreement, which reduced player costs from 57% of revenues to roughly 50%.''
See? That's what the lockout was for.
[The 10 highest-paid NBA players]
? Suns promote Lindsey Hunter to head coach. The 42-year-old retired guard had joined the Suns this season as a player development coordinator. He was elevated to replace Alvin Gentry -- who departed last week -- after the team had interviewed its assistant coaches in order to find the best candidate. The Suns bypassed 14-year NBA assistant Elston Turner, who has long been viewed as a future head coach, and Dan Majerle, a former Suns star and Phoenix assistant since 2008. Majerle refused to coach under Hunter, while Turner's future remained uncertain as he skipped the team's practices as well as Hunter's debut Wednesday at Sacramento.
"They talk about integrity," Majerle told USA Today Sports. "To skip over two qualified people didn't make sense. They chose Lindsey, a guy not even on the coaching staff and who they told us was only there to help us. I think they had their minds made up already before the interviews. I was going to lay low and not comment but I heard people from the organization get on the radio and say I would've been the popular and easy thing to do and that's a slap in the face. ... I earned it. I deserved a shot if it's not going to be Elston. I coached five and a half years. I coached the summer leagues. I didn't need a favor.''go
Suns GM Lance Blanks phoned Majerle 45 minutes before practice Sunday to say they were going in another direction, according to Majerle.
"He wouldn't tell me who got it and said, 'I'd rather excuse myself from that conversation,' " said Majerle, who insisted he would have remained on staff if Turner had been promoted to head coach. "It was a kick to the stomach when I got passed over. I heard that they wanted discipline and accountability and that's what I've been all about since I was a player. Everyone in that organization knows that. There'd be no doubt that I'd hold players accountable."
Blanks indicated he hired Hunter because the team needed "a jolt'' after the 13-28 start that cost Gentry his job. Hunter intends to tighten the defense while changing the offensive system to include more use of Luis Scola closer to the basket. Scola responded with 21 points in the Suns' comeback win at Sacramento, while Michael Beasley added 19. By handling the transition so clumsily, however, the Suns have heaped extra pressure on Hunter to show results with a roster that is in transition and lacking in firepower. The Suns' next seven games are against the Clippers, Spurs, Mavericks (twice), Lakers, Warriors and Grizzlies.
? Players' union faces the mirror. His fellow players tried to fire union president Derek Fisher last year when he sought an external and objective review of the players' association. A report of the nine-month investigation, released last week, accused executive director Billy Hunter of nepotism and other misdeeds that "paid little attention to the appearance of impropriety." Hunter knowingly pushed through his $3 million salary in 2010 without proper approval from the union, which means that the union should feel no obligation to keep paying him, according to the report.
"While I strongly disagree with some of the findings contained in the report,'' Hunter replied in a statement, "I am pleased it recognized that I have not engaged in criminal acts nor was I involved in misappropriation of union funds.''
The players appeared to want no part of this report when they moved against Fisher. Now that the truths of their leadership have been laid bare, to what extent will they take responsibility for their union? Either the players or the owners may opt out of the collective bargaining agreement after the 2016-17 season, so they need to decide sooner than later whether Hunter, 70, should continue to lead them, or whether they need to embark on a new path.
? Grizzlies make a move. Instead of trading Rudy Gay or Zach Randolph, the Grizzlies' new ownership slipped under the luxury-tax threshhold by sending Marreese Speights, Wayne Ellington, Josh Selby and a protected first-round pick in 2015 to Cleveland for Jon Leuer. The deal enabled Memphis to hold on to its top eight players (in terms of minutes per game) as the franchise aims to contend for the conference finals and beyond. It was actually a promising outcome, as new owner Robert Pera would have been sending a bad first impression to his fans by undermining their postseason hopes to avoid the tax just three months into his tenure.
There are going to be many more moves like this one throughout the NBA as the impact of the harsher luxury tax kicks in next season. A small-market franchise like the Grizzlies may need to make more cost-cutting moves in future years, but for now they were able to keep their hopes intact.
? John Hammond extended as Bucks GM. Hammond, who was voted the NBA's top executive in 2009-10, received an extension through 2015-16. His young Bucks rank No. 7 in the East and have gone 6-2 under interim coach Jim Boylan since Jan. 9, when he replaced Scott Skiles. The Bucks will be facing difficult decisions this summer as their productive starting guards, Brandon Jennings (restricted) and Monta Ellis (unrestricted), will be eligible for free agency.
