Third-best in the East? That's a difficult question

Friday January 3rd, 2014

With Indiana and Miami operating at another level, there's no clear-cut No. 3 team in the East.
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The next showdown between the East's top two teams, the Heat and the Pacers, won't happen until March 26, which is to say that the interim 12 weeks of Eastern Conference basketball will be barren of significant competition. There will be games. Some of them even good. But what will they mean?

Unless disaster befalls the defending champs or their challengers that took them to a Game 7 in the conference finals last season, we know that the East will ultimately be decided by another meeting of Miami and Indiana. What we cannot say, incredibly, is that anyone else has established itself as the next-best team in this woebegone conference.

Which team deserves to be No. 3 in the East?

The 18-14 Hawks stand as the third-best at the moment, but the conference's epidemic of misfortune struck them recently when All-Star center Al Horford underwent season-ending surgery to repair a torn chest muscle. The Hawks have since earned a couple of tight wins thanks to 33 points (against Charlotte) and 34 (at Boston) from Paul Millsap, who is currently averaging a career-best 17.9 in his first year with Atlanta. Can Millsap, Jeff Teague, Kyle Korver and Lou Williams (coming off ACL surgery) lead Atlanta to a winning record over the next three-plus months?

Possibly. What we have here is a question of philosophy -- how many teams want to be No. 3 at this particular time in this top-heavy conference?

The Raptors currently sit first in the pathetic Atlantic at 15-15. Is it their goal to be No. 3 in spite of a mediocre record? They've already unloaded Andrea Bargnani and Rudy Gay, and Kyle Lowry is known to be available, too. New GM Masai Ujiri did not come to Toronto to celebrate a .500 season. If the Raptors are able to increase the value of their players in order to improve their roster on the open market, then there will be no fretting over the divisional title they might have been able to steal this year.

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This is a conference that is, with a few exceptions, under various stages of reconstruction. The Heat and Pacers have their plans and are sticking to them with confidence; everyone else is trying to make sense of the unexpected, whether it's the injuries that have set back the Bulls (Derrick Rose), Hawks and other playoff contenders, or the new collective bargaining agreement that has helped convince deep-pocketed franchises like the Celtics, 76ers and Raptors to cut back financially in order to rebuild for the long term, when their thick wads of cash can be spent more wisely, in pursuit of the championship goal that ultimately drives them.

And so the conference standings make little to no sense. Three of its four most expensive payrolls -- the Nets, Knicks and Bulls -- find themselves immersed in the lottery at the moment. The Bulls are trying to figure out what to do with free agent Luol Deng, the Knicks fear the departure of Carmelo Anthony, and the Nets are surprising accomplishes in their own victimization. Brook Lopez is out for the season with another fracture to his foot, Deron Williams is perpetually injured or struggling, no one else is performing well or seems to be taking responsibility, and all of it comes as a huge surprise.

Before the season a league GM told me that he was picking the Nets to reach the NBA Finals and possibly win the championship. My own opinion was that they would crumble physically, but not until the playoffs; I had no idea it would happen just after media day. It was easy to envision an instant rivalry developing between the Nets and the Heat, but when those teams meet next week in Brooklyn the game will be incidental. The Nets are going to be wearing gimmicky nickname jerseys that night and - fortunately for them - the nicknames will be flattering, as opposed to the nicknames fans would give to players of a broken-down roster that costs $189 million yet plays without structure, discipline or pride.

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The Nets have done a huge service to the rest of the league. They've shown that coaching really does matter -- that execution doesn't happen automatically, and that gritty behind-the-scenes work is indispensable. They've also made it clear that every team should be more cautious than ever before surrendering first-round picks in exchange for the kind of elderly, tax-heavy talent that has left the Nets with no hope for a quick turnaround. In 2015-16 the contracts of Lopez, Joe Johnson and Deron Williams alone will leave the Nets without cap space. This figures to be the first of many long winters in Brooklyn.

The reason the East -- apart from Indiana and Miami - looks like the second division of a European soccer league right now is because the bottom has fallen out for the teams that should be peaking. Several teams have aimed for the jackpot -- and have failed magnificently.

The disappointing Cavaliers tried to rebuild by following the example of Oklahoma City, which used the Nos. 2, 4 and 3 picks in successive drafts to land Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and James Harden. Cleveland used a quartet of similar picks in the last three drafts to end up with Kyrie Irving, Tristan Thompson, Dion Waiters and Anthony Bennett. Irving is the only All-Star among them; they might have done better with the other picks (by choosing Damian Lillard or Andre Drummond instead of Waiters in 2012, for example), but the truth is that there were no alternatives available to them in those drafts who have turned out to be as talented as Durant, Westbrook or Harden.

