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Saturday, July 06, 2013

Preliminary Thoughts About Dwight Howard's Decision

Dwight Howard's move to Houston will not become official until at least July 10 and usually I wait until such transactions are formalized before I provide my analysis but this is such a potentially big story (no pun intended) that I will offer some early observations now:
  1. It appears that the L.A. Lakers chose Coach Mike D'Antoni over Dwight Howard, at least if one buys the premise that Howard would have stayed in L.A. if the Lakers had hired Phil Jackson as the coach--and I buy that premise. While no one can say for sure if Jackson still wanted the job and/or if Howard really would have stayed, retaining D'Antoni meant that the Lakers had very little chance to keep Howard. If D'Antoni never leads the Lakers to a championship and/or if Howard wins at least one championship in Houston then the decision to choose D'Antoni over Howard could be viewed as one of the most significant blunders in NBA history. Howard could have potentially won a championship with Kobe Bryant and then been the focal point of the Lakers for the next five to 10 years; now he may have a similarly huge impact in Houston.
  2. Even though almost every scenario turned out as badly as possible--a messy coaching situation, Dwight Howard being less than 100% physically, Steve Nash and Steve Blake being hurt, Pau Gasol being hurt (and sulking), Kobe Bryant rupturing his Achilles and Howard leaving after just one season--it still must be said that the Lakers made the right choice to trade Andrew Bynum for Howard. Combining Bryant, Howard, Gasol and Nash on the same team at least put the Lakers in position to potentially contend for the championship; Bynum did not play in one game last season, so if the Lakers had stood pat then they would not have given themselves a realistic chance to win the title. The Lakers took their shot and it did not work but with Bryant nearing the end of his career it made more sense to go that route than to do what Dallas did (blow up a team that had just won a championship while dreaming about signing Dwight Howard, Deron Williams or Chris Paul). The Lakers will probably struggle through the 2013-14 season as Bryant returns to form but then the Lakers can use their salary cap space in the summer of 2013 to make one last attempt to win a championship before Bryant retires. Or, if Bryant does not return to form, then they can start the rebuilding process next summer.
  3. All of that being said, anyone who thinks that the Lakers are better off without Howard is an idiot. When healthy, Howard is the best big man in the NBA and a top five player overall. He can turn a mediocre team into a playoff team and a playoff team into a championship contender. Do not be deceived by the Lakers' relatively poor performance last season; the coaching situation was a disaster and multiple injuries sank the team (including injuries to Howard himself). The Lakers are losing a great player, most likely for nothing (unless they arrange a sign and trade deal with the Rockets). 
  4. If Bryant does not return to form and play at a high level in at least 60 games next season then the Lakers as presently constituted will struggle to make the playoffs. Howard cannot be criticized for leaving L.A.; the coaching situation is a mess (D'Antoni is not a bad coach but he is the wrong coach for this roster), Bryant's status is uncertain and the rest of the supporting cast is not trustworthy due to age, health and/or skill set concerns, so it is understandable why Howard departed for greener pastures even if he will receive less green (roughly $30 million less guaranteed money over the course of the contract, unless the Rockets pull off a sign and trade deal with the Lakers).
  5. D'Antoni is on pace to be one of the most reviled figures in Lakers' history; he ran Bryant into the ground--I don't care what anyone says, the heavy workload that he imposed on Bryant while the Lakers fought just to squeeze into the playoffs had a lot to do with Bryant's injury--and his mere presence likely ran Howard out of town. If Bryant is never the same again and Howard creates a dynasty in Houston then D'Antoni will have torpedoed the Lakers while also turning one of their rivals into an elite team. If Phil Jackson had coached the Lakers last season they would have utilized Howard and Gasol properly, they would have made the playoffs without wrecking Bryant's body and Howard probably would have stayed in L.A. 
  6. Even if Bryant returns to full health, he is not the player he was circa 2006-2010; he can no longer singlehandedly carry a bad team to the playoffs or carry a good but not great team to back to back titles (if you think that the 2009 and 2010 Lakers were great, then please research what Lamar Odom, Trevor Ariza, Shannon Brown, Jordan Farmar, Sasha Vujacic and Luke Walton have done since leaving the Lakers--and we won't even talk about Bynum, because he put up Luc Longley-like numbers during those two championship runs: 6.3 ppg and 3.7 rpg in the 2009 postseason, followed by 8.6 ppg and 6.9 rpg in the 2010 postseason). The Lakers need to get consistent low post scoring either from Gasol or someone else, they need to acquire an athletic small forward and they need to acquire a young, athletic point guard. 
  7. Howard is the best player in Houston now, not James Harden--and this is not even close, just like it is not close between LeBron James and Dwyane Wade. The Rockets must build their offense around Howard in the paint, with Howard either scoring against one on one coverage or passing to open shooters if he is double-teamed. Howard's presence in the paint will cut down on some of Harden's driving opportunities but should present Harden with more open jumpers. If the Rockets insist on having Harden and Jeremy Lin dribble the ball while Howard watches then Howard will not be happy and the Rockets will not be very successful. Howard should average about 22 ppg, Harden should average about 20 ppg and the role players should fall in line behind them, with the three point shooters all increasing their percentages over their career norms.
  8. If the Rockets utilize Howard correctly and avoid injuries to key players then they should win at least 55 games and be a serious championship contender. I am not sure that they can beat the Thunder or Spurs in a seven game series but if they do not perform clearly better than everyone else in the West then something is very wrong.
  9. Much was said last season about Harden supposedly being a franchise player. If that is true, then the combination of two franchise players in their primes should make Houston a championship contender for years to come. The Rockets stumbled into this good fortune--thanks to the Lakers' injuries and their ridiculous handling of their coaching situation--and it will be very interesting to see if the Rockets can fully take advantage of having Howard land in their laps.

