By Ian Thomsen
March 14, 2013

BOSTON -- Sebastian Telfair was a bigger star in high school than he is today. And yet he is a better player now than he ever was back then. The paradox makes sense to him at last.

He is 27 years old and coming off the bench for the Raptors, his seventh team in nine NBA seasons. His point of view today is both surprising and encouraging. Telfair, the sensational AAU point guard from Brooklyn, N.Y., had been the subject of a documentary, a book and a Sports Illustrated cover story while he was in high school. He signed a sneaker contract with Adidas, which he now says was worth about $10 million over five years, before he was picked No. 13 in the 2004 draft by Portland. As he looks back now, it was the shoe money that made him feel as if he'd made it -- long before he knew the first thing about actually making it.

"If I could change one thing, I would take that sneaker deal back," says Telfair, a cousin of Stephon Marbury's. "It put you in some kind of comfort."

On Wednesday, Telfair was back in Boston, where he played in 2006-07. He had been traded after two seasons with the Trail Blazers, who had wanted him to be their franchise leader before dealing him to Boston for the first-round pick that would become Brandon Roy. It was the season before the Celtics won the championship, though at that time the imminent trades for Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett were impossible to predict. The young Celtics lost 18 games in a row and appeared -- as Telfair saw it, at least -- to be focused on landing Kevin Durant or Greg Oden in the upcoming draft.

"They were trying to get that pick," Telfair says. "I was just playing basketball. I wasn't thinking about another contract, I wasn't thinking about any of that stuff. And I think I should have been, as far as the game being a business."

If he had been focused on the business of the game, then his career might have followed a different path.

"Certain mistakes I made, I wouldn't have made because I would have been thinking about ruining the goals I would have set for myself -- such as getting another contract, being a starter, becoming an All-Star, all that kind of stuff," Telfair says. "Some of the other guys were thinking that way."

The other young Celtics included Al Jefferson and Tony Allen. Telfair was competing at point guard against rookie Rajon Rondo and Delonte West, who was in his third year.

"I had my Adidas deal, which kind of put me out of the box of the young guys," he says of Rondo and West. "What I have is what they're trying to get.

"Boston was a tough year for me. That year I was just all over the place. I'm running around, trying to get my mom a house. I'm in the streets doing too much, rather than just sitting back, just trying to take it in. That's what I do now. I just take it in, understand what I got going good for myself, cherish it, versus worrying about what you don't have or things like that.

"I can't even recall what a 19-year-old does. I was playing on the edge a little bit as far as running around on the streets. I just know at that time I should have been thinking different than what I was."

In 2006, the Blazers fined Telfair after he left a loaded gun on the team's plane. One year later, at the end of his season with the Celtics, he was arrested on a gun possession charge in the early morning after he was pulled over for speeding on a suspended license. Wyc Grousbeck, the Celtics' managing partner, removed Telfair's nameplate from his locker and all but promised that the team would cut ties with him. Telfair admits that he couldn't begin to understand the mistake he had made.

"I was stupid," he says. "I was thinking, I'm not trying to hurt nobody, I'm not going to kill nobody, rob no bank ... you don't understand what you're doing wrong, and as a basketball player, certain things are just not accepted. Certain things society is not going to accept from a basketball player. So if you can't take that, you can't be a pro. I really haven't had any trouble with the law, and then I got in that situation. And it put me in a bad situation. It took a lot for me to dig myself out of that."

Why did he have the gun?

"For no particular reason or particular situation," he says. "Just having it, being dumb. ... If I was thinking about, I want to make sure I'm getting a contract and be an All-Star, [then] for no reason would I have a weapon, at no point in time."

Did the arrest have a meaningful impact on his life?

"I learned a lot from it, but I could have done without it," he says. "I didn't get much out of that, other than playing for a lot less money than I should have, and ending up not getting in better situations as far as teams that would want you.

"It follows me around. I kind of ruined my career with that. It was a bad move all around. But I don't beat myself up about it too much. If I was beating myself up about it too much, I wouldn't be sitting here right now."

At the same time, the alternative universe is impossible to ignore.

