1. What NBA Scouts Are Saying Now

Marc SteinBy Marc Stein
ESPN.com

NBA advance scouts are just like you and me.

They can't resist daily dissections of the ongoing hoop dramas in Hollywood, either.

Our annual midseason consultation with the guys who travel more than anyone in the league, lining press row for three to four games weekly to chart every play rival teams run, could only start in one place.

Lakerland.

Observations from six scouts -- three in each conference who were granted anonymity to speak as candidly as possible -- predictably tips off with two views on the star-studded Lakers' ongoing unraveling for the ages and continues with first-hand insights into some of the league's most pertinent topics.


Western Conference scout on the deepening Lakers crisis:

"Where do you want to start? I see a team having trouble guarding at every position. [Steve] Nash can't keep guys in front of him, but it's not just him. They're having trouble guarding all over the floor.

"They don't get back in transition. They don't force turnovers, so they don't get anything easy. I know it's asking a coach to change his stripes, but I think they've got to look at slowing the tempo way down.

"In the past, they always tried to keep the [number of] possessions [in a game] down because they thought, 'We're gonna get more out of our possessions than you.' I know [Mike] D'Antoni's teams have always tried to score a number that their opponent can't reach, but they need less possessions [per game] with an older team. The more possessions there are means they have to play more defense.

"Injuries have obviously not helped. I really don't want to pile on, because people are forgetting how many injuries they've had. How much have [Dwight] Howard and Nash really played together? And let's face it: All of us -- all of us -- thought they were going to be good.

"But I underestimated how much the Lakers [lack] shooting and how lifeless Dwight would look. He's either still hurting [after back surgery] or he's letting the frustration affect him, because he's floating through some of these games. I don't see him jumping for rebounds and blocked shots like he did in Orlando.

"In Phoenix, D'Antoni had all those shooters and he had Nash drawing more defenders to him [than he does as a Laker]. Right now you can guard [Nash] with one man or maybe a man and a half on pick-and-rolls ... and he doesn't have the ball in his hands as much because he has to share it with Kobe [Bryant]. Neither one of them [Howard or Nash] is playing like the guys we think of when we hear their names.

"My question is: Can the Lakers find a way, like Chicago did when they were losing games, not to give up on each other? Remember early in the season when [the Lakers] were losing games at the free throw line? The games haven't even been close enough lately for the [Lakers'] free throws to matter."


Eastern Conference scout on the Lakers' free fall:

"They've got chemistry issues. You can see it in the way they talk to each other, their body language on the floor. Just the way they look at each other when somebody gets beat. There's a disconnect there.

"But most of their problems are on the defensive end. They don't get back in transition and they don't know how to cover the pick-and-roll. It's just a bad mix, because we all know that D'Antoni isn't going to emphasize defense and he's not going to change the way he coaches.

"I don't see how they pull it all together unless they trade Pau [Gasol] or change their style of play. If D'Antoni is your coach, you don't need two centers, so they have to look at trading Pau to get the shooters and the speed you need in D'Antoni's system. Or you've got to convince him to slow the ball down and use Pau in the post more and get Kobe and [Metta World Peace] to be more selective with their shots.

"Dwight was a good pick-and-roll player in Orlando, but they had Ryan Anderson, [and] a bunch of shooters spreading the floor. [Stan] Van Gundy had good defensive schemes, too. This is a different dynamic. Once again, you've got to find a place for Gasol on the floor [next to Howard] and they've got no shooters."


Eastern Conference scout on the Celtics' own mess:

"I thought they were starting to feel good about themselves, but I think I've decided they're just not quite good enough. Their bench has to be playing at the top of their abilities for them to win. And they don't have enough guys big-guy-wise that Doc [Rivers] is comfortable with.

"For them to win games, [Jared] Sullinger pretty much has to have a double-double. And we're talking about a 6-[foot-]7 center. The other big issue is that they've got no one making any 3s. The Jet [Jason Terry] hasn't been on the runway very often. And Avery Bradley, for all his defensive prowess, isn't shooting the ball well, either.

"Paul Pierce is still great in big games, but I think he's getting to that age -- like a lot of guys do -- where he paces himself. He gets up for the challenges of the Chicagos or the Miamis, but in some of these other games, he's not quite The Truth.

"[Rajon] Rondo can change the game when he's engaged, but ... let's just say he's always very aware of his stats. And it's very evident from where I sit that he's playing for steals and assists sometimes instead of making the winning play or the easier play or defending his guy like he should.