Give credit to Oklahoma City for making the perfect pick in each of those three years. But also be understanding to the Cavaliers that there was no trio of future Olympians to be found in the years that Cleveland was drafting.

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For many teams in the East, the No. 3 seed is an award not worth winning. What do the Celtics need with another divisional title won by a rotation that has no hope of moving past the second round -- wouldn't they be better to trade assets, including Rajon Rondo, perhaps, while turning over their roster in pursuit of a team that can contend for championships down the line?

Chicago coach Tom Thibodeau surely wants his Bulls to fight for every win, but most GMs would prefer to take advantage of Derrick Rose's absence to add cheap, young talent from the lottery in hopes of upgrading their roster for next year, rather than fight and claw for enough victories to sneak into the playoffs this year.

The teams that want and need to be No. 3 are few: it includes the Hawks, Wizards, Bobcats, Pistons, Cavaliers, Nets and Knicks. My favorite to win this particular race is Washington, so long as its emerging star Bradley Beal is able to stay on the court. The Wizards have overcome a 2-7 start and the ensuing absence of Beal to stick around .500.

It damns John Wall with faint praise to say that he has been the closest thing to a star among Eastern point guards this season, but it's true nonetheless. The Wizards are young and improving and they've gone through their painful phase of rebuilding, which means they have none of the ambivalence of so many other teams in their conference. The Wizards want to win as many games as they can, their owner has said as much publicly, and they can be expected to make good on their potential.

If Washington can finish third in the East, it'll have a distinction to be proud of, and a sign that better days are still to come.

The Headlines

Andre Miller suspended. Rookie coach Brian Shaw is in the midst of his first minor emergency: His Nuggets have lost eight in a row and Miller was suspended for yelling at Shaw on the bench. Shaw, for his part, has been involved in bigger crises throughout his career as a player and assistant, and with much more at stake. It will be interesting to watch how he works through this season, because the Nuggets didn't bring him in to keep things the same; they are hoping to reinvent their team around Shaw. Expect him to deal head-on with this problem.

Andrew Bynum suspended, exiled by Cavaliers. To whatever extent Bynum's career is considered by future generations, the conclusion will be that the Lakers maxed out his potential. They spent three years developing him, squeezed out two championships amid his knee problems, and then were able to dump him -- in a complicated exchange for Dwight Howard, no less -- just before Bynum's knees gave out. Many centers have had longer careers without contributing to a run like that of the Lakers from 2008 to 2010. We can talk about Bynum's unfulfilled potential or question his commitment, but the bottom line is that he helped the Lakers reach a couple of triumphant NBA Finals; and that his knees prevented him from contributing in a big way during those NBA Finals shows how fortunate the Lakers were to cash in on his presence to the extent that they did. As the No. 10 pick in 2005, Bynum was the Lakers' only lottery pick since 1995, and it has to be said that they made the most of that one opportunity.

Chris Bosh hits last-second three for win at Portland without LeBron James. Bosh's numbers have been in decline annually since he signed with Miami while living with criticism that he has become too passive. But his 37 points on the home floor of one of the league's top five teams was a reminder of what Bosh could do if he weren't focused on complementing James and Dwyane Wade. The Heat have won two championships amid Bosh's waning production, but his performance in Portland showed that they may be able to find more points from Bosh if needed in the latter rounds this spring.

Thunder struggle without Russell Westbrook. They surrendered successive 16-point leads at home in losses to the Blazers and Nets while Kevin Durant was overwhelmed in the fourth quarters by defenses that showed no respect for his teammates. Will his teammates be able to demand that respect? There is an opportunity during Westbrook's absence for Serge Ibaka, Reggie Jackson and others to become bigger threats offensively and provide the complementary firepower that will be needed to help Durant and Westbrook lead OKC through the playoffs. The Thunder are still developing, and these next weeks without Westbrook will show whether they have the potential to elevate their games in the postseason.

Depleted Lakers put off trade talks for Bynum. It is unimaginable that the Lakers would dump Pau Gasol simply for the tax savings, just as it's hard to believe that the Cavaliers would give up valuable young assets or picks for him. The Lakers' TV income and ticket prices provide them with abundant resources, so there should be no dumping of one of their best players simply to profit. Gasol could have value in future by returning on a cheaper contract or in a sign and trade this summer.

