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Sunday basketball notes

Warriors felt it was time for a big move

By Gary Washburn
Globe Staff / March 18, 2012
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The Celtics had a defensive-minded, rugged, team-first center in Kendrick Perkins, who was just 26 years old. And they traded him to the Thunder last year.

Since then, they have paraded out Shaquille O’Neal, Jermaine O’Neal, Chris Wilcox, and Greg Stiemsma in a futile attempt to fill the middle. And going into the season’s stretch run, they remain in search of a capable center who can stay healthy.

So the fact that Golden State general manager Larry Riley traded his leading scorer and former lottery pick Monta Ellis to the Bucks for oft-injured Andrew Bogut shouldn’t come as a surprise. Bogut is one of the league’s most gifted centers when healthy and will fill that role for Golden State for several years if he can avoid those unfortunate accidents that have led to his variety of injuries.

Center is the league’s most valuable and coveted position. The NBA is dripping with point guards but dry on centers. So it was also no surprise that Dwight Howard was practically begged to stay in Orlando by the Magic because the organization never quite recovered from losing its previous franchise center, Shaquille O’Neal.

So Riley faced the media last week and attempted to explain why he sacrificed so much for a guy who has never played 82 games in a season and may not play this season because of an ankle injury.

“The bottom line is, we are absolutely ecstatic that we were able to make a trade and that we were finally able to bring a big man into this organization - and a big man of quality,’’ said Riley. “We took a bold step, we know it’s a bold step. We’re happy about it.’’

Ellis was a high-scoring guard whom the Warriors grabbed in the second round seven years ago and who averaged nearly 20 points in his career. He is perhaps the NBA’s best player never to make an All-Star team. Ekpe Udoh, who also went from Golden State to Milwaukee in the deal, is a defensive-minded power forward who is developing into an impact player.

The Warriors have been stuck in their own ineptitude for years, especially at center. Previous management believed Andris Biedrins (drafted in the first round in 2004) would be the answer, but his game has declined dramatically to the point where coach Mark Jackson is simply trying to prevent him from losing all confidence.

Biedrins is averaging a career-worst 1.9 points per game and has converted 15 of 65 free throws over the last three years.

“We were stuck,’’ said Riley. “You want to be stuck three games below .500 at this time of the year, every year? You want to be stuck five games below? That’s where we were going into next year if we couldn’t do something.

“Ever since we’ve been here, I’ve tried to acquire a 5 [center]. You can’t get them. It’s a situation where we solved a problem. Did it come without issue? Heavens no.’’

Riley insisted that he had to try to change the fate of the franchise with a bold move, because - as the Celtics are learning - capable centers are a rare commodity.

So while the Celtics search for a temporary replacement to finish the season, they are saving salary-cap space for a center who could spend years in Boston, atoning for the miscue of dealing Perkins to the Thunder.

“Teams are not trying to help Boston and give us a center,’’ Celtics coach Doc Rivers said. “And the ones in the D-League, there’s a reason they are in the D-League. Nobody is giving away centers.’’

So the Celtics can appreciate Riley’s zeal in pursuing Bogut. The amount of legitimate centers is limited, and the league’s second-most talented center, Andrew Bynum, is another often-injured big man whom many teams covet.

Riley couldn’t contain his excitement. Nearly 35 years after the Warriors foolishly traded Robert Parish to the Celtics, the franchise finally has a legitimate center, and it is banking that Bogut finds something that has eluded him his entire career: good health.

“We have a center under contract for the future and we don’t have a situation where we have an iffy center that’s with us,’’ Riley said. “There’s a future here. We’re going to have a true 5.

“Is it a risk? Yes. But not a big risk. Nope.’’

FIRING OF A BLAZER

The trail ends for McMillan

The firing of Nate McMillan by the Trail Blazers came as little surprise to those inside the organization, because it was apparent the players had tuned him out. Following the loss to the Celtics March 9, forward LaMarcus Aldridge said he was tired of talking to his teammates about playing with more passion. He said he was disenchanted with the atmosphere, and many of his teammates felt the same way.

McMillan may be the league’s best coach without a championship ring, but he never got an opportunity to see the Trail Blazers’ rebuilding project come to fruition because of debilitating injuries to Greg Oden and Brandon Roy. The team Portland put together for this lockout season proved an abject failure.

So team president Larry Miller and interim general manager Chad Buchanan shipped out Marcus Camby and Gerald Wallace, and removed McMillan at the trade deadline, hoping to change the direction of the once-promising franchise.

“It was unavoidable for us,’’ Miller said of McMillan’s firing. “It was a decision we had to make.

“I talked to Nate multiple times in the last week or so. Nate was not happy with where things were. I think he understood that the team was not putting out the kind of effort that any of us wanted to see. I think he understood that there were issues.’’

