You Can’t Blame Howard For Wanting Out

Dwight Howard is a Laker. The #Dwightmare, as the Internet has so cleverly dubbed the past year of D-12 drama, is finally over.

To start with, I’m just glad I don’t have to read another rumor on Twitter about where the big man might end up. I mean, think about it: Howard was close to being a Rocket, a Net, a Hawk, and I think he was supposed to be a Maverick and a Clipper at one point also. The whole scenario played itself out. It was on the verge of Brett Favre territory.

So, yes, I’m happy it’s over and I’m even happier that Howard is a member of the Los Angeles Lakers. It’s where he belonged. Not so much because it’s Los Angeles, but because of what that team now provides the league and its fans.
It’s a storyline that will be great for ratings and sure to light a fire under other top teams, like the Heat and Thunder. You want the best players in your league playing in the Finals, and this trade takes two of the most exciting players in the league – Kobe Bryant and Howard – and places them right in the thick of the quest for the Finals.
How could a basketball fan not look forward to this kind of excitement? I’m so tired of hearing people complain about players going to big market teams. What would you rather them do, go sign a five-year deal in Cleveland? So then their team can be a perennial 5-seed and bow out after a round or two. We’ve seen that movie before.

LeBron James didn’t leave Cleveland because it’s a crappy city or because the money wasn’t right; he wanted to win. Dwight Howard was going to be a free agent at the end of next season, why would he want to stay in Orlando, where the premier acquisition in recent years was Glen “Big Baby” Davis?

Get real. He couldn’t go to Houston because he would be in the same situation. He’d be the man on a bad team, and he isn’t the type of player that can win by himself. He needs a good point guard that can get him easy baskets – Steve Nash – so he can expend most of his energy on the defensive end, where he makes his money.

Howard needs another superstar that can close out a game – Shaq needed the same thing, as dominant as he was. In Kobe, Howard now has arguably the best closer of the past decade, ready for one or two more runs at a ring.

You think last June was captivating TV? Wait until the Conference Finals start this season and we possibly get Miami vs. Boston in the best grudge match of this era, and Oklahoma City vs. Los Angeles in a battle of the titans. I’m literally salivating at the thought of postseason basketball next season.

And for all those people crying out for the small market teams and their inability to bring in high profile free agents – is this a new phenomenon? Players want to play under the bright lights and in big markets, but all hope isn’t lost. Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook signed huge extensions in OKC because the organization created a culture of winning. That’s the blueprint.

If you want players to stay after you draft them, build a good team around them. Find a general manager that knows how to find the gems in the draft. Look at San Antonio, the Spurs have been doing it for 15 years.

The alternative is getting five to seven years out of a superstar and then watching him leave for the exact reasons I’ve stated here, not the exaggerations of an aggravated fan base.

Orlando had to get rid of Howard. The four teams in the deal got great value. The Magic were going to lose Howard for nothing after the season, they added three first round picks and Aaron Afflalo and Al Harrington, who are good players to plug in while in transition. By the time the team rebuilds those contracts will be off the books.

Let’s face it, Orlando was going to have to rebuild after this whole thing anyway. Do you really think a package from the Rockets was going to place the team in the top 10? No way in hell.

Magic general manager Rob Hennigan is blowing everything up and starting over. There is sure to be a franchise player available in the next two or three drafts and Orlando will now be in position to grab one. A team isn’t going to get a high lottery pick for a troubled superstar – Howard being the poster child for headache player – who won’t even sign long-term deal.

I loved the deal for the Denver Nuggets. Andre Iguodala is in the prime of his career and desperately needed a change of scenery.  He will always be the “A.I. part 2” that didn’t live up to his predecessor in Philadelphia. He isn’t a top tier superstar and needed to go to a place where he can be a part of a team with two or three other solid options. Ty Lawson, Danilo Gallinari, and Javale McGee create an interesting, athletic four-some out in Denver that could make some noise.

Andrew Bynum may end up being the biggest piece in this trade. Some argue that Bynum is a better all-around player than Howard. A scroll through the Philadelphia roster, top to bottom, makes you wonder if the 76ers may have something to work with going forward. I think Bynum has a chance to break out in his new city and that could elevate Philly to the top of the Eastern Conference.