NBA acknowledges an uncalled foul on Kevin Love. The Timberwolves were hosed, of course. But in the bigger picture these admissions from the league office demonstrate that referees are being held accountable for calling the game in the final seconds just as they would in the opening quarters. NBA refereeing is naturally subjective -- there is more gray area in basketball officiating than in football or baseball -- but this revelation of a mistake at the end of the game is a constructive sign.

Marco Belinelli is averaging 10.5 points off the bench and shooting 49.6 percent from three-point range.
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Get to know: Marco Belinelli

The 6-5 shooting guard was averaging 9.8 points in his first year with the Spurs. Belinelli, a 27-year-old Italian, has played for five teams in seven NBA seasons.

1. Born and raised near Bologna, he started to play basketball when he was 6. "I got two brothers, I'm the baby. The passion started with my brother Enrico, the old one. I was playing every day; every second it was all about basketball. I just loved to play basketball."

At 15, he signed with one of the top Italian clubs, Virtus Bologna, and played occasionally with the senior team. "In the morning I went to school, and in the afternoon I do almost like two practices -- I was playing with the guys my age, and then we had the practice with the guys older than me.

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"I remember the team was amazing -- (Manu) Ginobili, (Marko) Jaric, (Antoine) Rigadeau, just great players to practice with. And (Ettore) Messina was the coach. It is amazing, because when I was 15 or 16 I played with Manu Ginobili; and right now with San Antonio Spurs we play together on the court. It is a dream.''

2. He was 21 when he entered the 2007 draft. "I came to New York with my family, and that was one of the favorite days of my life that I will never forget. I remember almost everything: I remember two minutes before they called my name, all the TV cameras they come to my seat; and I remember when David Stern called my name: `With the 18th pick the Golden State Warriors select Marco Belinelli.'

"When I was like 6, 7, 8 years old, my brother Enrico was watching NBA every day on the internet, on TV, so I was growing up watching NBA. For me when David Stern called my name on the draft it was a dream come true."

Belinelli scored 37 points in his summer league debut with the Warriors. ``I was really, really nervous, and my English was really bad and I didn't know my teammates, coaching staff, the organization, and the NBA mentality. My family and friends were saying, 'Come on, Marco, go on the court and do what you love. Do your best.' I remember a lot of people, they came to take a picture with me - it was just amazing to score 37 points."

But he struggled to earn playing time during the regular season. "The first two years in Golden State and Toronto, it was really bad for me. I didn't play a lot and so my confidence was really low. I think that couple years helped me a lot to be a better player on the court. My mentality was much stronger, and I was more ready to play when I had the opportunity. Some people maybe don't have the mentality to be that strong, to stay in the NBA, to fight to have a spot in the team. But I didn't want to come back to Europe. I wanted to fight every day for my game and try to be ready to play and to win."

3. He signed with the Spurs last summer. "This summer I was a free agent. A couple teams called me, but when the Spurs gave me this possibility to play with them and be part of this organization -- Manu Ginobili, Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and the best coach (Gregg) Popovich - I didn't think too much: I want to go to San Antonio, work a lot and be a better player and win. I am unbelievably happy to be part of this organization right now.

"In my past I spent good years in New Orleans, when I was starting with Chris Paul and David West and coach Monty Williams, and that was the first time I went to the playoffs. And then I went to Chicago last year, and it was a really important year for me to be a better player and person. I spent one good year with coach (Tom) Thibodeau, he helped me a lot with my confidence and on my defense, to be a better player.

"The Spurs got a great organization. You are around a lot of great people that really like to stay before and after practice - they believe that you can be a better player. They want to work with you on your game, that's one of the reasons we are a great team and a great family, and that's the secret -- the great spirit on the team."

Quote of the Week

"Tony doesn't have an anti-Semitic or anti-Muslim or anti-Christian bone in his body.'' -- Gregg Popovich

The Spurs coach said this in response to a photo that emerged of his French point guard Tony Parker making the "quenelle'" gesture, which has been characterized as the Nazi symbol in reverse. "While this gesture has been part of French culture for many years, it was not until recently that I learned of the very negative concerns associated with it,'' Parker said in a statement of apology. "When l was photographed making that gesture three years ago, I thought it was part of a comedy act and did not know that it could be in any way offensive or harmful."

Popovich vouched for Parker wholeheartedly. "I talked with Tony," he said. "I felt bad for him.