"I look at situations like that," Telfair says as he thinks about not having the gun, and not behaving as if he'd achieved success already. "And maybe it's Rondo that goes in that trade instead of me. And I would have had a chance to play with Paul [Pierce], Ray Allen, and KG. I look at situations like that also."

Three months after the arrest, he was traded to Minnesota in the package that brought Garnett to the Celtics. From there, Telfair was moved to the Clippers, then on to the Cavaliers and back to Minnesota. It was as if he was running in place. All the while he watched Rondo win a championship with the Celtics and then lead them to another NBA Finals, becoming an All-Star and establishing himself as one of the best young players in the league. Rondo became everything Telfair was supposed to be.

"You have to have trust with the guys on your team and they have to know that you're being professional," he says. "They know you're a guy that, off the court, is not taking care of himself. They're looking at you like that. You have to carry yourself the right way off the court. I wasn't doing that, and having all the young guys and we're all trying to make it, they're letting another guy hang himself while they aren't saying anything. Especially because I had that Adidas money. That's how they were looking at it, [like] I already had the car they wanted."

It is startling to hear Telfair acknowledge his "personal failures," as he refers to them, in a way that reverses the stereotype of the AAU star who thinks he has all the answers before he has heard the questions. He has averaged a scant 13.2 minutes in five games since being traded to the Raptors at the deadline last month, but Telfair hopes to re-sign with them as a free agent this summer, regardless of whether he would start or come off the bench. He wants to be part of a young, rising team that can put him in the playoffs for the first time. He wants to be part of something bigger than himself.

"He's been super with us," Toronto coach Dwane Casey says. "He knows his niche in the NBA is probably going to be as a big-time backup. He sees the floor and knows the game, and a big-time quality he has is on the defensive end. He really defends, he's got toughness, he's a pro's pro. He's been everything we look for in that backup position."

Telfair laughs when complimented for his defense. "That definitely wasn't part of my rep," he says, and he wonders how his career might have played out if he could have been introduced to a winning team of experienced players at the beginning of his career. Instead, he went to Portland, which hoped to rebuild around his potential.

"When you're on a veteran team, it's not about you," he says. "It's about being a good teammate, winning games. When you're on a young team, you tend to lose games, so you tend to be a little more selfish and try to get what's yours, and the pressure is just different."

He lost his swagger while playing off the end of the bench in his rookie year.

"It changed my mindset a little bit, versus coming in and playing with confidence and having a little edge to yourself, being a little cocky, which is what you have to be in this league if you want to be competitive at a high level," Telfair says. "People were saying, Oh, maybe he's not as good as we said, and all that kind of stuff. That plays a role in how you think, the mental part of the game."

Back then, he was unable to realize how much he didn't know.

"I had to learn the game," he says. "When I started, I didn't know how to play the game, meaning coming from New York and Lincoln High School. They really don't teach you how to play basketball, especially in a public school. When I got to Portland, I was playing with Zach Randolph. It was a big man's league and I didn't understand how to play with those guys, as far as getting those guys the ball, and that other guys can do what you can do. I'm from New York where point guards -- we dominate the game, and I [thought I] was the only one who could do that. It took me some years to understand."

Now that he has adapted by learning how to complement the big men -- "He's an old-school point guard," Casey says -- the league has shifted its priorities. "It's a point guard league now," says Telfair, laughing. "It switched over."

Throughout his career it has been as if he was playing off the wrong foot -- too young to be the star he was supposed to be. At 6 feet, he needed to become a better shooter, and over these last three seasons he has converted a respectable 34.3 percent of his three-pointers.

"I wanted to get a simple situation where I'm a part of a team, I'm helping them win every night," he says. "I just wanted to be part of a team that achieves something."

That's why he signed with the Suns to be Steve Nash's backup for $1.5 million last season.

"Getting an opportunity to be around him, seeing how he prepares for the games, seeing how serious you have to take it -- I think last year for the first time I was being consistent on how I prepare for the games," Telfair says. "My approach changed last season. Last year was my first time in the NBA when I wasn't on a rebuilding team or a young team."

Telfair was ejected in the third quarter Wednesday after earning two technicals in the Raptors' 112-88 loss to his former team.

"It's hard to win in this league," he says. "I've taken a lot of losses; I'm not accustomed to losing. I still get mad when we lose. My main thing right now, I just want to play for the gold."