"Other people tried to talk me out of it, but I said [before the season] that they'd finish third in [the Atlantic] Division. They're depending too much on their young guys and their bench playing great. They don't have a knock-down shooter and, after six years, they still don't have a reliable backup for Rondo. But I think their 'mess' is what's gonna happen when Pierce is gone and Kevin Garnett is gone. Because there's nobody in the wings."


Western Conference scout on LeBron James versus Kevin Durant in the MVP race:

lastname
James

lastname
Durant

"I know this probably isn't the answer you want, but it's a push. How do you expect me to choose between those two?

"If this is a pick-up game, I'm taking LeBron, because he can bring the ball up the floor, pass the ball, score the ball, post up, you name it. But this isn't a pick-up game.

"And Durant is just a quiet assassin. If I'm going to [make the decision based on] value to his team, I can take Durant with a clear conscience. I don't like that he's suddenly got a lot of bad boy in him -- it's not who he is, in my opinion -- but he is a nightmare to guard. Quiet assassin who lets his game do the talking ... that's how I've always seen him."


Eastern Conference scout on the biggest threat to Miami in the East:

"The Knicks will win the second-most games in the regular season. Chicago and Brooklyn will give [Miami] the tougher series.

"Brooklyn is better suited for the playoffs than New York ... I said that early on and I'm sticking with it. They obviously feel better about themselves with P.J. [Carlesimo] coaching and, most of all, Brook Lopez is healthy again.

"Chicago is beating a bunch of teams without [Derrick Rose] right now, so once Rose gets back, they'll be right there. And I should have mentioned Indiana. They get overlooked for a number of reasons, but they have the length and size. They're really underrated.

"[The Pacers] have length and size at every position and they seem to have bought in. When [Danny] Granger was there, they would shoot quick shots [as a team]. They're more of a grinding team now and they don't mind winning ugly. I put 'em up there with Chicago."


Eastern Conference scout on the state of the Heat:

"Miami's fine.

"Everybody talks about how they don't rebound the ball, but the biggest issue why is I just don't think it's that important to them. LeBron is playing the 4 and [Chris] Bosh is playing the 5, so they know they're going to going to be undersized. LeBron is gonna try to get out on the break instead of boxing out a guy. D-Wade is looking to get blocks or steals. They have no box-out guys except [Udonis] Haslem and Joel Anthony.

"I think they should be playing Anthony more, personally, to get back to a defensive mindset, but they're going to win the Eastern Conference. Period. So Erik Spoelstra can still pick and choose during the [regular] season when to emphasize defense."


Western Conference scout on if San Antonio is still a legit title contender:

"I thought they could win it all last [season]. I was sold on 'em then and I think they're a better team now. OKC and San Antonio, that's going to be the battle. I still think they're the two best teams in the West.

"The Spurs ... they're just so poised. I don't think they're too old, because they run their stuff so stinkin' well. Their guards know their roles so well and they're so deep. And [Tiago] Splittler has gotten a lot better. He's playing really big around the rim.

"I really think they can beat OKC in the playoffs this time and I've got 'em ahead of the Clippers, too. It's a playoff mentality thing. If [the Clippers] play them in a series, San Antonio is too disciplined in the playoffs.

"They're going to have to be fresh when the time comes [late in the season]. They traded baskets too much last year and it caught up to them. But Pop has them back among the top teams [defensively].

"For me, they're the most fun team to watch. You know what they're going to do. It's like clockwork. [Sitting with scouts on press row] we'll call out the plays before they do, because we know what they're going to run. But if you stop one thing, they always know how to counter. And they're all on the same page."


Eastern Conference scout on Sacramento's DeMarcus Cousins:

lastname
Cousins

"When he wants to impose his will down there, he can be really, really tough to stop. He's just so much physically bigger and stronger than everyone else. But it's too easy to force him into making decisions on the perimeter. Too often he takes the path of least resistance.

"In some ways, with the ups and downs, he's the Russell Westbrook of centers. But does he have the work ethic and the relentlessness of a Russell Westbrook to become a franchise player? That's going to be the big thing. Because, right now, it just takes a lot of energy and maintenance to keep that guy on track, or close to being on track. And you have to wonder how much it detracts from the other [Kings'] development.

"I'm just flying in a helicopter, looking down on the situation [as an outsider], but I still see a guy that reacts to everything. It's an emotional roller coaster every night. Whatever the impulse of the moment is -- euphoria or anger -- he's gonna express it.

