"It's almost surreal," Jameer Nelson said of his career. At 31, he is six weeks older than his boss, Orlando general manager Rob Hennigan, who has remade the Magic in his own image. The team is young and filled with optimism.
Two seasons ago, Nelson and the Magic were entering the playoffs for the fifth straight year. He imagined they would be peaking around himself and Dwight Howard and coach Stan Van Gundy, who had led Orlando to the 2009 NBA Finals and back to the conference finals in the following year. But then Howard lost his focus and the bottom fell out on their future. The lesson going forward is that the process of team-building is highly fragile.
"As an individual you have to cherish moments, you have to be in the moment right then and there," Nelson said. "You can't look forward, you have to be in that moment because you don't know what's going to happen. I was told by Keyon Dooling when you're on a good team to really cherish it, because you don't know. You don't know if you're going to be a championship contender again. You don't know if you're going to win 55, 65 games again. The most important thing is to live in that moment."
Nelson is nine games into his 10th NBA season. He could shut his eyes back to the recent past and think about teammates like Rashard Lewis, Hedo Turkoglu and Vince Carter, all older and more accomplished than him. But he didn't want to live in that past. Surrounding him in the locker room were Nikola Vucevic and Maurice Harkless and rookie Victor Oladipo, all much younger than him.
"You think you have all the answers," Nelson said. "But in reality, you don't."
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He was saying that his age didn't automatically give him the advantage over his teammates. Experience helped him only if it taught him to keep learning, to keep focusing on where he was right now instead of where he had been or where the future might lead him.
"For instance, I trained with a 23-year-old this year," Nelson said of his workouts last summer. "He has some good things for me to do. A 23-year-old. I'm 31. I'm 10 years in the league, he's never played in the league. It's easy for me to say he doesn't know what he's talking about. But in reality, somebody's seeing it from a different angle, in a different way than what you're seeing. Of course he can help you."
The funny thing about his career was that he was supposed to be the franchise's vulnerable player. When Orlando picked him 20th in the 2004 draft, the point guard from St. Joseph's was viewed as a fringe starter at 6 feet with little upside.
"A lot of people said I couldn't get any better," he said. "I got criticized basically for staying four years in college."
The fallout of Howard's waffling demands resulted in the hiring of Hennigan, who in turn brought in coach Jacque Vaughn. Instead of dealing Howard for Andrew Bynum (which would have been the ruin of the franchise) or to Brooklyn in a package for Brook Lopez (whose 2-5 Nets are trailing the 4-5 Magic early in the East this season), Hennigan worked out a deal that looks smarter as time goes on. The Magic netted their leading scorers, Arron Afflalo and Vucevic, from that deal along with Harkless and more draft picks to come. It was the NBA's version of the old Herschel Walker deal that enabled the Dallas Cowboys to hasten their rebuilding on their way to multiple Super Bowls.
Another rebuilding trade sent J.J. Redick to the Bucks and brought back Tobias Harris and prospect Doron Lamb. The Magic's ensuing failure to win games enabled the No. 2 pick and Oladipo, whose focused energy promises to define Orlando's new era. There will be cap space with which to add established players over the next couple of years, and a rich owner willing to pay the luxury tax when that day comes.
And then there is Nelson, who isn't likely to be part of that future. When his teammates are peaking, Nelson will be approaching retirement. He will be a valuable player at the trade deadline in February because only $2 million of his contract for next season is guaranteed. He could provide short-term relief at point guard to a team that is trying to win now.
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Orlando's front office is not focused on winning now. But its coaches and players are focused on trying to win each game, and in a strange reality, their leader is Nelson, who knows he could be traded in the coming weeks.
"If they tell me they're going to trade me, what can I do?" he said. "My job is to play, no matter where it is. I would love to continue to play here in Orlando and finish my career here, and see this thing turned around. That's not up to me. My job is to play."
Some leaders are talkers. Others are flamboyant stars. And then there are those like Nelson, who do their jobs diligently regardless of the circumstances around them.