Said Buchanan: “We have been very displeased with the performance on the court. This is not Trail Blazer basketball. I was very disappointed, and that’s how we got to the decision.’’

These are turbulent times for the Trail Blazers. They are starting anew with their roster, dealing Wallace to the Nets for a first-round draft pick, but they were unable to unload Jamal Crawford and Raymond Felton. Crawford has value around the league but has a player option this summer that he likely won’t exercise for the opportunity to become a free agent.

Felton has been a bust since he was acquired from the Nuggets for Andre Miller, and also is a free agent after the season. What the Blazers did with their trade-deadline transactions is create approximately $30 million in salary cap space if they don’t bring back Hasheem Thabeet, Jonny Flynn, and Shawne Williams.

While he wanted to avoid another major rebuilding project, owner Paul Allen appears committed to keeping the team. There has been speculation that he is becoming more disenchanted with basketball, especially since his investment in the Rose Garden has not returned many dividends in terms of victories. The Blazers have been eliminated from the first round of the playoffs the past three years.

“He has been involved in all of the discussions that we’ve had,’’ Larry Miller said. “He’s just as frustrated as the rest of us have been about how this team has been playing. His frustration has been there.

“If he wasn’t committed to this team, we wouldn’t be doing the things that we’re doing. He’s as involved as he’s ever been with this team. The reason these decisions have been made have nothing to do with positioning this team for sale.’’

OLD FACE, NEW PROJECT

Ray to work with Cousins

Kings coach Keith Smart called on old buddy Clifford Ray to return to the NBA and work with talented but inconsistent center DeMarcus Cousins. Ray, still an imposing man with a baritone voice, said it will take time to become familiar with Cousins and gain his trust.

Cousins clashed with former coach Paul Westphal but has established a more positive relationship with Smart.

Ray was hired as a consultant, and his primary job is to draw out the talent from Cousins, who averages a double-double (16.6 points and 11.1 rebounds) but is also a career 43.3 percent shooter. He also averages four fouls per game.

Cousins’s primary issues have been emotional. He plays with a scowl and does little to conceal his anger or disappointment during games.

“He’s a very animated kid that sometimes I think gets a bad rap because emotionally he lets everything be visible,’’ Ray said. “If he comes over and he’s upset, they think, ‘Well, maybe he’s upset at the bench or a coach.’

“It’s really not that so much as it is being upset at himself. I said, ‘Get rid of that.’ When you work diligently every day at your craft, then when you get on the floor, it’s an easy transition. Now you don’t have as many of those ups and downs.’’

Ray waited a week or so to approach Cousins with advice. He watched the Kings center and his habits before making any determinations.

“You just don’t rush in on anybody,’’ he said. “Especially big guys. It’s a process, and you take your time and you pick what you think he needs.’’

ETC.

More losses may be coming

Connecticut’s loss to Iowa State in the NCAA Tournament leaves a great deal of uncertainty in the Husky program, with the potential departures of Jeremy Lamb, Andre Drummond, and even point guard Shabazz Napier, the sophomore who experienced his share of ups and downs during his second season but appears ready to enter the draft. Another player whose stock may rise considerably at the expense of UConn is Iowa State sophomore Royce White, a mammoth 6-foot-8-inch swingman with the ability to play perhaps three positions at the next level. He showed his athleticism in the win over UConn.

Separation from Rockets

As expected, the Rockets were active at the trade deadline, dumping three former lottery picks who weren’t of much use. Jordan Hill, HasheemThabeet, and JonnyFlynn were all jettisoned by general manager Daryl Morey. Former Knicks coach Mike D’Antoni has gotten his share of criticism for player evaluation, but he may have been accurate in his assessment of Hill, whom he traded to Houston in the Tracy McGrady deal two years ago.

Layups

Warriors general manager Larry Riley stated plainly that his club did not acquire Stephen Jackson from the Bucks just to trade him less than 24 hours later. But Riley then turned around and shipped the moody forward to the Spurs for Richard Jefferson, who has turned into primarily a 3-point specialist, averaging a career-low 9.2 points per game. San Antonio seemed to express buyer’s remorse after signing Jefferson to a four-year, $39 million deal last summer. While Jackson has one more year left on his deal, Jefferson has two more after this season . . . Deron Williams is not going to follow his buddy Dwight Howard and make another year’s commitment to the Nets. Howard’s decision to exercise his contract option for the 2012-13 season makes Williams perhaps the most marketable free agent this summer, and he plans to enjoy those privileges. There had been speculation that Howard and Williams were planning to play for the same team -the Mavericks were mentioned - but it seems that blueprint was foiled by Howard’s decision to remain in Orlando.

Gary Washburn can be reached at gwashburn@globe.com. Material from interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.

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