? Matt Dobek honored. The Pistons named the Matt Dobek Press Room after their public relations director and VP of almost 30 years. Dobek, who was 51 when he died in 2010, is an NBA legend who was exceedingly devoted to the Pistons. People like to say this too often when they don't really mean it, but it is sincere in Matt's case: He is missed.
Get To Know: Marcin Gortat
The 6-11 center is averaging 11.6 points and 8.9 rebounds for the tumultuous Suns. Gortat, 28, is in his sixth NBA season after growing up in Poland.
? His father, Janusz Gortat, was a bronze medalist light-heavyweight boxer for Poland at the 1972 and 1976 Olympics. Janusz lost to future heavyweight champion Leon Spinks in the semifinal of the '76 Olympics.
"He was a tough one," Martin said of his father. "He knew how to punch, so he was just waiting for his opportunity. He was always in great shape physically. That was his biggest strength and that's how he won most of his fights.
"I learned some of it, obviously. It's not my main sport but I went to a few boxing camps, and I did a few practices and I hung out with a lot of boxers. I was always the biggest, the tallest one in my group, so everybody expect from me that I was going to be the bully to protect anybody and, just in case there was going to be a fight, that I'm going to fight. Because I was tall, guys like 25 years old were trying to beat my a-- when I was 15.
"You know what, if you want to get in trouble, you're going to get in trouble. I wasn't that guy who was doing a lot of crazy things. I never have problems with police. My main focus was always in sports. Practice for me was like going to church. I was practicing a lot and that was the way I escaped from a lot of the street stuff.
Gortat was a soccer goalkeeper from age 10 to 17.
"It was a huge journey for me," he said. "It was a great experience, and because of that I learned my footwork, to get a hit, to land on the ground and stuff like that. It helped me with my hands for the touch and for the feel. There are a few goalies that were really tall and really good -- like Dida from Brazil, he was [6-5].''
His favorite goalkeeper was 6-3 Peter Schmeichel of Denmark, who starred for Manchester United from 1991-99.
"I have all kinds of stuff from him, like his gloves, his shirts -- I knew everything about him," Gortat said. "It was this past summer when we had the European [soccer] championship in Poland and when I was passing by I see Peter Schmeichel, and I'm like, Oh, my God, the dream of my life is just standing right in front of me. And I took a picture with him. I told him the whole story and now I'm an NBA player, but back then I was a goalie and he was my favorite goalie and I wanted to be just like him.
"Of course he doesn't know who I am. A lot of people don't know me. But when you have that opportunity to see your idol, I was like a little kid -- I've got to get a picture with this guy. And my friends tell me like, Oh, it's going to look crazy when you go to get a picture. I'm like, I don't care. I want to have a picture with him. That's my guy. Back in the day I was just dreaming about playing for Manchester United.
"I'm going to frame that picture. If I have the opportunity to get a signature from him, it's going to be great.''
? He was a 6-9 goalkeeper when he turned to basketball as a 17-year-old.
"We had a basketball team at the same club," he said. "Basically the club owned my rights, so I just changed the discipline from soccer to basketball. All of a sudden I just started watching basketball, and passion for basketball got inside my head and from that day I lived my dream of playing basketball and playing at a high level.
"I had a great preparation -- I had great footwork, great hands. So it was just a question of how much it was going to take me to learn moves and shooting and basically the game of basketball.
"I stayed in this club for one more year and then I went to Germany. I was 19. I went to the different country where I had to learn to speak the different language, and I had to learn how to make my own food, take care of myself and stuff like that. So I had a pretty good school -- the school of surviving.
"It would be different if it will be in England or in the States, because I was able to speak English a little bit. But in Germany nobody really speaks English, and German language is hard as hell. And the mentality of German people is way, way different than the United States. So it wasn't easy for me, but I made it.
"It was fun also playing over there. I have great memories. I met a lot of great people on my road to the NBA, a lot of great people that helped me, and I'm still in touch with them right now.''
? He was 23 when he joined the Magic as a backup to Dwight Howard in 2007-08. Orlando had traded for his rights as the No. 57 pick in the 2005 draft.
"I didn't know what to expect," Gortat said. "A lot of people told me, 'Go to the NBA, you're going to like it.' You're playing 82 games, you're practicing hard every day, and I'm thinking, What part should I like here? I mean, this is a really damn hard work, you know?
"But I was in a great, great system, great organization. Stan Van Gundy taught me a lot and [his assistant] Brendan Malone, these two guys probably gave me the whole knowledge about basketball, and they were like fathers to me. I'm still in touch with [both coaches]. I hope one day they're going to come back to coaching.''
He was confident of becoming a starter after the Magic traded him to Phoenix in December 2010.
