Indiana’s Setting Their Own Pace

At the risk of a copyright claim by Sesame Street, let’s play a game of “one of these things is not like the others” featuring the top four seeds in the Eastern Conference playoff picture

–         The No. 1 seeds are the Chicago Bulls, who boast reigning league MVP Derrick Rose, reigning Coach of the Year Tom Thibodeau and one of the NBA’s best benches.

–         The second seeds are the Miami Heat, whose leading scorers double as, arguably, two of the game’s best three or four players.

–         The No. 3 seeds are the Indiana Pacers, who haven’t finished .500 or better since the 2005-06 season and don’t feature a single player among the NBA’s top 20 scorers.

–         The No. 4 seeds are the Boston Celtics, winners of the East’s most recent championship (2008) and featuring Rajon Rondo alongside a trio of soon-to-be NBA Hall of Famers.

Congratulations for the eagle-eyed among you who picked the Pacers, who have spent the 2011-12 season disrupting the East’s status quo and challenging the notion that superstar-less clubs are simply also-rans in today’s NBA.

As chronicled in column this March in Sports Illustrated, Indiana, as engineered by team president Larry Bird, has pulled together a balanced group of complementary, quality players with character in lieu of having one (or two or three) franchise guys.

Not only has the core of Danny Granger, Darren Collison, Paul George, David West, Roy Hibbert, George Hill, Tyler Hansbrough and deadline addition Leandro Barbosa already reached 40 wins on the year, but they’ve recorded victories over each of the aforementioned elite Eastern clubs and are rolling towards the postseason sporting a 10-1 April record.

It’s not just what they’re doing that’s remarkable, but how. Throughout NBA history, the general rule of thumb has been ‘have superstar, will travel’. Since 2004, you haven’t won an NBA championship without one (or more) of Tim Duncan, Shaquille O’Neal, Kobe Bryant, Dwyane Wade, Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce or Dirk Nowitzki. Even before that, teams raised the Larry O’Brien trophy on account of players like Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, Hakeem Olaujuwon, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and, well, Bird.

Then again, maybe this is the perfect time for a team like the Pacers to come along and fly in the face of league history. Prior to this lockout-shortened season, some analysts highlighted Indy as a potential riser (although I doubt anyone expected this level of success), pointing to the club’s depth, balance and youth as indications that they could navigate the tough, condensed schedule. Sure enough, the Pacers have benefited from good health, with only Collison missing significant time due to injury. This can be directly credited to the controlled minutes afforded to head coach Frank Vogel by his team’s depth (particularly with regards to oft-injured bigs West and Hibbert).

On top of that, they have emerged in a season which has not been kind to “the NBA superstar”. Just as the star-less Detroit Pistons’ 2004 title represented the triumph of David over the Lakers’ Goliath (L.A. featured O’Neal, Bryant, Karl Malone and Gary Payton), Indiana’s group of supporting players has come along at a time when no clear MVP has broke away from the pack, Derrick Rose and Bryant have been banged up and stars like Nowitzki, Kevin Durant, Carmelo Anthony and lottery-bound Deron Williams have endured uncharacteristic struggles at one time or another.

Heck, the Orlando Magic, the club that the Pacers are currently slated to play in round one, might be the most superstar-damaged team in the league. Dwight Howard has led the Magic through what has been an ugly, public melodrama this season in which he has basically done every destructive thing possible to put himself on the outs with the team, including seeking the termination of his coach and asking management to keep him through the season and “roll the dice” on whether he’ll re-sign thereafter.

When (forget about ‘if’) Howard does ultimately bolt, the Magic (and the city of Orlando) might wind up as the biggest victims of any nasty NBA divorce of the past few years.

As for the Pacers, their core boasts the structure and stability to succeed over the long term. All core members except Barbosa are under contract through at least next season, with most players (George, Collison, Hill, Hibbert and Hansbrough) still on their rookie deals and Granger and West signed to long-term deals. If Indy wants to keep Barbosa in the fold, or wishes to further bolster its already-deep club, it will have plenty of room (as much as $20 million in cap space) to do so.

But for now, the focus is on a present that includes postseason play. Indiana won’t be the most experienced team out there, nor will they be the most star-studded. Whether they need to be remains to be seen.

The Trouble With (Two) Rookies

The term “rookie” holds both positive and negative connotations. While a rookie is someone boasting promise and potential, it is also a player lacking in experience and general know-how.

As the connotations suggest, counting on the production of a rookie can bring about the promise of long-term gains along with ever-existent short-term pains. Charlotte Bobcats head coach Paul Silas has spent the 2011-12 season learning this first-hand, while Toronto Raptors bench boss Dwane Casey may be about to find out.