He was referring to the medal as opposed to the money. Telfair clings to advice he took from Boston coach Doc Rivers.

"One of the reasons why I'm still in this league today is that he said, 'Don't make excuses. Stop making excuses,' " Telfair says. "I did stop making excuses for myself, and I continued working."

Rivers remembers the conversation. "I was on him hard," he says. "I told him he's too talented to make excuses. Just own up to everything and play. I told him he should have a long, long career. He may not be a star, but you can have a long career in this league, and it's good to see that he's doing it."

Rivers was reminded of Telfair's rival when they were the top national stars in high school.

"You think about Sebastian and -- what's the guy's name? -- Darius Washington [Jr.]," Rivers says. "When they were seniors in high school, they were celebrated like superstars. I think that's hard for kids. And then you go to be pros, and you're looking at yourself as you want to be a superstar. And what you're probably going to be is a role player. But it's hard for you to buy into -- everybody's telling you you're a role player. So I think it takes years for that."

Washington turned pro after two college years at Memphis. He went undrafted in 2006 and has spent his career in Europe.

Telfair hasn't given up on becoming a star. Chauncey Billups languished for years.

"Chris Paul is one of my favorite players," he says. "I like his feistiness, and I would say he's at the top of the point guard list. There's nothing that he can do that I can't do."

The dream hasn't ended, even as the false promises have been killed off. From this point forth, Telfair is going to earn everything he receives. It's more inspiring this way.

The Headlines

? Miami wins 20 straight. The Heat became the fourth team to win that many games in a row with a 98-94 victory Wednesday at Philadelphia.

"Let's be honest, guys, we're not sitting here and saying this is not something special," LeBron James told reporters earlier in the week. "This is an unbelievable streak that we're on. We're playing great basketball. We win in different phases of the game. We're playing different styles. We've won every game, on the road, at home. Double overtime games. End-of-regulation games. Whatever the case may be, we've been able to pull games out. So I'm not going to sit here and say that it's not special what we're doing. But at the same time, we don't want to get caught up into it too much and not seize the moment that we're in each and every night."

[GALLERY: Longest winning streaks in NBA history]

They needed a crucial tip-in by Dwyane Wade with 29 seconds left to hold off the lottery-bound 76ers. Even though upcoming road games Friday at Milwaukee and Monday at Boston promise to be even more difficult, it is now reasonable to point out that the Heat could break the 1972-73 Lakers' record of 33 straight wins on April 9 when the Bucks visit Miami.

The most interesting part of this streak is that everyone around the Heat insists they still have room to improve. It has to be true: We aren't going to see their best until they're faced with a big playoff game they have to win. A potential Finals rematch against Oklahoma City would provide the hardest test, but it's become more difficult than ever to imagine that this Miami team in good health will fail to defend its championship in June.

? Kobe Bryant is sidelined indefinitely. He suffered a severely sprained left ankle while attempting a fall-away jumper on the Lakers' final possession of their 96-92 loss Wednesday at Atlanta. He lay in a heap on the baseline as teammates gathered around him. Later he accused the 32-year-old Dahntay Jones of dirty play for sliding a foot underneath as Bryant was coming down.

'"I think officials really need to protect shooters," Bryant said while complaining that a foul should have been called. "I can't get my mind past the fact that I got to wait a year to get revenge."

"Tape doesn't lie. Ankle was turned on the floor after the leg kick out that knocked him off balance. I would never try to hurt the man," Jones tweeted in response. "I have the utmost respect for @kobebryant I would never try to intentionally hurt him. Just wanted to contest the fadeaway #thatsall"

Earlier in the day, Bryant had jinxed himself by talking about staying healthy as he approaches the end of his career -- which could happen as early as next season when his contract expires.

"The end of that cliff comes really, really quickly, and that's why I'm so obsessed with trying to take care of my body and eat the right things as much as possible, because you know how careers end," he told The Dan Patrick Show. "Most of the time it's a pulled hamstring here that never really recovers or it's an ankle sprain here that never really recovers. Then all of a sudden you're stuck in the mud for the rest of your career. Then it's a downward spiral from there, and I'm trying to avoid that."