"There's enough bigotry and racism and hatred in the world already -- that thing has been taken too far. When he was informed of that and understood it, he was very quick to denounce it and understand what he had to do. So I was proud of him."

The Breakdown

An NBA advance looks at the unusual starting backcourt of 6-1 Eric Bledsoe and 6-3 Goran Dragic: The two point guards have led Phoenix to a surprising 19-11 start.

"I don't see why they can't play together and co-exist for the long term. Dragic is hot and cold as a shooter, but Bledsoe is a good defender -- and they both attack-attack-attack.

"I don't think their size is that big of a deal. And the style of play suits them. You'd have to say neither one is a traditional point guard because they're most successful in the transition type offense, and that's where they get their numbers. Traditional point guards? There's not a lot of them anymore.

"I guess it's sort of a two-guard front. They've got to match up and make a decision defensively, but that fluctuates throughout the game too. And then one of them is going to be on the floor all the time throughout the game.

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"I put Bledsoe down as the point guard and Dragic as the shooting guard, even though Bledsoe doesn't necessarily control the ball a lot more than Dragic. In the halfcourt Bledsoe initiates the offense. There are sets where they are a traditional team and they run plays. They're both capable of running the point, but Dragic is the better shooter, and they can have him do more things coming off screens to catch and shoot, or catch and attack coming off corners.

"It's true that years ago Minnesota GM David Kahn picked two point guards in the draft. But those guys weren't established. The Suns are doing this with two guys that have played in the league. Kahn got grief because one of them (Ricky Rubio) was the wonder child from Europe that they knew -- or hoped - eventually would come over. And the other one (Jonny Flynn) was almost a throwaway pick. They were enamored with the kid and he never played very well. I think he's in another country now.

"It isn't the first time this kind of backcourt has happened. You look at all the (Michael) Jordan years, was Steve Kerr a traditional point guard? BJ Armstrong, he wasn't really; and neither was Ron Harper with the Lakers, or even Derek Fisher for that matter.

"You play with your five guys that give you your best chance to win. What Phoenix has is guys who found their role and they're excelling at it. They've got toughness.

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"(Miles) Plumlee has really come around, and I like PJ Tucker - they needed somebody to be tough and play defense and rebound and do more than one thing well, and Tucker has done that. He can shoot it and he's not going to take bad shots. He's not the athlete who tries to go one on one and drive at anybody -- they've got Gerald Green to do that, and they play at a pace where Gerald Green can take advantage of his athleticism. And then Channing Frye is back, and the Morris twins (Markieff and Marcus) have got decent size and they're decent athletes who have been able to make shots.

"There are going to be games where they catch people off guard and just blow them away, and then other nights when the shots aren't falling, and that's when they'll realize they don't have that true point guard to get them back into something, like maybe Chris Paul could.

"The other thing they have going for them is a bit of stability, where the GM (Ryan McDonough) hired the coach (Jeff Hornacek) and they're together, they're backing up each other. Hornacek is a pretty straight shooter. He's been a point guard, he's played in the league, and he knows B.S. when he sees it.

"This is a running team with no prima donnas. People are backing each other up and playing for each other. Now if you had someone like Carmelo Anthony out there, I don't know if it would be the same.''

The All-Andrew Wiggins Team

There is talk of this year's draft being the best since 2003. If so, then the threshold will be extremely high, based on the makeup of this team from the 2003 draft. Can this year's class measure up?


F: Chris Bosh, No. 4 ... 2 championships, 8-time All-Star

F: LeBron James, No. 1 ... 2-time Finals MVP, 4 league MVPs

F: Carmelo Anthony, No. 3 ... 6-time All-Star, made playoffs every season

G: Dwyane Wade, No. 5 ... 3 championships, Finals MVP, 9-time All-Star

G: Mo Williams, No. 47 ... All-Star, sixth man of 25-7 Blazers


C: Kendrick Perkins, No. 27 ... 1 championship, defensive leader

C: Chris Kaman, No. 6 ... All-Star, 515 career starts

F: David West, No. 18 ... 2-time All-Star, leader of Eastern finalist Pacers

F: Boris Diaw, No. 21 ... Most Improved award, key reserve for NBA Finalist Spurs

F: Nick Collison, No. 12 ... Key reserve for title-contending Thunder

G: Kirk Hinrich, No. 7 ... All-Defensive team, versatile third guard

G: Kyle Korver, No. 51 ... League-leading 48.8 percent three-point shooter with record three-point streak

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