First-year players are far from the only headache that Silas has had to endure during a trying campaign in which his Bobcats have recorded a league-worst 7-44 mark through 51 games. However, rookies are rookies and the introductions to the NBA haven’t been entirely smooth for a pair of youngsters who have actually played fairly well, if unevenly: Kemba Walker, who is one year removed from leading UConn to a national title, and Bismack Biyombo, a 19-year-old Congolese shot-blocking phenom who remains raw in most other areas of the game.

“It’s tough because rookies take time,” admits Silas; “take time to learn the game, to understand it, understand the players, understand what’s expected of them. And you cannot expect them to just go out and do the job right away, so it takes patience.”

Casey, whose Raptors trumped Silas’ Bobcats on Tuesday night in Toronto, may be looking ahead to a similar experience with his club next season. The team is hopeful that they’ll be able to bring 2011 first-round pick Jonas Valanciunas over from current Lithuanian club Lietuvos Rytas in time for the 2012-13 season. Should Valanciunas touch down in time to make his anticipated NBA debut next year, he will likely be learning the North American pro game alongside whichever prospect Toronto selects with its lottery choice in this June’s draft (barring a trade, of course).

Of course, no two rookies (or players, for that matter) are completely alike. While Walker’s NCAA run with the Huskies made him a relatively pro-ready commodity coming out of college, he faces the added challenge of learning how to run the point and adjusting to what is one of the most demanding and talent-laden positions on the floor. Biyombo, meanwhile, had – and still has – a steep learning curve ahead of him, with Silas suggesting that developing a consistent jumper will be a huge off-season focus for the teen.

The combination of the two, coupled with still-developing pieces like Gerald Henderson and Byron Mullens, makes for an environment requiring plenty of patience.

“It’s a process,” acknowledges Walker. “Hopefully we can get some vets mixed in here to bring some leadership. But with me and Biz and Byron and other young guys getting this experience, it’ll help build us into winners.”

The bumps are to be expected, just as they will be in Toronto next season. Walker and Biyombo finished Tuesday’s game with 15 points, nine rebounds and seven assists combined, but also committed six turnovers and were part of an offence that looked out of joint throughout much of their 92-87 losing effort.

Toss in another high profile rookie likely joining the fray next season and the “two or three years” that Silas figures most rookies need to develop and there’s still plenty of work to do (understatement alert!).

Any already-beleaguered Raptors fan reading this can’t be particularly enamored by parallels between this year’s Bobcats and next year’s Raps, but Casey is quick to offer some words of optimism and hope.

“Having young talent is great,” says the first-year coach, “but I’m not sure that young players are given the best possible chance to grow without the opportunity to develop in a structured, disciplined environment that emphasizes the importance of hard work and winning. That’s what we’ve been trying to do here this year, and will continue to try to do.”

Blazing A New Trail

In the end, Wednesday’s trade deadline wasn’t about big stars changing addresses (Dwight Howard, Rajon Rondo, Deron Williams and Steve Nash all stayed put), nor was it about championship contenders solidifying their roster (none of the Heat, Bulls, Thunder or Mavs made a move).

Instead, Wednesday was marked by the decisions of bubble teams on whether to go all-in or cash in their assets with an eye towards the future.

Houston, for example, was the most active among the all-ins, bolstering an already-deep rotation with veteran pick-ups Marcus Camby and Derek Fisher. Indiana (Leandro Barbosa), Milwaukee (Monta Ellis, Ekpe Udoh and Kwame Brown) and Los Angeles (Nick Young) also made upgrades without surrendering much current talent.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, you have the Portland Trail Blazers. Anyone holding onto hopes that Rip City would stay the course and see what their current roster could produce saw their hopes go up in rather abrupt flames, as Camby and Gerald Wallace were shipped out, Greg Oden was waived and head coach Nate McMillan was shown the door.

None of those decisions would have been easy ones for whoever is at the reins of the currently GM-less Blazers (owner Paul Allen?).

In addition to being key veteran contributors, Camby and Wallace represented Portland’s own all-in approach, with Camby signed before last season and Wallace being acquired from Charlotte in a mid-season deal.

Oden’s departure, meanwhile, closes a disappointing, injury-riddled tenure for a player who wasn’t just a No. 1 pick (ahead of Kevin Durant), but a guy who came out of Ohio State as a near-sure thing.

Finally, McMillan has carried a rep as a well-respected player’s coach before reports of turmoil (Jamal Crawford and Ray Felton reportedly led an anti-Nate locker room mutiny) came to light recently.

