The 76ers recently acknowledged that they don't expect to see Andrew Bynum providing a return on his $16.8 million salary until January at the earliest. The 7-foot center's dominance of the low post was supposed to transform Philadelphia into a tempo-controlling contender for the playoffs. Instead, his absence is turning point guard Jrue Holiday into a potential All-Star.
Holiday is leading the 4-4 Sixers with 18.3 points and 8.8 assists, the latter ranking him third in the league behind Rajon Rondo and Chris Paul.
"I can hang with the best of them -- I think I've shown and proved myself in that category,'' Holiday said. "Going up against Russell Westbrook, Derrick Rose, Rajon Rondo, I want to get to the level that they're at. I'm definitely testing myself and really just trying to prove myself."
Consider the deep list of upper-tier point guards that Holiday hopes to join someday (the ranking is mine and it's always changing):
1. Rajon Rondo
A point guard's play is often tied to his franchise's success. Nash, Paul and Williams have taken turns holding the unofficial title of best NBA point guard over recent years, and then Rose had his season as league MVP; now I rate Rondo as the best based on the huge numbers he has put up in the biggest games while leading the Celtics deeper than expected in recent postseasons. I'm in the minority on this one, but point guard is the one position that should be held to the same standard as the MVP. A point guard should be held accountable for wins and losses, and in that regard Rondo is setting the highest standard.
The problem for Holiday is the mistakes he's been making as the 76ers have heightened his role. He is averaging a league-worst 5.4 turnovers, but recognizes the harm they are causing.
"The only stat that I really look at is my turnovers," he said. "I think the team will go as my turnovers go."
At 6-3, Holiday is a "big" point guard in this era of perimeter quickness. He knows how to use his size to his advantage.
"I think my length will bother some shorter guys who are quicker -- a lot quicker -- than I am, because I can back off," he said, which is to say he can give space defensively and still contest jump shots. "Then there are guys who I think I'm just as quick as, and I can use my body and my strength to get into them."
He can see over the top, which helps him to gauge the entire floor.
"I'd like to be somebody like Deron Williams," Holiday said, "who is a bigger point guard that can handle the ball and go into the post, too."
Holiday didn't play the point in his single year at UCLA, deferring instead to Darren Collison (as did Westbrook, who shared the backcourt with Collison during the previous two years at UCLA). But Holiday has always had the instincts for the position.
"I've always been a pass-first kind of guy,'' he said, "so when [Sixers coach] Doug [Collins] told me I need to score more, that was more of a challenge than me being a point guard."
Holiday has enhanced those instincts by immersing himself in much the same way that quarterbacks study their position.
"He's willing to sit down and watch tape and see where things are,'' Collins said. "We've talked to him about how teams defend -- are they going to trap you, are they going to go up underneath the screens, are they going to send you baseline? These are the things to look for. But you don't want to program him and take away his feel. You want to say there are only two to three things they can do and when they do that this is how you can attack that and this is where your team is.
"We haven't shot the ball well,'' Collins went on. "We're thinking when those guys make shots with his ability to penetrate, he has a chance to be in the top five in assists this year.''
The Sixers drew Boston to Game 7 of the second round as a high-achieving small-ball team last year. That style was supposed to change this season, but as long as Bynum is sidelined, they'll have to cling to their old ways -- without Andre Iguodala and Lou Williams, who were the offensive leaders last season. It is asking a lot of Holiday to see them through these weeks of limbo, and it will be asking more of him to adapt the offense to Bynum when (or if) he should recover from knee soreness. Then again, that's what future All-Stars do.
The 6-8 small forward is averaging 13.9 points as a starter for the Jazz in his third season. Hayward, 22, is most famous for leading underdog Butler to a 61-59 NCAA championship loss to Duke in which Hayward missed two shots in the final seconds.
• He was going to quit basketball as a freshman at Brownsburg (Ind.) High School.
"We had 5:45 a.m. workouts before school and I was in the shower preparing the speech, because I was like 6-1, 140, and super skinny," Hayward said. "Basketball was always my love. I love that more than anything. But I was pretty good at tennis and I wanted to play a sport in college, and so I was trying to be realistic. So I was thinking I might give up basketball so I can concentrate on tennis and try to get good at that, because I didn't know how much more I was going to grow, and my parents were both 5-10. I was struggling in practice because I was a lot skinnier and smaller than those older guys.
"But then I got nervous and decided not to go through with it that morning. And then I came home and talked about it with my mom, and she was just like, 'If you love it, there's no point to giving it up. So you might as well just play anyway.' So that's what I did."
By his sophomore year he had grown to be 6-4, and he was 6-6 when colleges recruited him. He would play two seasons at Butler in Indianapolis, a half-hour from home.
• He hears all the time from fans about the half-court bank shot that caromed off the rim as time expired during the 2010 national championship game.
"If you want to talk about staying power, did you see the play in high school that I made?'' he said of his layup at the buzzer to win the 2008 state championship. "Same type of thing. Just follow the ball and put it in. In high school in Indiana, that's everything."
The final shot against Duke made Hayward and Butler famous nationally.
"I think if I would have hit the shot, it would probably be the same kind of famous -- but it would be more-good famous,'' he said, smiling. "Because right now people always say something about Butler -- it's always, 'I wish that shot would have gone in,' and all this stuff. And so instead of that, it would probably be, 'I can't believe you hit that shot, blah blah blah blah.' So it would probably be the same thing, but better.''
The more important shot was his baseline turnaround jumper that would have put Butler ahead by one point a few seconds earlier.
"Yeah, that's the one that back-rimmed, and I thought it was good," Hayward said. "Everyone talks about the half-court shot, but that was a
Like all good scorers, he has learned to not focus on the shots he has missed.