The Lakers have added pieces – big pieces – but it will be interesting to see how they mesh. Remember Miami didn’t come together right away after the Big 3 joined forces in South Beach. But one thing is for sure, the league just got a bit more exciting and I, for one, can’t wait for tip off this season.

A Glimmer Of Greatness

I didn’t see it live. It was the greatest moment in the career of my favorite childhood player, and I missed it.

The highlights can’t possibly do it justice, either. The absolute theater that was Tracy McGrady’s 13 points in 35 seconds against the San Antonio Spurs in 2006 is the stuff of legend.

Kevin Durant at the Rucker last summer, Michael Jordan’s flu game, Kobe Bryant’s 81, and Wilt Chamberlain’s 100 are some moments in basketball that will live forever.

If you’re still reading and asking yourself who Tracy McGrady is, I don’t blame you. It would take a pretty astute NBA basketball fan to recognize the name of a forgotten star. That’s because he played last season for the Atlanta Hawks and in his 16 minutes per game, he averaged a whopping 5.3 points, three rebounds, and 2.1 assists per game.

No, I don’t blame you for not knowing or maybe even remembering Tracy McGrady. I pity you, because you missed out on one of the greatest scorers I’ve ever seen play the game. A player who won’t ever be remembered for how great he was – let me count the ways.

In a time in basketball where the clutch factor is at the forefront of everyone’s twitter fingers, McGrady was the definition of clutch. He made big shot after big shot, but always fell short in the end. He never won a playoff series, but this is a story about a man’s contributions to the game of basketball that should live on.

The Spurs were at the height of their dynasty in 2006. Tim Duncan was in the prime of his career. Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili were blossoming into the superstars we know today. They were the reigning NBA Champions and a little over a year removed from their second title in three years, and they were arguably the most dominant defensive team in all of basketball.

So dominant in fact, that only one player eclipsed the 30-point barrier in a game in the regular season in 2005-06 against San Antonio; that player you ask? Tracy McGrady.

The 13 in :35 was a paragon of McGrady’s career. It was an illustration of how lethal a scorer the two-time scoring champion really was, and how dangerous he could be within any given window. The looks on the faces of Tony Parker, Devin Brown, and Gregg Popovich told the entire story. That story was McGrady’s will to win, which most people dismiss unknowingly – you would have had to see it.

In the season prior to the San Antonio explosion game, McGrady and the Houston Rockets drew Dirk Nowitzki and the Dallas Mavericks in the first round of the playoffs in McGrady’s first year with his new team. The tandem of T-Mac and 7-foot-6 center Yao Ming was hailed as the best one-two punch in the league.

McGrady was in the prime of his career and coming off two straight seasons with the Orlando Magic that ended with the league’s scoring crown, and he was just as good for Houston. He averaged 25.7 a game that season and helped the Rockets improve their win total from the season prior by six. Everything seemed to be aligning for McGrady to finally make it out of the first. He had finally found his running partner in Yao, and together they were ready to speed past the Mavericks.

After two games, that’s exactly what fans and media members were saying. Houston had won two straight – in Dallas – and seemed poised to sweep the Mavs. Then it happened – that first loss that surely weighed on the mind of McGrady who was forced to try and make up for his team’s disappearing act the rest of the series.

Dallas took three straight games and put McGrady in a situation he’d become all too familiar with: being on the brink of elimination. In Game 6 and with his back against the wall, he did what LeBron did against Boston the other night (OK, maybe not as historic, but stay with me here). He scored 37 points, grabbed eight rebounds, and dished out seven assists to help the Rockets win in convincing fashion, 101-83.

How did Yao do you may ask: eight points and five rebounds in 27 minutes. In Game 7 he scored 33 points but was a minus 33 – the worst such number of any player in that game. The Mavericks got out to the early lead and ran away with the series. Most of Yao’s points came after the game had already been decided.

Another playoff failure pinned on McGrady, but please allow me to show you the true culprit.

In that series McGrady recorded 30.7 points, 7.4 rebounds, and 6.7 assists per game. He shot 45 percent from the floor and undertook one of the most difficult defensive assignments I’ve ever seen: Dirk Nowitzki. McGrady was undersized and playing out of position. At times he completely stifled Nowitzki and forced him into bad shots and awkward movements.