Rebuilding is never particularly easy, but it’s been an especially trying process for a fan base that’s Bill Simmons refers to as the “Portland soccer moms” for their avid, unfettered support of their team. Camby, Wallace, Oden and McMillan join a parade of guys that have found their way out the Rose Garden exit door in the past year, including former GM Rich Cho (fired mysteriously) and Brandon Roy (amnestied / retired).

It’s hard to find a winner amidst this fire sale. Camby found a decent situation in Houston, but Wallace is actually farther from playoff contention with the Nets. Oden’s NBA career is now in jeopardy, while McMillan is out of basketball (for now) despite being recognized by many as one of the NBA’s best coaches.

Still in Portland, remaining franchise guy LaMarcus Aldridge has seen the team implode around him and will now waste a portion of his peak years in a rebuild.

Oh, and about that rebuild…

Beyond shedding some onerous contracts (over $30 million between Camby / Wallace / Oden) and, in doing so, gaining financial flexibility moving forward (not that Forbes’ richest people list regular Allen is exactly cash-strapped). it’s difficult to see just how the deadline moves helped expedite the rebuild process.

Trading Camby and Wallace netted the Blazers one attractive asset: the Nets’ top-three-protected 2012 first round pick. Beyond the conditional draft choice (and a second rounder from Houston), they picked up Mehmet Okur’s expiring $10.9 million contract, the soon-to-be-bought-out Shawne Williams and a pair of draft bust candidates in Hasheem Thabeet and Jonny Flynn. The New Jersey pick could be a major building block, but only if it falls in that 4-5-6 range – no higher or lower.

As things currently stand, the Blazers have under $50 million on the books in 2012-13 contracts (as a point of reference, the Heat have more than $50 million committed to just their Big Three for next season), with team options remaining for Thabeet and Flynn and player options on Crawford (will likely exercise) and Nicolas Batum (almost definitely will opt out). The question becomes whether they can do anything substantial with the remaining cap space.

No disrespect to Camby and Crawford, but it’s hard to pinpoint the last free agent of significance that signed with Portland (Kenny Anderson, maybe?). On top of hardly being a league power, this team has little to offer beyond the chance to play with Aldridge and, ideally, lottery pick X and Y (Portland’s own pick likely won’t be any lower than the fringes of the top 10).

Batum will likely have his choice of free agent suitors, leaving Crawford and Wesley Matthews to join Aldridge among the remaining veterans, in addition to a trio of young, unproven hopefuls in Nolan Smith, Elliot Williams and Luke Babbitt.

The Blazers have made their decision to initiate a rebuild – there’s no going back now. Still, it’s a sorry state for what is a terrific basketball city that’s endured some hard luck and, yet, feels like it wasn’t all that far away from contention. Remember, they pushed the eventual champion Mavs to six games in the first round.

The franchise successfully managed to execute a positive franchise makeover once in recent history, going from the Jail Blazers to the likable, Roy-led group of the Allen era.

Now, they face a new challenge, with Aldridge and new head coach Kaleb Canales at the helm.

Contenders Have Needs, Too

In a shortened NBA season in which unpredictability has reigned, it’s only appropriate that we are a week away from a trade deadline which could either be a landscape-changer or an uneventful dud.

We’ve all heard Dwight Howard and Rajon Rondo bandied about as the two major names who could potentially get moved, but Magic management (primarily CEO Alex Martins and GM Otis Smith) have remained steadfast that their first priority is holding onto their superstar, while Celtics GM Danny Ainge has no incentive to rush the trade of his dynamic 26-year-old point guard (unless the locker room atmosphere is more toxic than we think).

Beyond the two All-Star talents, the pickings are slim, with few other names (Chris Kaman? Jamal Crawford?) being tossed around.

On the other hand, things seem almost too quiet. The NBA championship is, after all, very much up for grabs. The Western Conference, in particular, looks particularly ripe for the taking, with Dallas having a bumpy title defense thus far and no other contender – Oklahoma City, San Antonio or either Los Angeles team – looking infallible. Even in the East, Chicago still faces questions of secondary scoring and Heat fans were reminded of the dangers of Dwyane Wade’s all-out playing style after his injury scare against the Nets.

There’s no sense in speculating on other names that might be made available in the next seven days, as it’s impossible to know which GM’s are making which players available. However, with most teams arriving at 40 games played this year, some clarity is emerging in terms of specific areas of need among some of the contending teams.

*Note: Among possible contenders, you’ll notice I’ve omitted Miami, Philadelphia, San Antonio and Memphis from the teams mentioned below. The Heat have the necessary personnel in place barring injury, the Sixers are a balanced club that may simply lack the talent needed to join Miami and Chicago as East favorites and the Spurs and Grizzlies will be bolstered by players who have returned (San Antonio’s Manu Ginobli) or will soon return (Memphis’ Zach Randolph) from injury.

