Welcome to my “Late Rotations”.  Just some nuggets on a few of last night’s games, from the downward spirals of the Cavaliers and the Kings to the surging Suns and the balanced Bucks, we look at happenings around the NBA last night and what they mean.

Dallas Mavericks 109, Cavaliers 90

The new-look Mavs ran roughshod over the reeling Cavs on Sunday. Dallas has ripped off 5 straight wins and has won 6 of 8 in the Rajon Rondo era, but let’s hold off on the “Mavs are now  contenders” talk. Looking at some of their wins since acquiring Rajon-

  • Comeback win over a Duncan/Parker/Manu/Kawhi-less Spurs
  • 6 point win over the Kobe-less Lakers
  • 5 point win over the Durant-less Thunder
  • 18 point smacking of the 11-win Celtics
  • 19 point drubbing of the reeling Cavs with no LeBron and who lost Kyrie in the 3rd

I’m still withholding calling the trade a rousing success. Rajon Rondo looks rejuvenated, averaging 14 ppg, 5 rpg, and 7.5 apg (with 3 turnovers a night and shooting 40% on his free throws), a definite upgrade from the 7 points and 4 dimes Jameer nelson was giving them. Dallas was subpar versus the elite of the league pre-trade, so upcoming games in January against Memphis (twice), Chicago, and Houston will be my measuring stick.

As for Cleveland, the wheels are coming off. LeBron has over 34,000 career minutes, is dealing with knee and back issues, and is well on his way to missing more games in a season than ever in his previous 11 years. “Well Kevin Love can now emerge on offense!” Nope. Love is putting up 21 ppg and an alarmingly low 7.5 rpg in the 3 games he’s played since LeBron has been out. Chemistry and team fit are impossible to predict and quantify, but from LeBron’s tepid non-endorsement of Coach Blatt, to Love’s floundering, to Kyrie’s knees, to the non-elite 22nd ranked defensive rating, Cleveland seems to be springing leaks at a troubling rate.

Phoenix Suns 125, Toronto Raptors 109

Phoenix smacked the suddenly toothless Raps big time, and while it’s too early to proclaim the inconsistent Suns “cured”, winning 8 of their last 10 after a maddening 6 game skid is a promising sign. After handing out major cash this offseason  to lock up key guys like Marcus/Markieff Morris, PJ Tucker,  and Eric Bledsoe, Phoenix has been disappointingly uninspired in stretches. Now,  Phoenix is revved up, putting up about 114 ppg in this hot streak.

I still think letting the “defensive gravity” of Channing Frye walk will bite them, but If Eric Bledsoe continues to flourish as he is ( 20 ppg, 6 rpg, 6 apg, 1,8 steals during the 8-2 surge), Phoenix MAY not be handing over that 8th seed to the charging Thunder as swiftly as some have prognosticated.

The machinery of the Raptors appeared to click along seamlessly when DeMar DeRozan went down 18 games ago, but as anything with moving parts, removing a key cog will eventually cause performance issues. Toronto still sits at 24-10, but were 13-3 after the game DeRozan was injured in, a 106-102 loss to Dallas. Since then, the Raps have gone 11-7, and the already mushy defense has been deteriorating since, cumulating in the 1st 3 game losing streak since Rudy Gay was shipped out. The return of DeMar won’t cure all of Toronto’s ills (he’s not the reason opposing perimeter guys are feasting at the rim), but he’ll shore up the depth by allowing James Johnson, Landry Fields, Grievis Vasquez, and Patrick Patterson to return to their natural supporting roles in the rotation.

Detroit Pistons 114, Sacramento Kings 95

The Kings, losers of 15 of their last 20, were within 9 points of the Pistons when Nik Stauskas canned a 3 with 4:16 left in the game. Over the next 4 minutes, we witnessed 2 teams passing each other on the up escalator and the down escalators of the NBA: 2 turnovers, 4 misses, and a boneheaded foul from the Kings, 5 buckets, including 2 cold blooded 3s from Brandon Jennings, from the freewheeling Pistons.

Sacramento screwed up. Firing coach Mike Malone was a mistake. I get that an owners vision for a team direction is huge, but sometimes, if it’s not broken, don’t fix it. DeMarcus Cousins is in the midst of a breakout year, but cracks are beginning to peek in the 5th year center’s newfound maturity. Sacramento has gone 3-10 since firing Mike Malone, and they’re hemorrhaging about 112 ppg in that stretch. No matter how sound owner Vivek Ranadive’s long term plan is, in the short term, his ham-handed handling of the coaching change and lack of communication with the franchise centerpiece are problems.