"You need a unified front to get the best out of a player like that ... ownership, management and coach. And Sacramento doesn't have that. So the sale of the franchise, no matter how it [turns out], will hopefully be a good thing for him.

"You hope that this is all just part of [Cousins'] natural progression, but the reality is he makes a ton of mistakes when he's pressured or [taken] out of his comfort zone. He's not a good decision-maker against pressure and he's sloppy with his fundamentals. But he has so many gifts. He can post on the left block and turn both ways. When he really attacks the rim, he becomes extremely hard to stop. He just doesn't do it enough."


Western Conference scout on the return of Washington's John Wall:

lastname
Wall

"I saw him pretty early on [in his comeback] and he was just OK. But it takes time. It's too soon for me to make a comprehensive evaluation. Be patient and let him work through it, which is a lot harder to do than it sounds.

"But I have to give it up for the Wizards. When you start 0-14 or whatever it was and you get through that desert and you're still fighting, that's a great sign. That tells you they're still a team. The troops are still fighting and we're not talking about the most talented team. They've come a long way from when I saw them in the preseason."


Western Conference scout on the "most interesting story no one is talking about":

"You're asking a tough question there. I read ESPN.com every day. There's not a lot of things you guys don't talk about.

"This isn't really a secret or anything, but I'm fascinated by Golden State. I haven't had the chance to see them a lot, so I can't really tell you why they've improved so much defensively and rebounding the ball without [Andrew] Bogut even playing.

"What's the deal with that? That's something they've been trying to get over the hump with for several years and there were no hints at all that things were going to turn around [with Bogut injured all season]. I'd like to see more of them, so I can figure that out. Hopefully I'll have some answers next time."

Dimes past: Jan. 10 | 11-12 | 13 | 14 | 15 | 16 | 17 | 18-19 | 20 | 21 | 22 | 23 | 24


2. Eastern Conference


The safe assumption remains that the Boston Celtics will focus their trade-deadline efforts on acquiring another big man before the Feb. 21 buzzer to fortify their too-small front line.

As noted Friday morning via Twitter, Boston has also ramped up its interest in Orlando sharpshooter J.J. Redick this week to address an unexpected need for trusted shooters on the perimeter.

Although there are still live rumbles on the league's personnel grapevine that this will actually be the February that Celtics front-office chief Danny Ainge finally parts with Paul Pierce or Rajon Rondo, I'm still pretty skeptical. As one team monitoring the Celtics said this week: "[Boston] has floated the idea of moving Pierce or Rondo out there for the last three years ... but has never pulled the trigger."

So it's premature, to me, to throw Pierce's name up there with Rudy Gay and Pau Gasol on the list of high-profile names we need to monitor this trade season, even though we've heard more than one rival team speculate that a three-way deal where Pierce lands in Memphis, Gasol goes to Boston and Gay joins the Lakers makes "some sense." Sources say that the Celtics and Grizzlies have indeed held some exploratory trade talks since Gay hit the market.

Pierce's $15.3 million salary next season is guaranteed for only $5 million, so his contract is highly tradable, but instinct tells me that Ainge's fondness for him and Pierce's stature within the franchise and in the city make it a serious long shot that we'll see him dealt during the next 27 days. Rondo is a harder read because this season hasn't been nearly as smooth for him as his numbers look, but the suspicion here remains that Ainge will give his vets one more shot in the playoffs in an East where, approaching the 50-game marker, there's still no clear-cut No. 2 behind Miami.


Some numbers of note in the East this week:

4: Indiana's Paul George, selected to his first All-Star Game on Thursday, has increased his scoring average by more than four points in each of the past two seasons, jumping from 7.8 ppg in 2010-11 to 12.1 ppg in 2011-12 ... and now to 17.3 ppg this season. The only other players whose scoring averages have spiked by at least four points in each of the past two seasons are Houston's James Harden (from 12.2 ppg in 2010-11 to 16.8 ppg to 2011-12 and 25.8 ppg this season) and New Orleans' Greivis Vasquez (3.6 ppg in 2010-11 to 8.9 ppg in 2011-12 to 14.3 ppg this season).

20: Cleveland's Kyrie Irving, another first-timer in the All-Star Game, became the youngest player ever to score 40 points in a game against the Celtics with his 40 in Tuesday night's home win over Boston. Irving was 20 years and 305 days old when he did it, supplanting LeBron James after the former Cav's 43 points against the Celts on Feb. 15, 2006, at 21 years and 47 days old.