Need: Scoring
Teams: Bulls, Lakers

Hard to find much fault in the 32-8 Bulls, but the 2011-12 version of the club still isn’t much different from the ’10-11 version that fell short in the Eastern Finals against the Heat, largely because no one else stepped up once Derrick Rose and Luol Deng were held in check. The good news is that Carlos Boozer looks to be leaner and meaner, but his scoring has also dropped almost 2.5 points per game as the team embraces more of an offense-by committee approach. A healthy Rip Hamilton may help, but GM Gar Forman may still take action if there’s a fit to be found.

For the Lakers, it’s all in the stats: the team ranks 22nd in per game scoring despite boasting the league’s leading scorer. Kobe Bryant is clearly doing his part (28.7 ppg) and the Pau Gasol/Andrew Bynum front court, while often maligned, is producing 33.4 points per game. However, that’s where the contributors end, as the next-highest scoring Laker is Matt Barnes at 6.8 points. L.A. is clearly missing Lamar Odom (although, then again, so is Dallas).

Need: Size
Teams: Mavericks, Rockets

If only there was some defensive-minded big man available – someone who, you know, could rebound, block shots and defend the interior. Someone like, say, Tyson Chandler. Fact is, the Mavs have been missing Chandler all season long. While no Mav has managed more than 6.7 rebounds per game, Chandler has been pulling down 9.8 in New York.

Houston isn’t a championship contender, but they have developed a dynamic back court of Kyle Lowry and Kevin Martin. However, opposing defenses can zero in on the duo without any inside forces to contend with. Luis Scola has a few reliable low post moves, but doesn’t possess the size or strength of his rival big men.

Need: Scoring Up Front
Team: Thunder

Kendrick Perkins and Serge Ibaka provide plenty of rebounding, defense and toughness, but not a whole lot of scoring. The addition of a guy like Kaman (sorry, I know I said I wouldn’t suggest names) could open up even more scoring opportunities for Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, not to mention James Harden.

Need: Shooting
Team: Clippers

Current stats would indicate that shooting isn’t much of an issue for the Clippers, who rank 10th league-wide in field goal percentage and 11th in three-point percentage. However, those numbers say more about the amount of attention commanded by the Blake Griffin / DeAndre Jordan front line, as well as the tendency of defenders to play off of point guard Chris Paul (he currently owns a .423% mark from the three-point line). A sharpshooter like Ray Allen (I know, I know!) could be that final piece that cements them – already – as bona fide contenders.

Need: Point Guard Help
Team: Magic

Hidden behind the cover of the Howard saga is the sobering reality that Jameer Nelson isn’t getting the job done at the point in Orlando. The recently-turned-30-year-old has hit a career nadir point in terms of field goal percentage, turnover rate and three-point percentage. While most clubs would face a tricky proposition when it comes to introducing a point guard to a new offense with the stretch run so imminent, the Magic run a fundamentally simple offense based on surrounding Howard with perimeter shooters, so a floor general change would be feasible if Smith could find a reasonable fit.

Pop’s Lesson in Chemistry

There were more than a few observers who were quick to dismiss the chances of the San Antonio Spurs as they embarked on the lockout-shortened 2011-12 NBA season. The condensed schedule, it stood to reason, would favor the young, who could remain spry through tough, grueling stretches.

As it turns out through nearly two months of play, there happens to be another quality that can help teams navigate through a schedule heavy on games and light on practices: chemistry.

The power of chemistry is hardly a secret amongst NBA type, but it also isn’t something that can be readily acquired. Sure, you can find reputed “glue guys,” as Miami did in adding Shane Battier, or you can bring in a player that fits within your club’s construction and/or addresses an area of need, as Chicago did with Rip Hamilton. But chemistry speaks to a larger collective balance that encompasses the entire team and hinges upon everyone adhering to their expectant role.

As such, it is an impressive achievement that the Spurs, a perennial Western Conference power, seem to find that delicate balance so consistently year-in and year-out, with this season (and the team’s current nine-game win streak) being no exception. Even as they incorporate a slew of young players, including DeJuan Blair, James Anderson, Gary Neal, Danny Green, Thiago Splitter and rookie Kawhi Leonard into the regular rotation, San Antonio has continued to thrive within coach Gregg Popovich’s structured system.

If Popovich is the architect of the system, then it is the club’s long-time veterans that serve as the executors, making sure that everyone does their job and feels responsible for their part in the collective effort. Starting with David Robinson, the role has passed through players like Bruce Bowen and Michael Finley to the Spurs current veteran trio of Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili.

