|Heat's Riley, Knicks' Thomas say looking to the future doesn't mean tanking|
|Written by Admin|
|Friday, 28 March 2008 09:06|
With the injuries piling up as fast as the losses, the Heat and Knicks have had no choice but to turn to younger players down the stretch. That leads to the perception that they are tanking - losing games on purpose to have a better chance of landing the No. 1 draft pick. Riley dismisses that conclusion.
``I think anybody that's been around this league long enough or covering this league long enough,'' Riley said, ``after 60 or 70 games when people are absolutely out of the playoff hunt, you're trying to make your franchise better, and this is a process that you go through. You look at your young players, you don't try to lose games on purpose.''
Miami has the worst record in the league, and Dwyane Wade, Shawn Marion, Udonis Haslem and Alonzo Mourning are among their players who are sidelined while a group of NBA Development League alumni take the floor in Heat jerseys. Even Riley doesn't show up all the time anymore, skipping a few games to scout college players.
But he is quick to point out that Miami's injuries are legit, saying the Heat were two given two exceptions from the league to sign additional players. Thomas can't necessarily make the same claim.
Stephon Marbury and Eddy Curry are legitimately injured, but Quentin Richardson could probably play. And there was nothing wrong with another starter, Zach Randolph, when Thomas didn't even dress him for losses to Memphis and Minnesota - teams the Knicks are competing with for positioning in the lottery.
But Thomas, who may not even be around next season, says he's just doing what other teams in the same situation would do.
``I believe most organizations around this time, when there's no possibility of them making the playoffs, they start looking towards the future just as we are,'' Thomas said. ``And you start playing younger players, players that you have contractual obligations to that you want to get a better look at. ... You don't want to waste this opportunity, but yet you also want to have some balance with it, also.''
With Greg Oden and Kevin Durant waiting as the prizes, there were plenty of accusations that teams were tanking late last season, something commissioner David Stern even acknowledged he heard. Riley makes it clear the Heat don't fall into that category.
``I don't understand why anybody would even make a story out of it. That's been going on ever since the lottery's been in effect,'' he said. ``When you're 25 games out of a playoff spot, it's about the future.
``At the end of the year, the process has always been until the league will change it, well, OK it's time to take a look at your younger players. You do. That's not tanking, that's looking at these guys and see what kind of decisions you can make.''
UP AHEAD OUT WEST: While college basketball was getting from 65 teams down to four, the month of March did nothing to settle the Western Conference playoff picture.
Nine teams remain closely bunched in the race for eight spots, with only three games separating first place from sixth heading into the final weekend of the month. The New Orleans Hornets were leading the conference, but realize that's nothing to celebrate yet.
``Every night when we step out on the floor, we know how big of a game it is. You can't get caught up in looking at the standings, because unless we go undefeated, it will probably change three or four times before the last game,'' All-Star Chris Paul said. ``All we can do is just try to, you know, approach every game like it's our last. And if we do lose a game or two we can't lose our focus.''
The next big game in the West comes Sunday, when Houston visits San Antonio. The team that finishes worse in the standings could drop to the No. 5 or 6 seed, which could mean having to win three series without home-court advantage just to reach the NBA finals.
``It's more competitive than it has ever been,'' Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said recently. ``It makes all of us start the playoffs a little bit more quickly. None of us want to overplay our players to try to finish first, second or third. But at the same time, you don't want to be seventh, eighth or out of the playoffs if you can help it.''
Here are some of the other key games on the West schedule this week:
- Dallas at Golden State. With Dirk Nowitzki out and a playoff spot suddenly very much in jeopardy, the Mavs face the first of two games this week against the team that knocked them out of the postseason last year.
- Denver at Phoenix. Expect plenty of points over the next two nights when these teams meet in a home-and-home series. The Nuggets rang up 118 points Thursday night while beating Dallas for their fourth straight win, remaining a half-game behind the Warriors for the No. 8 spot.
- Golden State at San Antonio. The Warriors have won both meetings, including a 130-121 overtime thriller in January, to win the season series for the first time since the 1996-97 season.
- Phoenix at Denver. No time to catch their breath for these two, who both average about 110 points.
- Golden State at Dallas. Back end of tough back-to-back for the Warriors.
- San Antonio at Utah. The Spurs are among the teams desperately trying to avoid the fifth seed and a likely first-round series with the Jazz, who have the best home record in the league.
- Dallas at Lakers. The Mavericks have dropped two heartbreakers to the Lakers since acquiring Jason Kidd, including a 108-104 overtime loss in their last visit to Los Angeles, when Kobe Bryant scored 52 points.
RUDY RULES: With five of the top eight picks being traded on the 2006 draft night, it was hard to tell who was happy with what they got.
The Memphis Grizzlies have to be satisfied with the way things played out.
The Grizzlies traded Shane Battier to Houston for Stromile Swift and the rights to the No. 8 pick, Rudy Gay, in a deal that became official a couple of weeks later. And while they may miss Battier's veteran leadership, Gay is showing the look of someone who could be a star.
``I think I definitely could be that,'' Gay said. ``I think what they didn't know was how bad I wanted it, how bad I wanted this, work to be a star in this league and make my team better. I think all I can do is prove that now. What happened, happened.''
Gay was regarded as one of the best athletes in the draft after two years at Connecticut. But he sometimes seemed passive on the court, possibly the reason he slipped into the second half of the lottery.
But his improvement in his second season shows he was worth taking earlier. After averaging 10.8 points as a rookie, Gay was scoring 19.8 per game through 70 games, tops among all second-year players. He is trying to join Pau Gasol and Shareef Abdur-Rahim as the only players in franchise history to average 20.
After acquiring Rookie of the Year Brandon Roy and LaMarcus Aldridge in separate trades, the Portland Trail Blazers were the big winners from the draft of two years ago. But there are probably other teams who would love a do-over on their pick. Gay won't say where he would go if that draft was held again, but surely it wouldn't be eighth.
``I'd love to say 1, but I think Brandon Roy's had a great career thus far,'' Gay said. ``LaMarcus Aldridge is doing good. All the guys in front of me are doing pretty good, but of course I'm biased.''
NO RUSH: Jermaine O'Neal knows he isn't an old man at 29, but he worries he was starting to play like one. That's why the Indiana Pacers star hasn't rushed back from the latest injury, a bone bruise of his left knee.
``When I decided to sit this out and when I got together this group of doctors, my biggest issue was getting back to being myself again,'' he said. ``I dealt with this issue the last year, I pretty much wore a knee brace to hide and help it. It gradually got worse, I had surgery and rehabbed it and it did not go as well as we wanted it to go.
``I struggled out of the box right away and for the first time in my career I started losing some of my ability. That was really the main reason why I decided to sit down and totally get it healthy.''
O'Neal hasn't played since Jan. 16, missing his 32nd straight game Wednesday in the Pacers' loss at New Jersey. That was a potentially costly one, because the Nets are one of the teams Indiana is chasing for the final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference.
Having O'Neal would certainly help, and both he and coach Jim O'Brien said the forward was close to returning. But O'Neal wouldn't do it unless he could come back and play at a useful level.
``You never want to lose your ability at a young age, and 29 is a young age, especially when you are going into your prime. I'm doing drills and stuff and I want to make sure it is right,'' O'Neal said.
``Thirty-two straight games is a long time to be out and you don't want to mess that up by trying to get back into a game and hurt it and downgrade the situation to where you just came from. I think I will play pretty soon, I think I can help this team get to the playoffs. Hopefully, things work out that way for us.''
AP Sports Writer Tom Canavan in East Rutherford, N.J. contributed to this report.