Rockets head coach Jeff Van Gundy lauded McGrady’s efforts during and after the series.

“I read a lot about MVP and I read a lot about All-NBA and I would put [McGrady] up there with anybody you want to talk about for the impact he’s had on our team,” Van Gundy told ESPN in 2005.

The defensive effort of McGrady in that series went almost unnoticed, which recently reminded me of a star in today’s game: LeBron James. “The King” is probably the best defender in the league on top of being the most dynamic and dominant. Everybody likes to pile on LeBron for not closing out games, but how many of those same people take any time to admire the attention and effort James gives on the defensive end of the floor.

That’s what winners do. They sacrifice and do the hard stuff to try and help their team win. And what do you know, when they do we ignore it and focus on what is easy for us to focus on: the final result.

News flash: basketball is a team sport. How many championships have been won with only one or two players making significant contributions? I’d be very interested to see anyone find me a strong example. Most winning teams have a number of players that understand their role and execute on the floor based on that particular role.

How many championships do you think Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal have without Derek Fisher, Robert Horry, Rick Fox, Ron Artest, or Pau Gasol? Great players need great role players to win in this league; it’s a tested and true fact.

McGrady has never had the benefit of good teammates: players that performed under the playoff pressure, guys that knocked down big shots in big games, ala Fisher, Bruce Bowen, Chauncey Billups, Ray Allen, Steve Kerr… the list could go on and on.

T-Mac never made it out of the first round of the playoffs, but it wasn’t for lack of effort. He was fourth all time in points per game in the playoffs before this past postseason (he played one round for the Hawks and in six games only averaged 4.2 ppg). Every game was on him to win. It wasn’t by design either.

McGrady was a great passer and ran the point forward position a great deal in Houston. In that respect, he had a lot of Scottie Pippen in him and was able to create for teammates.

In the press conference after another loss in a Game 7, – this time to the Utah Jazz – a broken McGrady looked to be truly beaten. He was a player that gave everything he had for seven games, twice now, only to lose and in embarrassing fashion. The man with all the talent in the world was never the same. Those series took everything out of him.

Today’s McGrady is a shell – a fossil of a once great player that had no limitations with a basketball in his hands. He was one of the special players that come along in small groups every era to help carry the game on their collective shoulders.

If you look real hard you can see what I’m talking about in glimpses – a drive to the basket, a slick step back jumper, or a no look pass to a cutting teammate. That’s where the legend of T-Mac lives today – in flashes.

Just like in a flash six years ago, McGrady caught the Spurs sleeping to give us a memory that will last a lifetime. Just as quickly as that happened, the game passed him by and we’re left with a fallen hero.

A hero with a repaired back, two faulty knees, and at least three surgeries removed from the explosive player that torches defenders in YouTube highlight videos.

But I’m glad I saw him. He (and Kobe Bryant) showed what greatness could be like after Michael Jordan.

Don’t turn off the TV when the stars are out at night. You may just miss something extraordinary.

How Miami Can Avoid Elimination

If you watched Game 5 and the utter meltdown by the Miami Heat on Tuesday night, you’re probably thinking the same thing that I was after the final buzzer: this series is over.

I mean, come on. Kevin Garnett is playing like he is 25 years old and Paul Pierce has found a way to make big shots despite barely being mobile due to injury. Ray Allen is shooting like Ray Allen again and Mickael Pietrus is doing his best Steve Kerr impression on the offensive end and looks like Metta World Peace defensively, back when he was Ron Artest. Oh, and the Celtics have that Rajon Rondo fella’.

Game 6 in Boston, a Heat team on the ropes, and arguably the best coach in all of basketball – Doc Rivers – has to be enough to knock off the hated Heat, right?

Here’s the thing though: if there is any team that can win these two games under the current set of circumstances, it’s Miami. The question is whether or not they figure it all out in time for tipoff on Thursday night and are able to sustain it for 92 minutes.

Slow Down, but not too much

The first problem the Heat have to eliminate is the turnovers. Miami turned the ball over 15 times in Game 6, which was good for 13 Celtics points. The Heat are in a funk offensively, especially in the half court. Cutting down on the turnovers and avoiding giving Boston any easy baskets will help Miami control the flow of the game. This will be extra important in the TD Bank Garden.