“It starts with [Popovich], but then it goes right to Duncan, Robinson – kind of handed down through the players,” says Raptors coach Dwane Casey, who has seen plenty of the Spurs over the years through coaching stints in Seattle, Minnesota and Dallas. “If they have a bad egg in there, he doesn’t last very long.”

In addition to experience (33 years combined), the trio of Duncan, Parker and Ginobili aren’t lacking for credentials. Duncan is a four-time champion, three-time Finals MVP and a name that must be mentioned in any “Best PF ever” debate. Parker has spent the last decade as the club’s floor general, with three NBA titles and his own Finals MVP to show for it. Ginobili, meanwhile, is a proven winner (Olympic gold medalist, three-time NBA champ) but still plays with a level of energy that belies his age (34). When these guys speak, the young players around them may want to listen up.

“Our three best players have combined 35 [actually 33] years of experience and when you combine that with Pop, you’re talking about the core unit of our group having tons and tons of experience – more than anybody else in the NBA,” says Spurs forward Richard Jefferson. “When you have your three best players like that, everyone else just kind of falls in line; your roles are defined.”

It seems simple enough to hear Jefferson explain it, but it’s not particularly easy to find a trio of veterans with the pedigree of Duncan, Parker and Ginobili, nor do coaches with the experience and know-how of Popovich grow on trees.

As a result, you have teams that are rich in talent but don’t quite know how to play together. LeBron James and Dwyane Wade seem to be figuring it out in Miami, but nothing will be proven until the playoffs come along. The Knicks needed a spark from an unheralded sophomore from the end of their bench because the Carmelo Anthony and Amare Stoudemire connection hasn’t gelled. Out west, the Thunder remain under scrutiny based on the dynamic between Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook and even the defending champion Mavericks aren’t immune from chemistry concerns, with off-season pick-up Lamar Odom struggling to fit in.

Popovich, who happens to hold the GM tag in San Antonio in addition to his coaching role, understands what many other decision-makers in the game don’t seem to: talent is nice, but you need to be sure that the pieces fit together, as well.

Ask the man known as ‘Pop’ about chemistry and he’ll launch into something that seems less an answer than a soliloquy.

“[Chemistry] can’t be taught. You can luck into it, but mostly I think it’s the sources – the character – of the players; the professional intelligence they embody, the understanding of how things fit and what wins and what loses; people who are capable of empathy and love, of feeling responsibility to others; all those things create chemistry.”

Depth of talent remains a question looming over San Antonio’s postseason chances, something that tends to happen when you’ve been in the lottery once in the past 23 seasons (the year they drafted Duncan first over-all). But whether or not they have the firepower and skill to match up with the Mavs, Lakers, Thunder and Clippers (among others), there is no question that they’ll be the most prepared and will have given themselves every possible opportunity to succeed. Popovich, Duncan, Parker and Ginobili will make sure of it.

The Next ‘Early Extension’ Wave

We saw last week how messy the NBA’s early extension deadline has the potential to be for the relationship between some teams and their third-year talent’s. While Derrick Rose and Russell Westbrook signed long-term deals without incident with the Bulls and Thunder, respectively, things got a little awkward for Kevin Love, Eric Gordon and Roy Hibbert, among others.

Love actually was locked up, inking a four-year, $62 million deal (with a player option after three years). However, reports surfaced that Minnesota refused to offer their star forward, who actually wants to be there, a fifth year, thereby effectively identifying him as a non-franchise guy. Think that won’t be in the back of Love’s mind in 2015 when he’ll be just 27-years-old and, potentially, an unrestricted free agent?

Beyond Love and Minnesota, Gordon’s refusal of a contract extension from New Orleans could be damaging to both the player and franchise and Indiana is at risk of losing a viable, 7’2” center in what is a center-starved league. You don’t think someone might put forward an offer sheet on him for stupid money? Look at what Nene/Tyson Chandler/David West/Marc Gasol got this past summer.

It’s far too early to offer any kind of observation or analysis into any of those situations (although it’s hard to see the Gordon/Hornets dynamic ending smoothly barring a trade). However, it does offer some insight into how, even in what appears to be a relatively low-risk situation (even if these players don’t sign early extensions, they remain under team control for no less than three more years), can set the table for a rocky player-team relationship as egos and feelings get involved.

Which takes us to next year, where the 2009 draft class promises to be low on no-brainer long-term extendees and high on question marks.

 The no-brainer, of course, is Blake Griffin. Even with fellow max contract deserver Chris Paul in tow, Donald Sterling can’t screw this one up. Then, however, it gets awfully dicey for what is one shallow-looking talent pool.