1,557: It's small consolation for Paul Pierce after he was snubbed by East coaches for an All-Star spot, but the Celts' captain passed Larry Bird for the franchise record for steals at 1,557 with two swipes Sunday in Boston's loss at Detroit. The NBA has been officially tracking steals since 1973. Pierce is one of four active players (along with Kobe Bryant, Dwyane Wade and Rudy Gay) who ranks as his franchise's all-time leader in steals.

5: The Knicks had a season-low five turnovers in their Martin Luther King Day loss at home to Brooklyn, marking just the second time in franchise history since turnovers became an official NBA statistic in 1970-71 that New York lost a game in which it committed five or fewer turnovers.

5: Wednesday's triple-double in an OT win at home over Toronto might have been the most unlikely of LeBron James' 34 career triple-doubles. James had only five rebounds at the end of regulation before snagging five boards in the extra period. Three other players actually finished a game with a double-digit rebounding total in 2012 despite grabbing five or fewer boards in regulation, according to Elias: Indy's David West (March 10, 2012), Dallas' Vince Carter (April 16, 2012) and Atlanta's Al Horford (Dec. 26, 2012). Before 2012, though, no player had done so in any of the five previous calendar years.


Cavaliers general manager Chris Grant has been tracking Marreese Speights since the big man was playing at Florida. And Cleveland could certainly use a boost on the front line after announcing this week that Anderson Varejao would be lost for the season after his recent leg surgery left the Brazilian with a blood clot in his right lung.

All that said ...

Don't be shocked if the Cavaliers decide to move Speights on again before the Feb. 21 deadline.

The Cavs obviously aren't in the playoff hunt and word is they're already receiving interest in Speights, who possesses a $4.5 million player option for next season. The Cavs are also armed with $12 million in expiring contracts and roughly $4 million in leftover cap space for the summer, which means they've got the tools to continue to be active before this deadline.

Daniel Gibson and Omri Casspi, according to NBA front-office sources, are the most likely Cavs to be dealt along with Speights, who had to give his consent to be sent to Cleveland as one of the 13 players in the league this season (see Box No. 6 here for the detailed explanation) possessing the sort of unique one-year contract that creates trade-blocking power.

3. One-On-One ... To Five

lastname
McCants

Five questions with 2005 lottery pick Rashad McCants, who's trying to make it back to the NBA after an absence of nearly four years via the D-League's Texas Legends:

Q: This will be your second stint with the Legends. What made you want to come back after a couple years away?

A:I'm pretty much embracing the opportunity to get back in the swing of things and get another shot at the NBA. A lot has happened. A lot has changed for me personally. I think I'm more ready now than I ever was, physically and mentally, to make the necessary adjustments no matter where I play. ... Just growing up, going through life, being a man. Every person goes through growth.

Q: You last played in the NBA in 2009. How hard has that been to accept after you came out of North Carolina with so much fanfare?

A: The first couple years it was very difficult, especially not being able to understand why. As I found more of a spiritual peace, I stopped worrying about the whys and the what-ifs and making excuses for myself. I've accepted where I am. To get over these hurdles, I've just got to be persistent and play my game and then the doors and the windows will open.

Q: You had the rep early in your [NBA] career that you were hard to play with. What's your response to that sort of talk now?

A: I honestly don't know what to say to that, because [there's] never been a clear understanding where it was coming from. There was this stigma on me, but I don't know who is saying it or where it comes from. The only thing I can do is be the player I've always been and the teammate I've always been. ... For me, I really can't address the things I can't control. The only thing I can do is go out there and be me.

Q: What happens if [at age 28] you don't get one more shot at the NBA? Can you live with that?

A: I'm a human being. I'm a grown man. But it's out of my control, so I'm not going to jump off a bridge [depending on] whether teams decide they need me or don't need me. This is my passion. This is what I've done for most of my life. I know there's a spot in the NBA for me. I'm confident in my ability, but I really can't speak for the [NBA] decision-makers. I don't know who's going to take the chance. I do know that I'll be ready.

Q: I saw on Twitter that you were back at UNC this week. What was the reaction like? Were people just excited to see you after so long or were they asking you a lot of questions about your NBA struggles so far?

A: It was amazing. It was very special to go back and feel that love. Carolina basketball and the fans that they have, they've got so much love for their players. To feel that again made me feel like I'm important, like they appreciated my ability and what I brought to a championship team [in 2005], like they still see me as a legendary player. I have to take that confidence and plug it into the situations I'm in now -- whether it's the D-League, NBA, China -- and recognize that I'm still the player I always was. And even better.

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