The Lakers cannot afford that spiral from their best player. They had won nine of their last 11 to move past Utah and into the No. 8 playoff spot in the West. But the Jazz hold the tiebreaker over the Lakers, and the main reason Los Angeles had climbed above .500 was because Bryant -- its one star to avoid injury -- had been willing them to comeback victories. "I'll just do what I have to do," he said.

? Knee injuries in New York. Carmelo Anthony was headed back to New York on Thursday to undergo a draining of his painful right knee after missing the last 22 minutes of his return to Denver on Wednesday. It was Anthony's first game there since he forced the Nuggets to trade him two years ago, and the home team won 117-94 as the Knicks continued to collapse under their own weight.

Anthony (3-of-12 for nine points vs. Denver) has now gone 7-for-26 in the Knicks' two blowout losses to start their five-game Western trip. Anthony appears unlikely to play in the remaining three games through the upcoming weekend.

Tyson Chandler played 18 minutes before appearing to suffer a knee injury in the second quarter at Denver. The Knicks said he had suffered a bruised knee, and Chandler said he won't need an MRI. Amar'e Stoudemire, however, will undergo knee surgery that is expected to sideline him for six weeks.

The Knicks have gone 20-19 over the last three months, and the knee problems of their top two offensive stars could cost them home-court advantage. The No. 4 Nets are 1½ games behind New York, while the Bulls, Celtics and Hawks are all within four games. The Knicks' problems offer another strong signal that this is Miami's year to repeat. Every potential rival in the East has suffered a major injury to a star or fired its coach. While a team like the Knicks is fighting to overcome its own issues, the Heat are breezing into playoff form on their franchise-record winning streak.

? Dwight Howard returns to Orlando. The Lakers beat the Magic on Tuesday behind 39 points and 16 rebounds from Howard, who made 25 of his record-tying 39 free-throw attempts. "I was happy I was able to face my fears at the free-throw line and knock 'em down," he said. "You saw me mature as a player and as a person."

One night later, Howard was limited to 10 points (on only nine shots) and 16 rebounds before watching Bryant (who attempted 31) suffer his injury. Howard's maturity is going to be tested over the month ahead. While Bryant is recovering, the Lakers are going to need Howard to carry them if they're going to make the playoffs.

? Kyrie Irving out for the rest of the season? The Cavaliers' star was expected to miss three to four weeks with a sprained left shoulder. If he doesn't return to play this year, the 20-year-old point guard will have missed 48 games over his first two years. He also was unable to play in 26 of Duke's 37 games in his one year in college. Injury appears to be the only source of concern for a point guard who may challenge to become the best in the NBA.

Get To Know Ryan Anderson

The 6-foot-10 power forward is averaging a career-best 16.7 points in his first season with the Hornets while making twice as many threes as any of his teammates. Anderson, 24, won the Most Improved Player award last season with Orlando.

? He was the basketball pioneer of his family in Sacramento.

"I always had a ball in my hand," he said. "My grandma got me one of those little adjustable basketball hoops, it was plastic, and I used to always be outside playing on that. It's something that I love to do, but we weren't a sports-oriented family at all. My parents encouraged me to go out and be a part of something outside of school. When they discovered I loved basketball, they always encouraged me to play, but I never grew up watching basketball games or sports games or anything like that.

"We were really a nature-oriented family. Going on hikes and white-water rafting and being outdoors was our favorite thing to do. For me, though, my buddies played, I got involved and started playing organized basketball when I was 8 years old. From there, I always loved sports, and my parents have been great and super encouraging.

"They were always very involved with it, even though they didn't know what was really going on, and my mom was always the team mom. So obviously she got really close bonds with my coaches and really trusted them. I've been fortunate to have some really great coaches that have had my best interests in mind. I love that my parents have never pushed me and forced me -- never talking in my ear after games, You should have done this or that.

"Once the game's done, we go and do something as a family, or we go do something that we enjoy, go to the movies, go have a nice meal. Basketball is a mental game, and in a great way they've shown me that I can play basketball and I can do my job, but when I go home, there are other things I'm passionate about. It gives me a good break every day when I come home from practice instead of stressing about basketball all day."

? Anderson displayed talent from a young age.