The next tier below Griffin would likely feature Tyreke Evans, James Harden and Stephen Curry, with Evans being the closest to superstar-calibre but still an inconsistent player who hasn’t proven he can win on a financially-shaky team. Harden and Curry are in more stable – albeit, hardly big-market – situations, but Oklahoma City can’t afford to break the bank on a sixth man and I’m not sure new owners Joe Lacob and Peter Gruber can keep Curry and Monta Ellis (and David Lee) on payroll while still having the flexibility to improve their team elsewhere.

Beyond that is a group of players with an as-of-yet-undetermined ceiling (DeMar DeRozan, Brandon Jennings and Jrue Holliday), a few probable role players (Gerald Henderson, Tyler Hansbrough, Austin Daye and James Johnson) and an over-achieving guard who seems to be tapping into every inch of his potential talent (Ty Lawson). All told, none of these guys have shown that they can be anything more than a third- or fourth-best player on a good team.

The telling thing about the 2009 class is that none of these players (with the possible exception of the 76ers’ Holliday) come from ‘have’ teams. In most of these situations, the decision will come down to risking losing a young building block or over-paying for a guy who may never really pan out to any full extent.

The Curious Case Of DeMarcus Cousins

DeMarcus Cousins isn’t the first NBA player to enter the league boasting special talents while also falling short a few screws. However, he is unique in that he’s made it 19 months into his pro career without either side – the talent or the personality – winning out in a clear fashion.

On one hand, Cousins has blossomed into a physical interior force and a crucial component to the young core of the Sacramento Kings. On the other hand, he hasn’t exactly grown up, clashing with teammates and coaches while carrying an inflated sense of entitlement even as he produced on court.

Both sides of the Kentucky product and former No. 5 over-all pick were on display during a recent visit to Toronto to take on the Raptors. Prior to the game, my trifecta of interview requests as he sat idly at his locker were each met with disproving head shakes (and no eye contact) before he popped on a pair of headphones. In that time, the only sound byte offered by the 21-year old came as he loudly beckoned a Kings’ equipment staffer to bring him a pair of flip flops which sat on the floor, about three steps from his location.

After the game, he would warn teammate Marcus Thornton not to insert his name into the lyrics of a hip-hop song which Sacramento’s leading scorer was singing and fume upon learning that his bag had already been sent along to the team bus when he needed items from it.

In between these glimpses of Cousins’ surly demeanor, he also happened to post 21 points and a career-high 19 rebounds in helping the Kings to their first road win of the season.

Cousins’ vexing combination of elite raw abilities and maturity issues can’t be considered surprising to team brass, considering that was precisely the book on him in college and high school, but it has already led to a team-imposed suspension for the youngster and was, reportedly, one of the key factors in the firing of head coach Paul Westphal.

Keith Smart, who stepped in once Westphal was terminated, will emphasize the need to come into the job without a pre-conceived notion about his center, but acknowledges that the two will have work to do if certain patterns of behaviour continue.

“When he gets it all together – from a basketball standpoint, from a physical standpoint, conditioning-wise – we have a very special player,” says Smart of Cousins. “But I want him to not have all the attention of everything that has gone on with him. I’m looking at him as a new guy. I’m a new coach – prove me wrong that you can be this person that people have talked about. And right now, I haven’t seen it.”

Cousins isn’t willing to lend much lip service to questions about his character (or anything, for that matter), nor should he be.

However, his dismissive comments about locker room tensions point to a problematic unwillingness to take responsibility for his attitudes that have caused reported rifts in the Kings’ locker room.

“I’m just trying to put all this silly stuff behind me,” says Cousins in reference to the reports of clashes with Westphal and some teammates. “I’m just trying to help my team win and that’s all I want to do.”

You can’t blame him for refusing to address reports of attitude problems, but Cousins could help his cause significantly by owning up to some of his behaviour and taking some accountability, particularly when teammate Tyreke Evans is willing to tell reporters that he has had a good week because “he hasn’t been arguing with anybody on the team.”

Evans’ comments, touting Cousins’ improved focus since Smart was promoted to the head coaching job last week, were made in a positive context, but they still hinted at a volatile side that could still emerge at any given time (and did in small doses on Wednesday night in Toronto).

On nights like this one, when the Kings are winning and Cousins is producing, all is good and the odd surly glare or mistreatment of an equipment guy can be swept under the rug.

However, this is a young squad that will endure plenty of bumps along the road and Smart will have his hands full with keeping his big man in check throughout the highs and lows.

Where Norris Cole Happens

On Tuesday night, Norris Cole, a little-known Miami Heat rookie out of Cleveland State, trended worldwide on Twitter.