"They are the guys who make the tough decisions," Nelson said of Hennigan, his assistant Scott Perry and the other Magic executives. "One day maybe I can be in those shoes, and make those decisions."
He would like to be a GM?
"I feel like eventually I can be a guy in the front office or a coach or whatever I may want to be," Nelson said. "Just being around the game, and knowing the game."
Knowing how to live in the moment.
• Omer Asik requests a trade. As reported by the Houston Chronicle, the 27-year-old center asked to be moved to a team that can play him for more than the 20.7 minutes he has been averaging with the Rockets since they signed Howard. Asik didn't play in the Rockets' win at New York on Thursday. "I asked him, 'Are you ready to play?' " Houston coach Kevin McHale said. "And he said, 'I don't feel good.' "
If it turns out that Asik is backing off from the Rockets because of his role, then this will be damaging to his long-term reputation. It will be one of those blights that people will remember years from now.
• Issues of tweeting. Matt Barnes of the Clippers and J.R. Smith of the Knicks were both in trouble after controversial tweets. Smith's case was more interesting: He went at Detroit's Brandon Jennings for criticizing the existence of Chris Smith, J.R.'s brother, on the Knicks' roster.
• The Knicks' hiring of Chris Smith has been a story of some controversy this season. Keeping his brother on the payroll is clearly an investment in J.R. Smith, who is receiving a relatively cheap $18 million over the next three years. I'm not the biggest fan of Smith, but he is vital to the Knicks, who have tied up $57 million this season in three stars, only one of whom is able to score at a high level these days. Smith's current salary is a bargain when you consider what the previous Sixth Man winners were making in the year after their award: James Harden (whose next contract is paying him $13.7 million this year), Lamar Odom ($8.9 million), Jamal Crawford ($10.1 million), Jason Terry ($9.1 million), Manu Ginobili ($9.9 million).
If paying a little more than $2 million for Chris Smith to occupy the last spot on the roster helps J.R. Smith to 1) rationalize his salary and 2) keep himself focused, then it's probably not a bad signing. Of course, the whole thing backfires if Chris Smith's presence brings out the worst in his brother.
• Derrick Rose injured again. Coach Tom Thibodeau called it a "minor" hamstring injury, and Rose insisted he could play if necessary. But it wasn't necessary, despite the Bulls' middling 3-3 start. These opening months are an investment in Rose's long-term career and in the playoff run the Bulls will be making after the New Year.
• The Heat's so-so start. The Heat were 4-3 after their shocking loss at home to the Celtics last weekend. But they've had almost a full week of practice -- interrupted only by a 118-95 win at home against the Bucks that raised their record to 5-3 -- in which to refocus. They also have the experiences of two championships and three straight NBA Finals to draw on, along with the leadership of the game's greatest player. When LeBron James complains about their defense, it's no longer setting off alarms throughout the league. Everyone knows what the Heat are up against this year, and that they're going to underperform at times until the playoffs arrive.
• The Pacers' 8-0 start. They'll be rematched with the Heat Dec. 10 in Indiana, the scene of last season's conference finals that went to seven games. "They have that hunger that we don't have because we won last year,'' Chris Bosh told reporters this week. They also have Paul George maintaining a high level of leadership, a deep front line to attack Miami's weakness and the hope of Danny Granger's return. The Pacers' fast start is good for Granger: It will emphasize how much his role has changed since he was last healthy, and that he will be asked to fit in rather than to carry the team with his scoring.
• Steve Nash ailing. The Lakers' 39-year-old point guard is sidelined for at least two weeks by nerve root irritation. His back problems are not threatening imminent retirement, but they put further pressure on the Lakers to stay in the neighborhood of .500 until Kobe Bryant returns from Achilles surgery. Which isn't out of the question: The Lakers were 4-6 as they began a four-game homestand Friday.