"I knew I was coming from the good system, from the great team," Gortat said, "and I knew what it takes to be a starter, what it takes to be a good teammate and what it takes to win. When I made it here, it was just a question of time of when I'm going to make the starting job, and I fought for it. I worked for it.
"I would like to win a championship one day. Obviously, being in the system we are right now, it might be a long-term goal. But one day I'd like to win the championship, and one day I'd like to make a statement here that I'm one of the best big men in the league. I have to step out every night and fight for my respect, keep proving that I'm better and better every day. I want to be the best Polish guy who ever played basketball.''
Quote Of The Week
"I've got to either find the right combination or the right guys, or we're going to get some guys out of here."
-- Celtics coach Doc Rivers
Rivers made that threat after a loss at Detroit on Sunday that dropped his team to 20-20. An ensuing 95-90 defeat Tuesday at Cleveland left Boston with a losing record midway through the seventh season of the Kevin Garnett era.
"Realistically, I don't see major changes coming," Celtics president Danny Ainge told the Boston Herald.
The Celtics have little to trade. They haven't been able to raise the value of Jason Terry, Jeff Green, Brandon Bass or Courtney Lee. Avery Bradley and rookie Jared Sullinger are assets, but they're on cheap rookie deals that would force them to be paired in trades with a teammate who -- for this season at least -- hasn't fulfilled expectations.
And yet, Ainge's comment will not have been soothing to the Celtics' locker room. For a Boston player to hear Ainge publicly predict there will be no trade, it is much the same as a losing coach hearing the dreaded vote of confidence from his owner -- it probably doesn't reflect the truth in full. Rivers' threat carries enormous weight because Ainge has been known to pursue acquisitions under all circumstances throughout his previous nine seasons with Boston. The Celtics have been an expensive and underachieving group this year, and the only player who should be considered untouchable is Garnett.
Ainge, for his part, should be expected to discern the value of every player on the roster -- including his most valuable asset, Rajon Rondo. As difficult as it would be for ownership to agree to a deal for Rondo, the Celtics need to find out how much each of their players is worth and whether there is a better way forward.
Scout's Take: Memphis Grizzlies
An NBA advance scout looks at the Grizzlies after their tax-evading trade with Cleveland on Tuesday. The scout didn't view the Grizzlies -- who are 13-11 since a 14-3 start -- as capable of reaching the NBA Finals before they relinquished talent in the deal.
"They could get into the Western finals and push the team that makes it to the NBA Finals," the scout said. "I'd put Oklahoma City, the Clippers and San Antonio above them. After those three, it's Memphis and Golden State and Denver. I think Denver is probably on par with Memphis.
"Memphis' front line of Rudy Gay, Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol is as good as anybody's. And I really like the way Mike Conley is coming on. He's a good shooter, and I like him as far as attacking, finding the seams, dropping the ball off and pushing the tempo. He's good in the open floor. He's a complete point guard.
"Going through Gasol has to be the main component for them to be successful. If defenses have to be concerned about Gasol, that's when Randolph comes up big. I think Randolph has figured out that the way to be most successful is when the ball is going through Gasol, because they can play through Gasol and the ball moves.
"What they did early in the year was push the tempo, and when they did go into the half court, they were playing through Gasol. But they got away from that a little bit, and it looked as if some of their other guys felt they needed to get theirs.
"Perimeter shooting is always the problem for them. As good as Gay is, he's sporadic out there. Their shooting and their depth have been nothing to speak of, and this trade is going to make both of those areas worse."
My All-Star Teams
It is startling, while picking through these teams, how many more qualified stars are playing in the West than in the East. The West is the more talented conference by far. (A reminder that "F'' denotes "Frontcourt'' players -- forwards and centers.)
F LeBron James, Heat
F Carmelo Anthony, Knicks
F Joakim Noah, Bulls
G Rajon Rondo, Celtics
G Dwyane Wade, Heat
F Chris Bosh, Heat
F Brook Lopez, Nets
F Paul George, Pacers
F Josh Smith, Hawks
F Luol Deng, Bulls
G Jrue Holiday, 76ers
G Kyrie Irving, Cavaliers
F Kevin Durant, Thunder
F Tim Duncan, Spurs
F David Lee, Warriors
G Kobe Bryant, Lakers
G Chris Paul, Clippers
F LaMarcus Aldridge, Blazers
F Blake Griffin, Clippers
F Zach Randolph, Grizzlies
G Russell Westbrook, Thunder
G James Harden, Rockets
G Tony Parker, Spurs
G Stephen Curry, Warriors