As for the Pistons, it’s simple arithmetic: subtraction of the offensive sinkhole that was Josh Smith ( Detroit was an astounding 19 points worst per 100 possessions with Josh Smith on the floor) equals a better team. Let’s be clear: Josh Smith, in a vacuum, still has a plethora of NBA skills and CAN help a team. However, as Houston found by going 1-3 when they thrust Smith into the starting lineup, you can’t give him too much responsibility or too long a leash. It remains to be seen if Houston can flourish with J-Smoove as a key piece, but it’s clear Detroit is.

  • Andre Drummond was posting a lackluster 12 ppg, 12 rpg, 1.8 blocks, and shot 48% in 28 games with Smith this season. In the 5 games sinceDetroit jettisoned Smith, Andre is slapping up 15 ppg on 62.7%, 15.8 rpg, 2.4 blocks, and 1.8 steals.
  • Brandon Jennings, with Smith: 12.6 ppg, 6.4 apg, 37%, 32.7% from 3. Last 5 games? 21.6 ppg, 5.6 apg, 56% from the field and a scorching 48.6% from 3.
  • Jodie Meeks- 6 games with Smith: 10.7 ppg, 38% shooting. Post Smith: 17.8 ppg, 57% shooting.

Without Smith’s ball stopping ways, the team is playing more freely, and it’s like a weight has been lifted off of their collective shoulders. Yeah, yeah, regression soon come, but as of now, coach/GM Stan Van Gundy made the exact right decision.

Los Angeles Lakers 88, Indiana Pacers 87

Kobe Bryant’s 4 games since his return from his 3 game shut-down: about 12 shots a game, 17.0 ppg, 8.5 rpg, 8 apg, 47.6% shooting. Lakers are 2-2. Coincidence?

Of course not. This is why many of us shook our heads at the “Of COURSE he’s taking 22 shots a game and only making 37% of ’em…WHO IS HE GOING TO PASS TO?!” nonsense: Bryant didn’t give a crap about team concepts, and by ignoring his team, he hurt himself (his numbers AND his body, he was wearing himself out) AND his squad. Bad team or not-and the Lakers ARE a bad team- no bona-fide legend should completely defy the 4 other guys he’s on the floor with. At 36, with a collection of less-than-stellar guys around him, Bryant can no longer lean on “I’m an elite scorer” as an excuse for shooting fade-aways over triple teams, as hard as that is for him (and his rabid fans) to accept. The only question is: How long does “Do It All” Kobe stick around? Will “Chuck At Will” Kobe resurface?

Milwaukee Bucks 95, New York Knicks 82

For the Bucks, 1 word: Balance.

Coming into this game, the Bucks were eerily balanced. They sat at 17-17, 7-7 at home, 10-10 on the road, 4-4 in their division, and 11-11 in their conference. Milwaukee’s battering of  the hapless Knicks made them (of course) 7-7 in their last 14 games.  6 guys are averaging between 7.5 and 18 ppg (it would be 8, but Ersan Ilyasova and Jabari Parker are out).  Kudos to coach Jason Kidd for building a fun, cohesive, hard working unit even with number 2 overall pick Jabari Parker done for the season due to injury. Currently, the Bucks are entrenched in the 6th spot in the East, and Milwaukee is a feel-good story. I have to wonder, though…is a surprise playoff berth good for the Bucks franchise? Milwaukee isn’t exactly a free agent hot spot, and outside of Parker, budding point man Brandon Knight, and tantalizing 2nd year man Giannis Antetokounmpo, there’s not much “improvement potential” on the roster. Not to be a buzz-kill, but it seems a 2015 lottery pick would be more important than being 1st round fodder for the Bulls or the Hawks.

For New York, 2 words: Knicks stink.

Saw this coming from a mile away, as much as die-hard Knicks fans and front office members want to deny it. Phil Jackson didn’t offer a quick fix, and the franchise has been preaching patience. This season was essentially meant to be a wash, with all eyes on making a free agent splash in the next 2 offseasons, once about $42 million in salary in the form of Amare Stoudemire, Andrea Bargnani, Sam Delembert, and Jason Smith come off the books. I thought the talk from Phil Jackson, coach Derek FisherCarmelo Anthony, and even respected NBA analysts like former coach Jeff Van Gundy of the Knicks possibly snagging a playoff spot before the season was laughable (seriously, click those links and chuckle along with me), but even I didn’t expect New York to be such an abomination. Watching the New York train wreck is glorious for me, but I’m enjoying it while I can, I think Phil Jackson has the cache and know-how to make a positive impact on this franchise moving forward.

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