With all of this in mind, it’s imperative for the Heat to get out in transition in Boston. The earlier the better because if the Celtics are able to dictate the pace of the game early, Miami may not be able to muster a large enough counter attack with the way they’ve been playing.

Setting up to succeed

Miami head coach Eric Spoelstra has to find a fire extinguisher and quick, because the hot seat has never been so scorching for the young Heat headman. Spoelstra has to step up and take control of this team. Just take a look in the Miami huddle next time it’s on the screen. These guys could care less what ‘Spo’ is talking about and he may have already lost the team.

The end of Game 4 was one of the worst sequences imaginable for Spoelstra. I don’t know how you draw up a play for Udonis Haslem when you have two of the most lethal scorers in the world. What’s even more troubling is that Spoelstra did nothing to improve his stock in Game 5. If anything he’s made himself out to be even more of the scapegoat should the Heat do the unthinkable and blow this series after an early 2-0 lead.

Chris Bosh must play 25-30 minutes at a minimum if the Heat are to have any chance. Garnett is destroying Miami offensively and he has utilized the lack of inside scoring by the Heat to coast defensively this entire series. Bosh changes all of that and forces the future Hall of Famer to be active on the defensive end, which will open up more driving opportunities for LeBron James and Dwyane Wade.

If you watched closely on Tuesday night – especially in the second half – Boston had the paint sealed up tighter than an extra strength zip lock bag. Every shot inside was contested and Miami was forced to settle for jumpers. Wade was visibly tired down the stretch because Boston made everything he did on the offensive end difficult. Several times you could clearly see the Celtics were able to score in transition because Miami guys weren’t getting back. On several occasions James was just standing in the corner with his hands on his knees, looking exhausted.

One of the keys to an effective offensive attack is movement, especially for Wade and James. The biggest difference in the Heat offensive attack this season has been the two stars’ improved ability to move without the basketball.

Part of setting up the team to succeed is putting the right players in the game at the right time. Joel Anthony has to be utilized at least for a couple of minutes. He can give the Heat energy off the bench and bringing in fresh guys to battle KG may be the only way to contain the ‘Big Ticket.’

The James Jones experiment has failed. There were two or three plays in Game 5 that made me wonder if this guy has an ounce of athletic ability in his body. I counted at least three plays where Jones’ blunders led to Boston points. He’s in the game for instant offense and he hasn’t been producing enough to warrant any playing time.

Get back to fundamentals

I know it sounds cliché and it is, but everything was rushed in Game 5. Miami’s passing has to be crisper, it has to get after loose balls, and it has to pick up the defensive intensity.

When this team is playing their best basketball they’re turning defense into offense. It’s easy to apply yourself on defense and it can galvanize the entire unit on the floor. It happened with Boston in Game 5. The way it hamstrung Miami throughout the game helped get them going offensively when most of the guys in green struggled throughout the game.

Miami has to start communicating out there and lose this whole lethargic body language that has been present throughout these playoffs. At times I’m wondering if a number of Heat players aren’t bored or something.

If that’s the case, Thursday night should provide the perfect wake up call.

The stars must shine

Everything – right or wrong – is on the line for LeBron James. If this team falls short of making the Finals in its second year the floodgates are really going to open up on James, and I wonder if he’ll be able to swim in those waters.

This is the time when the great players get the most out of their teammates and somehow find the collective will to win that’s been so obviously lacking for this Heat team.

The interesting storyline in all of this is how well James has played this postseason. It’s been one of the most staggering statistical onslaughts in memory and he has looked just straight unstoppable for most of these playoffs. He’s doing everything too. He’s setting up teammates, rebounding the ball, playing suffocating defense – but if the Heat lose before they’re able to win two in a row, it will all be for nothing.

That’s the world LeBron lives in and it’s one he helped create. He’s said that every decision and motivation throughout his career has been because of his desire to win. If that’s the case he can’t wait any longer to let his teammates know exactly where everything stands. He needs to remind them why they’re all there. Who they are and what they need to do in these next two games.

Many believe James isn’t capable of this sort of leadership, and maybe he isn’t. But one thing is for sure, Miami’s playoff hopes rest on his shoulders and if he can’t inspire 11 other men to help him pull off a miracle, it’ll be another summer full of questions, and I know one thing for sure: Pat Riley is going to want some answers.