Sam Smith's NBA news and notes - 3.17.14

Sam Smith takes a spin around the NBA to bring you his latest news and notes

NCAA tournament time also means bracket pools for the NBA executives, which is the fun part. The more difficult part, especially this season, will be for the team with the No. 1 overall pick. Assuming all the freshman players enter the NBA draft — which remains no certainty — it seems like there’s going to be a tough choice for some team about Kansas freshman center Joel Embiid and Duke freshman forward Jabari Parker.

Up until a few weeks ago, Embiid was coming strong and close to a unanimous No. 1 selection among most pro scouts. But now with back issues which apparently occurred in high school as well, several teams are privately hoping for the No. 2 pick. Because that can save your job. Let someone else perhaps make the big mistake.

Embiid is a rare NBA talent because he is a smooth, lithe seven footer drawing comparisons to Tim Duncan and Hakeem Olajuwon. Though both were in college four years. It makes a big difference. Embiid from Cameroon only has been playing three years, but pro scouts see him as a big man game changer, which few teams have. But what about the back? It’s supposedly not serious, but he is so young.

Parker is probably the most NBA-ready player, an almost certain rookie of the year candidate if he comes into the NBA next season. But he’s not regarded with the potential that Embiid can have. Safe? Stardom? Or sorry? Someone with the No. 1 pick will have a daring choice to make: A potential franchise center around whom you can build a dynasty? Or injury risk? Or the safe, sophisticated Duke star who could be an All-Star, but likely never your best player on a title team? And then see Embiid take off?

The other players the pros will be watching for the top of the lottery are Kansas’ Andrew Wiggins, Kentucky’s Julius Randle, Oklahoma State’s Marcus Smart, Syracuse’s Tyler Ennis and Kentucky’s James Young, scouts say. Indiana isn’t in the NCAA tournament, but their Noah Vonleh has moved into the top 10 on most draft boards along with Australia’s Dante Exum. Creighton’s Doug McDermott, a popular scorer, is considered a top 14 lottery pick who could move up given his shooting ability.

-- It’s so refreshing to be around Larry Bird. If only we had such honesty in business and government. Because it’s productive and not mean spirited. It also offers a glimpse of why someone with Bird’s limited natural athletic skills was so successful. You don’t fool or cheat yourself; your effort and commitment determines your success, not your reputation. The Pacers, though still with the best record in the East, have slowed as the Bulls prepare for two games with them in four days starting Friday. You can understand this late in the season with playoff positioning basically clinched. Maybe the Heat can coast some, but the Pacers haven’t won anything but some regard. Their uninspired play of late is a weakness and exposes vulnerability for the playoffs. Also, there’s the issue of chemistry and who is gaining or losing minutes now with the additions of Andrew Bynum and Evan Turner. Adding talent looks good. But it can create internal divisions. Despite the way they’ve acted, they’re not the lock for the conference finals the Heat likely are. With Indiana’s lack of scoring and no truly great scorer who can carry them, they’re a potential upset victim in any round. Bird probably can see that. So he told the Indianapolis Star: "A lot of times we don't take the fight to them. A lot of times we sit back and wait and see how it goes. And that was the case even when we were winning a lot of games early in the season. We've got to be mentally prepared to really go after the teams we're playing against. We can't have the mindset it's just another game." That’s the way Bird approached every game, and he sees his Pacers are not quite there yet. Bird also raised one of the more unspoken issues with coaching, especially when a young, less experienced coach takes over, like Frank Vogel. By all accounts, Vogel is a bright man and knowledgeable. But one of the traps young coaches fall into is getting too close to the players and thus not being able to appropriately discipline them and be demanding enough. Some have raised that question about Scott Brooks, whose Thunder is in Chicago Monday. They are terrific tacticians. But can they hold these young stars accountable often enough? And while Bird hired Vogel when no one else might have and supports him, Bird also understands the difficulty of being a young coach with sudden superstars. "I'm sort of going to Frank's side because he's had so much success by staying positive," Bird told the newspaper. "We do have to stay the course. But I also think he's got to start going after guys when they're not doing what they're supposed to do. And stay on them whether you've got to take them out of the game when they're not doing what they're supposed to do or limit their minutes. I will say he hasn't done that enough." It’s because we’ll hear stuff like that from Bird, the Pacers have a better chance than they might have of winning a title.

-- The Bulls are opening eyes everywhere on national TV. It’s Bulls/Pacers Friday, though the big Bulls TV show could be the business enterprise/reality show Shark Tank. Longtime Bulls ball boy Mike Shannon with partner Kasey Gandham from Illinois State and their Packback company will be presenting their textbook pay per use business to the “Shark” business entrepreneurs on this week’s show ... The latest this week was fake tough guy Jermaine O’Neal taking cheap shots at Blake Griffin and later confronting him outside the Clippers’ locker room. The Clippers’ forward is having a breakout season and is a top five MVP contender ahead of teammate Chris Paul. But no one absorbs as many cheap shots as Griffin, who has been criticized, of all things, for not retaliating. Karl Malone, among others, has suggested it as Malone said recently, "I don't like guys taking cheap shots. I said one time on ESPN I just want Blake to lose his mind one day. I said I'll pay his fine.” It’s not allowed in the NBA these days, and shame on the league for not doing more to stand by a player trying to let the league handle these issues. The NBA keeps saying it will protect players who don’t fight. OK, so do it!" Asked about criticism he needs to retaliate, Griffin told the Los Angeles Times, "To me, toughness isn't just being ready to throw a punch or push somebody and be tough like that. It's about having that mental toughness, as well, to stay in the game." He’s Gandhi. But that’s the correct message that needs to be backed up by the league office ... From the RSJ stats, the Pistons at 16 under .500 are two over when Brandon Jennings takes 10 shots or fewer. Two of the supposedly disappointing rookies have been shooting guards Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Ben McLemore. But it’s no coincidence they play with perhaps the league’s most scoring oriented point guards, Jennings and Isaiah Thomas ... Obviously, former Bull Andres Nocioni, still playing in Spain, has seen the Kings. He was quoted on the Hoopshype website last week with one of the best comments on the game I’ve heard in talking about the Kings: “I don’t recommend Sacramento to anyone. When youth doesn’t come with maturity and responsibility it’s debauchery.” We do miss Noce. Nocioni also said of Bulls draft pick Nikola Mirotic, “He will fit in 100 percent with the Bulls” and should go to the NBA for next season.