• The Suns and other surprises. Phoenix was 5-3, the 76ers were 5-4 and the Celtics were 4-5 after all three rebuilding teams traded away talent in exchange for draft picks this offseason. The old-school approach to managing inferior talent was to play slow in order to limit the number of possessions, but the Suns, Sixers and Celtics were all turning that tactic upside-down by running as much as possible, and to make the game less about half-court execution and more about open-court athleticism. The good times aren't likely to last, because as the value of their players increases, more trades are likely to follow, in line with the larger rebuilding strategy of the franchise. But their starts have made the season interesting, especially while the Heat, Nets, Grizzlies and other contenders have struggled with inspiration.
The 6-11, 247-pound center is averaging 16.4 points and 7.6 rebounds in his first year as a starter and third year overall with the rebuilding Jazz.
1. He didn't grow up dreaming of becoming a basketball star. "I wanted to be an astronaut. I just liked space, it seemed so interesting to me. I told my family I wanted to be an astronaut."
Kanter was born in Switzerland and raised in Turkey. He didn't begin to play organized basketball until he was 14.
"My P.E. teacher told me to play basketball, and that's how I started. I was not that tall. I went to a practice first day, and then my second day in a game, I had 12 points and nine rebounds. When I set out, my goal was the NBA. I didn't really have a favorite player, but I watched [Karl] Malone, when he was in Utah, and I watched Hedo Turkoglu, too.
"I still want to go to space, though. I watched that last movie called -- what's the name? -- Gravity. I heard of some company taking you to space. We'll see."
2. At 17, he moved to Simi Valley, Calif., to play for Stoneridge Prep. "I wanted to learn a second language. My dad is a professor, and he wanted me to get an education and play basketball at the same time. It's almost not possible to do both in Turkey. You have to pick one -- study at school or (play) basketball. I wanted to do both. So that's why I came to America. I wanted to be a good NBA player, so I went to prep school in L.A., then I went to Kentucky."
The NCAA banned him from playing for Kentucky in 2010-11 because Kanter had been paid while playing for Fenerbahce Ulker as a 16-year-old.
"I was kind of expecting it. I was thinking I'm not going to play, so get ready for the draft. When I heard that I was permanently ineligible, I wasn't surprised because we had a lot of appeals, we had a lot of meetings. They said that I was a pro in Turkey. Pros cannot play in NCAA."
Rather than hold a grudge, Kanter looked at the situation pragmatically.
"Well, I played professionally when I was 16 years old."
3. His sense of timing was gone by the time he joined the Jazz as the No. 3 pick of the 2011 draft. "In high school, I didn't get to play that much either. So when the lockout was over, when the season started, I was feeling rusty. I hadn't played any game in a long time. The only thing I did was just practice, and in practice I was just going through the other team's offense. We weren't really doing anything. It hurt me."
He needed his entire rookie season to regain confidence.
"To get that feeling, to get everything back, I needed a year."
He was glad that Utah chose him.
"People are nice; city is really nice. It's a really good city just to focus on basketball. There aren't a lot of distractions, so we can just focus on basketball, and the Jazz are a really good organization.
"I'm focusing on just what I need to focus on, and trying to help the team win. That's all I know. It don't matter how many points or rebounds you get. When we lose, I played bad."
An NBA advance scout looks at the surprising Suns, who are 5-3 in what is supposed to be a rebuilding year:
"I am amazed and astounded by the Suns. Having no expectations always helps, and all of a sudden you get a number of players -- from Eric Bledsoe on -- that get to play. They've been waiting to play and itching to play, and now they get to play. There are no expectations and they play hard. Jeff Hornacek does a good job by not doing anything extravagant -- they're pushing the ball up the floor, they have two good guards, nobody is clogging the middle, the bigs can all shoot, they're keeping the floor spread and they're having fun.
"I was curious to see how Bledsoe would be when he had the keys to the car, as Mark Jackson likes to say. I don't think he's tried to do too much. He shoots a couple of threes to see if he's hot, but he's not so wrapped up in that that he's standing out on the perimeter. He creates a lot of stuff just with his defense and energy, and that rubs off on everybody else. Defensively he creates problems because he's fast enough and strong enough, and he seems to enjoy challenges when he's challenged. I'd like to see how he does against Brooklyn and Deron Williams, but he's had good showings in both of his games against Chris Paul.