"I've always been a taller guy," he said, "and from that standpoint I got picked for pretty good local teams and played with the best local teams. Obviously I had some great coaches that really pushed me and encouraged me to do a whole lot more than just the typical big guy would do. They encouraged me to do a lot more, like shoot ... pretty much anything on the court.

"They didn't give me any limitation. Some guys, when you're young -- you're a big guy, you need to learn a hook shot, you need to work on post moves. And I did do that a lot, but at the same time I've never had a coach that has restricted me to only doing one thing, so that gave me a lot of confidence. I'd say I always had talent, but I'd never been acknowledged around the country until maybe my junior year in high school."

That year Anderson led Oak Ridge High School (Calif.) to the Division II California state championship. In the opening round he outscored Colin Kaepernick (the 49ers' future Super Bowl quarterback) 50-34, and then in the final Anderson's team upset Mater Dei.

"We were by far the underdogs, and it was one of those storybook moments," Anderson said. "That was one of the most exciting times of my life. We were all so close and to beat a team that had all these Division I college players -- we didn't have any guys with basketball scholarships at that point, and we went out there and we played hard. And it was at ARCO Arena, just a legendary arena for us in Sacramento, so many great memories.

"After we won the state championship, during an AAU circuit in summertime I had some great games and played against some really talented guys and proved that I can compete. I didn't get invited to any of those ABCD kind of camps, but at USC camp, Tim Floyd offered me a scholarship the first day that I was there after seeing me compete and play. A lot of teams started to ask, Who is this guy? Why would Tim Floyd offer this random guy that nobody knows a scholarship? Some teams starting coming around, and more letters started coming in. It was really kind of a big couple of months for recruiting for me, and it was an awesome experience."

He played for two years at Cal, just two hours from home.

"I had a lot of confidence in my play," Anderson said. "I wasn't afraid to compete against anybody. I had a guy named Guss Armstead, who I still continue to train with in Sacramento. He works with a lot of pros overseas, but a lot of NBA guys, too. He gave me an opportunity to go out there and play with professionals my sophomore, junior and senior year at high school. And that really gave me a ton of confidence. It made it not as threatening to me, something that I can actually grasp, and doors have opened up for me.

I've never been in a position where I say, I don't think I can do this. God has been really good to open doors up for me. It's been just kind of a crazy ride from there. It's something I haven't turned back from."

? One year after being picked No. 18 in 2008 by the Nets, he was traded with Vince Carter to Orlando to be coached by Stan Van Gundy.

"Stan really taught me," Anderson said. "I had coaches growing up that gave me a ton of confidence -- very positive, we'll get it the next time. And Stan was the first coach I've ever had that basically would tell you everything you're doing is wrong. But the moment you actually did something right, or you worked your tail off, or you had a great practice, or you took a charge or made a hustle play, he was the first one to get up and give you a smack on the butt and be encouraging, and say, 'Good job.' He actually said, 'Good job' when I really deserved it, instead of all the time, and that was a wake-up call for me because it was hard.

"I came to that team as a young guy, and these veteran guys just came out of the [2009 NBA] Finals. I was, in a lot of ways, kind of a whipping boy. For the first time I had come from all of these positive atmospheres to this new team where every practice it's on me. I'm the guy that's making the mistakes, and he's correcting me on all this stuff and yelling at me. I later found out he was doing it because he liked me. He saw the potential I had and started to push me. He really caused me to play at a different level, and he got the best out of me. I'm very grateful for that experience in Orlando with Stan. He's a heck of a coach. As hard as it was at times the first year, I look back and I wouldn't want him to coach me any differently."

After earning the Most Improved award, Anderson moved to the Hornets in a sign-and-trade as the Magic were broken up amid Dwight Howard's exit.

"It's funny, playing on that team now [in Orlando], Jameer [Nelson] is the only guy I know on the court, and it's pretty unbelievable, in one year," Anderson said of Orlando's roster turnover. "That's why it's so encouraging to be on a team like this [in New Orleans]. We have had a tough season, and I've been through injuries, and we have a young group. We can make all the excuses in the world, but the bottom line is we're going somewhere and we're building for something. This isn't the year that we're saying let's make a playoff run and try to get to the Finals. But that's in the future for this group. It's really exciting. It's a huge blessing to be here.