No, really.

I’m still not sure if that says more about Cole’s surprise 20-point effort against the Boston Celtics which included 14 fourth quarter points (and yes, basically every ‘LeBron James should take notes’ joke was tweeted out last night), or the sheer passion and volume of basketball fans across the globe.

However, it does speak to the unpredictability of the young NBA season as unsettled rotations and confusion over roles has set up an environment where the Norris Coles’ of the league can get themselves noticed.

At some point during this shortened 2011-12 campaign, chemistry and roster issues will be resolved and the most talented teams will ultimately emerge atop the standings, bringing some semblance of normalcy back to the league’s landscape. Until then, however, box scores may look pretty odd as lesser-knowns who push hard and seize opportunities can find themselves getting minutes and thriving.

Through three days of NBA action, Cole isn’t alone among the league’s ‘seize the day’ crowd. Fellow NBA freshman Jon Leuer, selected out of University of Wisconsin in the second round of the 2011 NBA Draft (40th over-all) by the Milwaukee Bucks, was the unlikely star of Milwaukee’s home opener on Tuesday night, contributing 14 points on 5-7 shooting off the bench in a 98-95 win. One night prior, Leuer had received just 1:18 of playing time in a 96-95 loss to Charlotte.

This isn’t a rookie-exclusive phenomenon, either.

On Monday night, Ty Lawson took it upon himself to sort out the Denver’s lack of a clear No. 1 scorer by collecting 27 points on 10-15 shooting in the Nuggets’ season-opening 115-93 win over the Dallas Mavericks. Sacramento Kings’ guard Marcus Thornton posted the same point total against Kobe Bryant and the Lakers on Monday (although he couldn’t exactly find that same touch again on Tuesday, when he went just 5-15 from the field in a 101-79 loss to Portland). Meanwhile, Vladimir Radmanovic, part of Atlanta’s new trio of “I didn’t know he played there now” veteran reserves alongside Tracy McGrady and Willie Green, posted 17 points off the bench in place of a foul-plagued Josh Smith to help the Hawks to a season-opening 106-70 victory in New Jersey.

Of course, there’s no guarantee that any of the aforementioned players will continue to enjoy this same level of success. More realistically, other players will re-establish their grip on the scoring load for a given team and the status quo will come about as stars return to peak physical condition. It’s no coincidence that the league’s three 2-0 teams are pictures of stability; from an always-prepared head coach (Portland’s Nate McMillan) to a core foundation that has been able to grow together (Oklahoma City) to a team where, Cole aside, elite talent has still managed to reign supreme early (Miami).

Even if this is just a brief anomaly until the NBA universe resets, it’s a pretty fun time to be an NBA fan, as chaos reigns, unpredictability ensues and Norris Cole trends.

Casey Quick To Leave His Mark

The rock sits right outside the Toronto Raptors’ locker room – in plain view of anyone who happens to pass by. Over two feet high, it serves as a striking representation of the imprint that Dwane Casey has already made on the club, really just one week into his coaching tenure.

The rock is just that – a rock – but it has already come to symbolize the type of unified, singular message that Casey has instilled, the very sense of purpose that has been lacking from recent Raptors’ squads.

“Pound the Rock” is the rallying cry, underscored by the presence of an actual rock shipped over from Thornhill, ON by club employee Graeme McIntosh at the behest of Casey. Though subject to the scorn and derision of some (mostly media members), many Raptors have come to embrace the concept on account of the philosophy behind it.

It’s no accident that the rock embodies the type of strong, tough, unbending presence that Casey wants his players to adapt. The phrase, itself, touches on the need to be aggressive, get the ball inside and fight for every inch of positioning on the court.

It isn’t enough to call Casey a preacher of defence. Yes, he will emphasize protecting the rim and playing hard on your own end of the court, but the former Mavericks assistant aims to develop a winning mentality in all aspects of the game, brought on by personal accountability and a collective effort to work hard within your role.

“One thing I can promise,” asserts GM Bryan Colangelo, “we’re not going to lay down, we’re going to lay it out there every single night, we’re going to fight hard. I know Dwane’s not going to tolerate anything less and there’s going to be some accountability with regards to their performance this year and how they play.”

While it’s only training camp (in other words, the time for empty rhetoric), the message seems to be getting through early. The front office has demonstrated their faith in Casey with his fingerprints all over the team’s recent veteran acquisitions (Anthony Carter, specifically, is a Casey guy through and through).

Meanwhile, the players speak with reverence (mixed with maybe a little fear) over the culture which he is working to institute.