"He has speed and explosion, kind of like Derrick Rose, though he's not the ball handler that Rose is and he can't create off the dribble like Rose does. Defensively he's different than Rose or Russell Westbrook. As his three-point shooting improves and he becomes more of a knockdown guy when his teammates drive and kick out to him, then he'll become pretty hard to guard. So much of what he does is created on his own from his defense and his attacking mentality with the ball. After a made basket, he'll push it up when the defense has its back turned like Deron Williams will do, and he'll get a layup or two that way.
"He benefits, too, by playing with Goran Dragic. Even though Dragic plays off the ball more when they play together, he's a better passer than Eric; he has more height and he's a better shooter. So those two together make a pretty formidable backcourt in a two-guard setup.
"I would think Hornacek would like to keep those two young guys together for a while. But it depends on if they're personally comfortable playing in their current roles. Dragic wanted to be the starting point guard; that's why he left [Phoenix] the first time. Now that he's not necessarily that anymore, is he comfortable playing with Bledsoe or does he want to run his own team? I don't know.
"Markieff Morris and his twin brother, Marcus, also benefit by playing together. Markieff was a little bit yappy in preseason, like he wanted to get into it with everybody; he had a scrap with LaMarcus Aldridge trying to establish himself. The way they're playing and not having to think a lot and do lot of different things is allowing Markieff to impact the game at both ends of the floor. Even though he's undersized a lot, he'll battle in the post.
"Markieff knows he's a face-up 4, where Marcus looks like he wants to be a 3 but in reality is also a face-up 4. Markieff was always a little more accepting of the role that can make him be more successful, so that has helped him.
"So they have both of those guys and then Channing Frye in the mix to give them three guys to space the floor and create better driving lanes for Bledsoe and Dragic. The paint is opened up and they're fun to watch.
"They're also better off without Marcin Gortat in the locker room and on the court. He's a drain. He's all about Gortat. From a psychological and basketball standpoint, he clogs the middle for those guys. He's also a so-so finisher. He runs the floor and gets to spots and he's big, and when he gets nine touches a game he looks pretty good, like he did as a backup in Orlando. But when he's getting 16-18 touches a game, then he's not as good. But he doesn't know that, and that's his biggest issue."
Quote of the Week
"We're going to win the next game, that's a guarantee."
-- James Dolan
The Knicks' owner treated game No. 7 of the NBA season -- a contest in which New York did win, 95-91 over Atlanta -- as if he were Joe Namath looking ahead to the Super Bowl.
This is not entirely a bad thing. How many NBA fans believe too many regular-season games are taken for granted? To see and hear of Dolan's behavior is to realize that he wants and expects to win every game.
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As a matter of perspective, however, Dolan is lacking. If it's true that he believes his Knicks should be competing for the championship, then he ought to take into account that there is nothing anyone can do to fix the chronic knee injuries of Amar'e Stoudemire, which -- in combination with the broken leg of Tyson Chandler -- have ruined the Knicks' chances of competing with healthier teams.
The reason the Knicks signed Stoudemire was because they were under so much pressure to provide an instant return on their cap space. Whose fault was that?
Important decisions will have to be made on restricted free agents next summer -- how much to pay them early in their careers, and whether to retain them or to let them leave by offer sheet. Here are the young players to watch over the course of this season:
C -- Greg Monroe, Pistons
F -- Ed Davis, Grizzlies
F -- Gordon Hayward, Jazz
G -- Evan Turner, 76ers
G -- Eric Bledsoe, Suns
F -- Patrick Patterson, Kings
F -- Lavoy Allen, 76ers
G -- Isaiah Thomas, Kings
G -- Greivis Vasquez, Kings
G -- Avery Bradley, Celtics
G -- Nando de Colo, Spurs
G -- Jordan Crawford, Celtics