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posted by David Friedman @ 3:24 AM

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Tuesday, July 02, 2013

Dr. J, Air Jordan, Kobe, LeBron and William Goldman's Battle to the Death

Remember when Nike issued a T-shirt "explaining" Michael Jordan's hops? These words appeared in black, printed over a silhouette of Jordan skying above an image of Earth: "Air Jordan has overcome the acceleration of gravity by the application of muscle power applied in the vertical plane, thus producing a low altitude Earth orbit." I wore that T-shirt out back in the day, wore it until the fabric fell apart. I never once dunked while wearing it--at least not on a 10 foot rim--but I drained many three pointers. I liked Jordan's answer when an interviewer asked him if he really thought that he could fly. Jordan replied, "Yeah, for a little while. It may be a split second, but it's flying."

After Jordan averaged 37.1 ppg in 1986-87 to become the greatest single season scorer not named Wilt Chamberlain and then started stringing together championships a few years later, it would have been difficult to believe that any basketball player would become a bigger phenomenon on or off the court. Jordan was breaking records, making iconic commercials with Spike Lee and gazing in wonder at skyscraper-sized billboards portraying himself.

It is funny now to see so many Jordan fans get upset when LeBron James is compared favorably to Jordan; I know exactly how those Jordan fans feel, because that is how I felt in the mid-1980s when some people called Jordan the heir apparent--or Air Apparent--to Julius Erving. As a teenage fan of Erving, I resented the young Jordan. Jordan eventually became one of my favorite players but I'll never like Air Jordan more than I like Dr. J, just like the fans who grew up watching Jordan will never like King James more than they like His Airness.

William Goldman nailed it more than 25 years ago in Wait Till Next Year, the classic book that he co-authored with Mike Lupica: "The greatest struggle an athlete undergoes is the battle for our memories. It's gradual. It begins before you're aware it's begun and it ends with a terrible fall from grace. Stripped of medals, sent to Siberia...It really is a battle to the death." In 1976, no one would have thought it could happen to Dr. J but then Air Jordan showed up. In 1996, no one would have thought it could happen to Air Jordan but then Kobe Bryant and LeBron James showed up--and in 2013, no one thinks that it can happen to James but in 2023 someone else will show up. Goldman also correctly predicted that at least one athlete would escape that Siberian exile: Wilt Chamberlain. Chamberlain has not played in the NBA for 40 years and he passed away more than a decade ago but even casual fans still know his most famous numbers: 50 points per game for a season and 100 points in one game.

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posted by David Friedman @ 5:16 AM

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