"You ask me what's my goal here? My goal is to win. My goal is to do whatever I can to help this team win and kind of prove that we are this team that has this great potential."

Quote Of The Week

"Why jump B. Knight?!" -- Harrison Barnes after watching this Dunk of the Year candidate.

The Warriors' rookie forward tweeted that response after watching 6-foot-11 Clippers center DeAndre Jordan dunk on 6-3 Pistons guard Brandon Knight on Sunday.

I'm not criticizing Barnes so much as admitting to my own ignorance here. I don't understand why so many people are criticizing Knight or suggesting that he should not have tried to contest Jordan before the Clippers' center extended his entire wingspan to throw down the year's most outrageous dunk.

This is one of those things I don't think I'm ever going to understand. If it's the final minute in a tight Game 7 of the NBA Finals, and the ball is coming into the post to Jordan, is Knight not supposed to contest the play? All because Jordan might make him look silly?

I think there are a lot of people around the world who believe the defender who does NOT contest the play is the one who looks bad. Bad because he'd rather avoid shame as opposed to trying to make the right play.

Hawks guard Shelvin Mack also tweeted, "Why did he jump?????" His replies included this breakthrough of common sense from a @Real_OnTheRise1: "because in Detroit we don't back down to anything or anyone ... He tried to make a play."

That's how I look at it. The right thing to do, every time, whether it's the NBA Finals or a midseason game on a Sunday night, is to contest a play in the paint and maybe put Jordan (a 46 percent foul shooter) at the free-throw line. Am I wrong?

The more I hear people talking about Knight's "soul being obliterated" by the dunk, the more respect I have for him. It was an amazing, hilarious play, and Knight was absolutely overwhelmed by Jordan. But I also saw a player with integrity who wasn't afraid to try to make the right play.

The Breakdown

An NBA advance scout looks at the race for the Defensive Player of the Year award:

"If you're asking me, no single player can be called the Defensive Player of the Year," he said. "It's really a defensive team effort.

"Memphis has a very good team defense, and Tony Allen is a hell of a defender. Chicago has a great team effort defensively -- Luol Deng is very good, and so is Joakim Noah.

"You could say Kevin Garnett is the spearhead of Boston's defense. But then you also have to take into account that any defensive scheme relies on ball pressure. Without ball pressure, your scheme doesn't get in play. Without Avery Bradley, their team defense doesn't go anywhere.

"The Wizards are ranked high defensively because Randy Wittman is of the same cloth as Doc Rivers in terms of preaching team defense and preparation. I think they got rid of some of the pains in the neck there. JaVale McGee is a shot-blocker, but he wasn't a team defensive player. They've got some bigs that are tough. Trevor Booker, Chris Singleton, Nene -- they all play for each other. But I don't think there's one player on Washington that really is singled out.

"The Clippers with DeAndre Jordan are pretty imposing, and Eric Bledsoe is a very good defender. Chris Paul is more off the ball than on-ball, the way he looks for opportunities in the passing lanes. But Bledsoe is a nose-on-the-ball defender.

"I also like Al Horford in Atlanta as a solid post defender. Does he play out of position -- is he a power forward playing center? It's hard to tell. But he's a very solid player.

"If I have to pick a top three, I'm going to say: LeBron James, followed by Russell Westbrook and Paul George.

"Miami is good top to bottom defensively. LeBron is guarding point guards and he's guarding power forwards. He doesn't take plays off. Michael Jordan was the same way. Kobe Bryant was that way 10 years ago. Guys like them relish getting stops. They want to guard the best player. They want to go head-to-head. That's what LeBron does.

"At times, LeBron is their big man defensively. When he's playing the 4, he's out of position, but he does it. There will be time when he'll have to guard Zach Randolph and he isn't able to handle it. Against the traditional teams, LeBron is not a big, but he takes on the assignment anyway. Against a lot of other teams, he can get away with guarding the 'big' man.