-- The Pistons don’t get a lot of credit this season, but their management isn’t giving up like the 76ers when it might help with the draft. Which is why there is no epidemic of tanking. Just in Philadelphia. The Pistons even with Andre Drummond hurt pushed the Pacers to overtime Saturday even as the Pistons need to finish with the eighth lowest record or poorer to retain their No. 1 pick. Otherwise it goes to Charlotte ... The Bobcats in their final season as Bobcats (back to Hornets next season) are one of the best stories in the NBA this season and thus making rookie coach Steve Clifford a coach of the year candidate. They still have perhaps the most unlikely playoff starting lineup and I heard even fewer predict they could make the playoffs compared with even the Suns. Al Jefferson has moved into serious all-NBA consideration and you’d have to say he’s done more to impact winning than even someone like Kevin Love, who plays with far more talent. That balances off being in a better conference. Love was scoreless in the second half, by the way, when the Bobcats beat the Timberwolves last week with Jefferson getting 25 and 16, though Jefferson doesn’t defend Love. Thus more credit to Clifford for a high level defensive team even covering up for a weak defending Jefferson. Credit Michael Jordan’s management team not only for the criticized signing of Jefferson but the strong in season pickups of Gary Neal and Luke Ridnour. The Bulls will get Charlotte’s pick from the Tyrus Thomas trade this season with the Bobcats making the playoffs. The Bobcats have won six of seven and in the last month defeated Memphis, Washington, Indiana and Minnesota.

-- Don’t sleep on the Wizards, who currently are the first round matchup for the Bulls. They’ve broken free of that .500 or bust mentality with one of the league’s toughest backcourts and coming off a strong win over the Nets, who have been trying to pass them for fifth in the East. Said Paul Pierce afterward: “They’re good. They’re growing up right before our eyes. You’ve seen their struggles over the years. John Wall has matured as a player, obviously, becoming an All-Star this year and taking on more responsibilities and becoming a leader for this ball club. That’s what the Washington Wizards have been waiting on, and you’re seeing it.” ... Kobe Bryant took off at the helpless Lakers last week, in effect, saying he’s not putting up with this kind of losing when he returns next season. Of course, the Lakers are limited by the $48 million, two-year extension he signed. No that much, really, because this is not going to be a very big free agent summer as we assume LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony stay where they are for now. Then the question for so many teams with money is whether to spend it now. The biggest names this summer — after LeBron, Carmelo and Chris Bosh — are Luol Deng, Lance Stephenson, Kyle Lowry, Evan Turner, Gordon Hayward and Spencer Hawes. Are any truly changing your roster? Worth eight-figure salaries? Changing the Lakers’ fortunes? It figures to be a long way back for the Lakers. Lakers, Celtics or Knicks? The Knicks’ future, of the three, looks brightest ... Best player playing in anonymity because his team is fighting to get to 30 wins is Anthony Davis, who’d be an all-league candidate for someone else. After his 40 and 21 Sunday in the overtime win over Boston, in the last six games he’s averaging 32.3 points, 14.3 rebounds and three blocks on 58 percent shooting and more than 10 free throw attempts per game.

-- Big finish for Miami to beat Houston Sunday with Ray Allen scoring 25, his most with the Heat. But it was a questionable Rockets lineup to close with both Jeremy Lin and James Harden on the floor, which enabled Allen to constantly get open. Those are two of the poorer defenders in the league and it makes it difficult to consider Harden an all-league player the way he doesn’t even seem to try on defense. Fabulous scorer, but there’s more to it than that ... It’s still setting up as a heck of a finish for that last spot in the West with the Suns in ninth now. But just two losses out of sixth with the Warriors’ Sunday last second win over Portland. It’s had the sixth place Warriors nervous enough to have a team meeting after a home loss to the Cavs last week. It’s shaky to have title aspirations and to be that close to missing the playoffs. But the Warriors also are just a game and a half behind sliding Portland for fifth ... Interesting that the Thunder saved Russell Westbrook for Monday to face the Bulls. Maybe they shouldn’t have as they were blown out Sunday at home against the Mavs, a potential first round playoff opponent. The Thunder is playing Westbrook after knee surgery in only one of two in their remaining back to backs, which included against Dallas and in Chicago Monday. Westbrook also remains on a minutes restriction, so it will again be interesting to see what limitations the Bulls have on Derrick Rose next season.

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