“I know what type of guy [Casey] is,” says newcomer Anthony Carter, who played under Casey in Minnesota. “He’s a hard worker, and that’s what he expects out of his players and that’s why he wanted to bring me in – because he knew how hard I worked.”

Carter will be a key part of Casey’s strategy of having his approach to coaching re-enforced to the players from within. He was one of five veteran free agents, alongside Jamaal Magloire, Rasual Butler, Aaron Gray and, most recently, Gary Forbes, whom Casey identified as being able to help both embody and encourage the traits that he is hoping to see out of young guys like DeMar DeRozan, Ed Davis and Jerryd Bayless.

“We needed to get veteran players in here to, kind of, echo what we’re talking about as a coaching staff, which he, Magloire, Rasual and even Gray are doing,” says Casey. “It’s a huge help to us – its changed the tone of practice, changed the physicality of practice and that’s part of our culture we’re trying to establish.”

That culture begins and ends with Casey, the most important “new guy” of the bunch. If he can get the group to buy in, these Raptors could grow up in a hurry. At worst, the team won’t allow themselves to be pushovers.

Training Camp With Dwane Casey

On Tuesday, Raptors head coach Dwane Casey spoke about the process of a shortened training camp and about being impressed by Andrea Bargnani five days into camp.

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Training Camp With DeMar DeRozan

DeMar DeRozan spoke to the media following Tuesday’s morning practice. He spoke about becoming the face of the franchise, developing as a leader and defender and getting knocked down by new teammate Jamaal Magloire.

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Training Camp With Ed Davis

Ed Davis met with media following practice on Tuesday morning as he prepares to kick off his sophomore NBA season. In addition to discussing the influence of Jamaal Magloire, he talked about the thin line between being a tough team and a dirty team.

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Training Camp With Anthony Carter

Anthony Carter, the Raptors’ new resident soundbyte-in-waiting (so long, Reggie Evans!) offered up his evaluation of his second day of training camp with the club. He also spoke about toughness and discussed the meaning behind some of his many tattoo’s.

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Training Camp With Jamaal Magloire

After a Tuesday morning practice session, Jamaal Magloire talks about knocking down DeMar DeRozan, offers his thoughts on DeRozan and Ed Davis and provides a timeline for the young team’s success.

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Analyzing Toronto’s Tough Schedule

Hope the Raptors got their share of rest over this extended off-season – they’ll need it.

The NBA schedule, which was released on Tuesday night, wasn’t kind to anyone; such is the nature of a 66-game tilt being crammed into a short, four-month window. But it’s hard to fathom a tougher stretch faced by any NBA franchise than the Raptors’ January slate.

Toronto will spend New Year’s Eve flying Dallas to Orlando to prepare for a New Year’s Day visit to the Magic that will kick off a month of 19 games in 31 days, 12 of which will come on the road. Within that will be a rough grind of seven games in just nine nights, including the club’s lone back-to-back-to-back set from January 9-11th (vs. Minnesota, @ Orlando, vs. Sacramento).

Beyond a grueling January, the schedule produced its share of interesting quirks for the Raptors. They will be on the road for 17 of their first 26 games, only to promptly even things out with a seven-game homestand from February 8th to 22nd. Due to the All-Star break, which will occur February 24-27, the team (those not selected for the weekend’s festivities, anyway) won’t actually have to take to the road at all between their Feb. 6th game in Washington and their Feb. 28th game at Houston.

Notable by their absence are Toronto’s Sunday afternoon home tilts, which typically attract families and include the opportunity for kids to take a shot on court after the game. Only one such game can be found on the schedule (February 12 against the Lakers), with the three other Sunday home games all taking place at 6:00pm.

If Raptor fans are going to circle one stretch of games on their must-see calendar, they might want to consider a five-day period in February in which the Celtics, Lakers, Knicks and Spurs will all be in town. From February 10th to 15th, Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, Ray Allen, Rajon Rondo, Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol, Carmelo Anthony, Amare Stoudemire, Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobli and whomever else these teams may get their hands on in the coming weeks will all be plying their trade in Toronto.

Aside from that marquee week, some key home dates include the home opener on December 28th against the Pacers, a Minnesota visit on February 9th which will feature the NBA’s first Ricky Rubio-Jose Calderon showdown, a March 4th visit by the Golden State Warriors, who appear to be among the favourites in the Chris Paul Sweepstakes, and welcoming a pair of Eastern Conference powers in Chicago (March 21st) and Miami (March 30th) in late March.

Among those who will not be making their annual trek across the border this season are the reigning NBA champion Dallas Mavericks, Kevin Durant and the Oklahoma City Thunder, Steve Nash and the Phoenix Suns and the Los Angeles Clippers’ “Blake Show”.