"Miami pressures the ball, and they do some traps. Their strength is their versatility at 1 through 4 -- or 1 through 5 at times -- where they can switch and not get hurt in isolations. They switch and tilt or load the floor in order to lessen the hurt of the mismatch. They are very good at doing things at the right time in the shot clock. That's the kind of experience and knowledge they have, that they're going to fight you -- they're going to fight through screens and at the end of the shot clock they're going to switch because they know you're going to have to take a shot at the end of the clock. They know what they can get away with at those times in the game, in those flow situations.

"It's not like they have rules on defense so much as they have guidelines. They play so many different ways offensively and defensively -- LeBron handling the ball, guarding the ball; LeBron out on the floor, on the elbow, posting up guards, or playing like a big man at the top of the offense like a point center or point forward. Their biggest asset is their versatility and that starts with LeBron.

"I'm going with Paul George as my third choice because Indiana is such a strong defensive team that prepares well, and George is a hell of a defender with his length and athleticism. He's on the wing as one of the defenders that floods to the strong side, he's playing off his man when the ball is on the other side. You can just see him growing and anticipating things happening on the floor where things are clicking for him. He has great anticipation, and that's what Westbrook has, too.

"Westbrook gets in the passing lanes and he's so quick. Westbrook is a little bit more physical as a defender. He's bigger in a lot of his matchups -- and so are Paul George and LeBron. He can overpower people because he's very physical and he's got this toughness about him. He's at the point of the defense, at the very top.

"Everybody criticizes Westbrook, but he's pretty tough. He creates steals and deflections, and they score so much off that stuff. Their whole identity is defensive pressure and easy scores in transition. I look at their length with Kevin Durant and Thabo Sefolosha to go with their athleticism. You've got to guard the goal with a center, and then you've got to pressure the ball. It starts with ball pressure, and if you're going to pressure the ball, then you've got to have somebody guarding the goal because you're taking chances out front and you're not going to be able to stay on your man all of the time.

"Westbrook is the focal point of their defense, and to me he's a candidate more than Serge Ibaka. Their bigs -- Ibaka and Kendrick Perkins -- guard the goal, but I don't really think of Ibaka as a defender who is that strong in the low post. He is a great help defender, and he's quick at showing and recovering and all of the basic things you've got to do. He's long and he can make himself look big and that's imposing. But as a shot-blocker he sometimes takes himself out of position by going for the ball fakes and getting beat there. I wouldn't put him ahead of Westbrook.

"When you screw up in front of Westbrook, he makes you pay instantly because he's so quick and aggressive, and he's going to hammer it home and then be right back up in your face.

"All three of my choices are basically perimeter defenders. There are not as many low-post offensive threats as there used to be, so the defenders in the low post aren't as big a thing as they were in the past. You've now got centers shooting from the perimeter, so their defender has to go out there, too. When you put a 5 man in a pick-and-roll situation, some of them look out of place. It's more out on the perimeter now."

Non-Dwight Howard Team

Howard, like most NBA stars, moved from his original team and was forced to return home for an emotional reunion Tuesday. There are very few exceptions to this trend, and this team takes account of them. This team comprises the complete list of active players with at least nine years of NBA experience who have spent their entire careers with one team. Several of them are unlikely to extend their stay beyond the next couple of years. (Note that Kobe Bryant, Dirk Nowitzki, Jameer Nelson, Luol Deng and Anderson Varejao were traded on draft day.)


F Tim Duncan, Spurs (drafted No. 1 in 1997) F Dirk Nowitzki, Mavs (No. 9 in 1998) F Paul Pierce, Celtics (No. 10 in 1998) G Kobe Bryant, Lakers (No. 13 in 1996) G Tony Parker, Spurs (No. 28 in 2001)


C Anderson Varejao, Cavaliers (No. 30 in 2004) C Andris Biedrins, Warriors (No. 11 in 2004) F Luol Deng, Bulls (No. 7 in 2004) F Josh Smith, Hawks (No. 17 in 2004) F Udonis Haslem, Heat (undrafted in 2002, signed with Miami in 2003) F Nick Collison, Sonics/Thunder (No. 12 in 2003, began play in 2004) G Dwyane Wade, Heat (No. 5 in 2003) G Manu Ginobili, Spurs (No. 57 in 1999, began play in 2002) G Jameer Nelson, Magic (No. 20 in 2004)

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