Let’s not overreact. OK, let’s. Are the Lakers falling apart? There’s some startling evidence beginning to mount, and appropriately enough, it starts in the post. Thus, our lead item in the Weekly Post-Ups:
• Andrew Bynum has been in single-digits in points and rebounds in two of the last three games and three of the last six. His numbers have steadily declined since Pau Gasol returned to the lineup, but that’s not the only reason. Coach Phil Jackson revealed Monday night that, in addition to an upper respiratory infection, Bynum has been battling some discomfort in his right knee. Nothing raises a red flag for the Lakers like an issue with one of Bynum’s knees. One take on it is that Bynum is becoming more mature and aware of knee pain and is being proactive in alerting the trainers and getting treatment. But nothing short of a long-term injury to Kobe Bryant would hinder the Lakers’ repeat plans more than losing Bynum again.
• Speaking of Bryant, he’s continuing to battle through an avulsion fracture in the index finger of his shooting hand. This is a particularly difficult injury to play with, because every defender in the league is swiping at that finger dozens of times a game. Every time the finger gets stronger, it seems, Bryant takes a shot to it and suffers a setback. Bryant also injured his right elbow against Sacramento on Saturday night and wore a heavy brace in Monday night’s loss to the Suns.
• As team broadcaster John Ireland points out in his blog, the Lakers are 6-6 against teams with winning records this season – and the average margin of defeat in the six losses has been 15 points. Ouch.
• Finally, the Lakers are hopeful that Ron Artest will return Tuesday night against Golden State. Even by Lakers standards, the tale of Artest falling down a flight of stairs on Christmas night and injuring his head and elbow was hard to believe. Whatever happened, Artest is hoping to shake off the dizziness and restore the defensive backbone that has been sorely missed in his absence.
• As reported here, Tracy McGrady’s representatives have taken the obligatory step of asking the Rockets to trade him. It remains to be seen whether this solves McGrady’s problem, but I’m certain it solves the Rockets’. By leaving the team and requesting a trade over playing time issues with coach Rick Adelman, McGrady has done Houston’s front office a favor. It’s clear the Rockets don’t want or need McGrady around, and this way, he won’t be anywhere near the team.
• Side note on McGrady: If logic holds, he won’t face a fine from the NBA for requesting a trade because it wasn’t done publicly. Nate Robinson was hit with a $25,000 fine this week after his agent, Aaron Goodwin, publicly requested a trade.
• Strange times in Chicago with Vinny Del Negro, who is the only one in the Bulls’ hierarchy saying publicly that he won’t be fired. Thus far, the silence from GM Gar Forman and VP John Paxson has been deafening. Forman declined to speak with Chicago reporters Monday and also decided not to discuss Del Negro’s status with this reporter. The Bulls should not be proud that they’re following the blueprint of another paranoid organization when it comes to how you fire a coach. This is exactly how it worked at Madison Square Garden with Isiah Thomas two seasons ago. Aside from organizational silence leaving the coach twisting in the wind, there’s another key similarity. Del Negro continues to insist he has daily communication with both Forman and Del Negro. This is important. As long as the lines of communication are open, the coach is usually safe – at least temporarily. This is just a hunch, but Del Negro seems to be on a very Isiah-like path here. Remember that when the Knicks finally did dispense with Isiah, they didn’t fire him outright. They retained him as a consultant in Donnie Walsh’s new regime.
• Speaking of Walsh, his job of turning around the Knicks, which he’s already told confidants is harder than he thought it would be, isn’t getting any easier. Of the three players Walsh needs to trade, two of them are buried at the end of the bench. With project Jonathan Bender getting backup minutes in the frontcourt, Eddy Curry has been inactive for five straight games and has little chance of cracking Mike D’Antoni’s tight rotation. Nate Robinson, who has taken Stephon Marbury’s spot in D’Antoni’s doghouse, got his 12th straight DNP-CD Sunday night against San Antonio. Trading Robinson is less critical since he’s on a one-year, $4 million contract, and teams know what they’re getting with him. (That’s also part of the problem.) The only must-trade guy who’s playing is Jared Jeffries, who over the past couple of weeks finally has emerged as a useful and dependable defender.
• Not only have the Oklahoma City Thunder (15-14) managed to hover around .500 despite a brutal early season schedule, but they keep making savvy moves to position themselves to join the Western Conference elite in the next two years. An example: Needing a backup point guard they can develop in their system, the Thunder grabbed 2009 first-round pick Eric Maynor from the Jazz for the price of taking on Matt Harpring’s $6.5 million expiring contract. Since Harpring is disabled, Oklahoma City is on the hook for only about $1.5 million; insurance pays the rest. Plus, they can use the full contract as a trade chip between now and the February deadline. And since they were under the cap when they acquired Harpring, they can aggregate his contract with another player to facilitate a deal. All win-wins – and we haven’t even gotten to Maynor yet. GM Sam Presti liked Maynor in the draft, and saw him fill in more than capably for Utah when Deron Williams was hurt. So he gets a known quantity his coaches can develop, rather than make a deal later for a 2010 pick to address the point guard position with an unknown.
• In addition to signing team president Geoff Petrie to a three-year extension, the Kings shuffled some front-office furniture around. Mike Petrie has been promoted from regional scout to assistant VP of basketball operations. Wayne Cooper is expected to be named general manager. Jason Levien is the team’s assistant GM/team counsel. All of this is well deserved. The Kings (14-16) already have as many home wins (11) as they managed all of last season after beating the Nuggets Monday night without Tyreke Evans.
• With at least 30 points in five of the past six games, Monta Ellis is putting together an unassailable All-Star resume. With consecutive victories over Boston and Phoenix, and big men Andris Biedrins and Ronny Turiaf back in the rotation, it’s a good time to begin evaluating whether Golden State can take the step from freak show to competitive NBA team.
• The Hawks continue to thrive with the fifth best record in the league behind the Big 4 (Lakers, Celtics, Cavs, and Magic), and the city of Atlanta barely notices. Philips Arena remains half-full on most nights; for the Memphis game on Dec. 16, the actual attendance figure was under 10,000, according to a source. So I wonder, as I have on several occasions, what would’ve happened if Philips Arena had been built in the Atlanta suburbs instead of downtown. Atlanta is a sprawling, suburb-dominated city where folks who don’t have to venture downtown have been conditioned against doing so. Traffic is abysmal, public transportation is insufficient, and the last thing people want to do on their average weeknight is sit in bumper-to-bumper traffic on I-285 to see the Hawks play. (Especially after spending a good part of their day in traffic while commuting to and from work.) Would the team draw better if the arena had been built in the suburbs, a la the Palace of Auburn Hills? It turns out, this discussion was had years ago before Philips was built. The Hawks paid $250,000 to a consulting firm to study the best place to put the arena. The recommendation was to build it on the city’s perimeter. Ted Turner, who owned the Hawks then, said thanks for the recommendation, and then decided to build downtown, next to the old Omni. Thus, the fate of a second-class NBA franchise was sealed.