"I don't really think about it at all until someone brings it up," he said. "I know probably when I'm done playing basketball, I'll go back and remember that game a lot with those teammates, because those are some of my best friends and we hang out a lot during the offseason. But I try to put it behind me right now.
"As a scorer and shooter, you've got to move on to the next shot. I'm from Indiana and Reggie Miller was The Man, you know, and my dad said even Reggie Miller airballs and would have nights where he was 1-for-11 or 1-for-12. But he'd still step up and shoot that last one at the end of the game and knock it down. So you've just got to let those ones behind you go.''
Even so, it continues to surprise him how one basketball game can define a school across the country.
"It is pretty amazing," he said. "We went from nobody knowing us, to everybody knew what Butler was. As soon as you say Butler, they immediately talk about the Duke game. It's kind of cool, but it's also bittersweet for me, because I was so devastated about the loss. At the same time, it's good for the program."
• The goal for the next decade and beyond.
"I think I can be an All-Star in this league," Hayward said. "That's a goal, I've written that down, and I'm trying to take steps to get to that goal.''
But it's not his No. 1 goal. When he was 5 or 6 years old, Hayward famously listed his goals.
"The top of that list was to get to the NBA," he said. "So I had all the steps written down of different things that I wanted to do.''
When Utah drafted him ninth in 2010, Hayward put together a new list of goals.
"I wrote it when I got into the NBA," he said, "because my old list had expired, basically. I'd checked everything off. So it was time to write a new one.
"Win an NBA championship; that's my main goal. In a team sport, you get the accolades based on what your team does more than anything. You don't really ever see guys that are on losing teams get that many awards unless you're scoring 40 or 50 points a game. If your team does well, then all the individual stuff comes after that.''
He doesn't carry the new list with him.
"It's back home in Indiana," Hayward said. "The one I had when I was little was on my bulletin board. So it's the same thing with this one. My parents still have the same house and when I go home, if I don't get an apartment, then I just stay in my old room. And it's right there.''
"I did convey to them that I did have the confidence that I could do the job. I was awakened at midnight on Sunday by a phone call from Mitch Kupchak. He told me that the Lakers had signed Mike D'Antoni to a three-year agreement and that they felt he was the best coach for the team.''
This statement is going to hang over Jimmy Buss, Kupchak, D'Antoni, Kobe Bryant, Dwight Howard, Steve Nash, Pau Gasol and everyone else who will be trying to win a championship for the Lakers over the next seven months.
"The other thing that this organization has to keep in mind, is that if things don't work out really well here, and Dwight Howard's not happy, he's a free agent," Kurt Rambis, who would have been hired as a Lakers assistant by Jackson, told
If things are going badly for the team, if Howard and Nash are struggling to regain their health, if the Lakers are bleeding defensively or struggling to dominate offensively and the criticism is growing over their failure to hire Jackson, then what are the players going to do? Are they going to rally around D'Antoni, or are they going to pine for Jackson? Because Jackson isn't going anywhere. He is going to be living in his home a few miles from the practice facility, like Napoleon on the island of Elba, and there will be calls for the Lakers to bring him back regardless of the costs.
Until this team proves itself on its own terms, its potential to win one ring will be dwarfed by the 11 that Jackson has won. Jackson has established the terms for the Lakers' season, and isn't this strange: If Bryant is to win his sixth title, tying Michael Jordan, then he's going to have to effectively silence the coach whom he and Jordan shared.
"Defensively, I think the Knicks are going to be OK," the scout said. "For the most part, they've got the athletes on the wing to compete with San Antonio, though it's going to be a test for Raymond Felton to stay in front of Tony Parker. New York could very well go down there and get a big win. I look at the Spurs and see that people have been competing against them -- they've been winning games but they've been eke-out wins.
"I view the Spurs as a contender to win the West in the same way that the Celtics have a chance to win the East -- it all depends on them getting on a roll and being healthy at the end of the season. The Spurs need to figure out their 4-spot. Who's going to start there, and who is going to play big minutes off their bench at that position? They've got to play small sometimes because I don't know that they've got a lot of faith in DeJuan Blair. The Knicks come in with Carmelo Anthony playing a lot of 4, and I don't know how the Spurs are going to match up with him. At the other end, the Knicks have a big man in Tyson Chandler to defend Tim Duncan, and that's going to be a big bonus for New York.
"The biggest matchup advantage for San Antonio is going to be Parker against Felton. If Parker gets by him and he's making it all the way to the rim or making that little floater of his, then the Knicks will have a problem. Because if a second defender comes up against Parker, he has that ability to drop it off, and San Antonio has finishers around him. Tiago Splitter is getting better and better, but I don't see them playing Splitter and Duncan together that much -- though if they did pair them together against the Knicks, Carmelo might have to shift back to the 3, and that would be an equalizer as far as the Spurs are concerned.
"Right now, it's looking like the Knicks are going to be Miami's main challenger in the East. The Knicks have some momentum to go with a lot of firepower. A lot is going to depend on the health of Jason Kidd and their other old players, because they have a lot of guys who could easily be out for extended time with strains, aches and pains that are not even major injuries. It seems like they've got enough depth to put replacement people in there, but then you think about a guy like Rasheed Wallace. If they're forced to play Rasheed for 27 to 30 minutes, he could be one and done: He could come in and play well against Duncan, but then you probably couldn't count on him playing again for the next week.
"I have a feeling this is going to be more of a test for San Antonio than for New York. It's the next night that might cause the bigger problem for the Knicks -- they have to go home to play the Grizzlies on Friday, and their size might cause more problems for the Knicks than they'll see from San Antonio.''
The Lakers are reported to have hired D'Antoni in part to keep Howard from leaving as a free agent this summer. Here are the other most provocative unrestricted free agents to watch throughout this season: