2012-13 NBA Season Storylines To Watch

With the NBA kicking of this week, it’s the perfect time to take a look at all the key storylines fans will be following this season.

Buckle up, because it looks to be one heck of a season.

No Fuel For LeBron’s Haters
LeBron James was cast as a villain for the majority of the past two NBA seasons after his bold and cocky “Decision” to take his talents to South Beach. However, after winning an NBA Championship and putting on one of the more incredible individual performances in recent memory during the playoffs last spring, it appears the stink from two summers ago is finally off LeBron. He is only 27-years-old and it’s clear he still hasn’t reached his peak as a player. Now what can the haters cling to? Lame jokes about his receding hairline? Here’s to hoping to basketball fans have finally moved past his bad decisions two summers ago and they start to enjoy one of the better talents the game of basketball has ever witnessed.

Ray Allen Against The Celtics
Wow, things got nasty between Ray Allen and the Boston Celtics in a hurry. Within weeks of Allen bolting Beantown for South Beach, the haters came out of the woodwork in a hurry. Kevin Garnett claimed to no longer have Ray Allen’s phone number. Doc Rivers lamented to the Boston media how hurt he was by Allen’s decision. And Celtics fans? Look for them to be loud and passionate in booing Allen when he returns to Boston on January 27, 2013.

Allen, who normally doesn’t talk with the media about drama, gave interviews to a couple Miami outlets this month to clear the air and share his side of the story.

Personally, I find it entertaining how much drama a role player who will only get 20-25 minutes per game is generating.

Will There Be Drama In Los Angeles?
On paper, the Los Angeles Lakers should roll to the NBA Finals. However, as the old adage goes, there’s a reason why they play the games. It will be interesting to see how the egos of Dwight Howard and Kobe Bryant mesh. Plus, Steve Nash has been winning the battle against Father Time thanks to the amazing work the Phoenix Suns’ training staff has done with his body. It will be interesting to see how the grizzled vet handles the rigors of an 82-game schedule without the safety blanket of the Suns training staff and with Steve Blake being his backup.

How Will Pacers Handle Expectations?
So far, not so good. Real games haven’t even started and already Danny Granger is complaining about his knee. It was looked at by doctors and they assume he can play through some pain, but Granger is complaining about not being able to gut it out. I’m planning on writing a story this week about how the Pacers are dealing with the burden of expectations after talking with the players and Frank Vogul when they are in Toronto on Wednesday. Stay tuned to Sportsnet for that column later this week.

The Brooklyn Nets Will Fail To Meet Expectations
Speaking of failing to meet expectations, look for the Brooklyn Nets to give the New York tabloids plenty of fodder this season as they will struggle to become one of the elite teams in their own division, let alone the Eastern Conference. Sure, the roster looks splashy with names like Deron Williams, Joe Johnson, and Brook Lopez, but who on that roster is known for playing gritty defence? Look for the Nets to get killed off dribble penetration and for their bigs to get posterized on a regular basis. If this Nets team doesn’t figure out a way to play effective defence their season will be a resounding disappointment.

Are The Spurs Too Old?
Last season one of the more comical moments came when Gregg Popovich gave Tim Duncan the night off and the box score said it was because Duncan was old. While funny, the reality is Duncan has played 1,111 regular season NBA games and 190 playoff games. The treads on the tires has to be running pretty low at this point. Throw in the fact the rest of their core – Tony Parker (958) and Manu Ginobili (803) – have played a combined 1,761 games in the NBA on top of busy summers playing for their national teams. It will be interesting to see what Popovich can do to ensure his veteran team is fresh for a deep run in the playoffs. But, if last season is any indication, it just means the team’s younger players will get extended minutes during the regular season to help with their development.

Is The Jeremy Lin Fairy Tale Over?
Jeremy Lin became an instant internet and global hit within the matter of weeks and the New York Knicks weren’t sure he could sustain that so they let him sign with the Houston Rockets this summer. Through his first six preseason games Lin has averaged 30.2 minutes per game but he is shooting 13-46 (28%) from the field. Yuck. Hopefully it’s just a matter of rust and once the games start to count he is able to elevate his game.

Can Chicago Stay Afloat Until Rose Returns?
Derrick Rose is scheduled to return from offseason knee surgery in February, but it’s likely the Bulls season could be toast by then. The Bulls are using a backcourt rotation of Kirk Hinrich, Marco Bellinelli, Nate Robinson, Jimmy Butler and Rip Hamilton. Yuck. In my humble opinion, that’s the worst backcourt in the NBA, and the team will struggle mightily until Rose returns.

Eastern Conference Preview

Up until this past summer, few things were as certain in the NBA as the middle of the Eastern Conference playoff picture. Any observer worth their salt knew that Orlando would probably secure themselves home court advantage in round one with a No. 3 or 4 seed and that Atlanta would find their way into that good-but-not-elite middle ground, likely winding up on either side of the 4/5 match-up.

Then came a turbulent off-season that saw Dwight Howard ditch Disney World for Disney Land and Joe Johnson get sent packing, alongside his mammoth contract, to Brooklyn in exchange for a pile of warm bodies. The fallout from the pair of Southeast division mega-moves will likely see the Magic fade to also-ran status, with the potential of the Josh Smith-led Hawks still very much to be determined.

So who steps in to fill the void?

Indiana Pacers

The deep roster that propelled them back towards relevance remains mostly in tact, save for a slight downgrade at the point with Darren Collison (traded to Dallas for Ian Mahinmi) out and free agent signee D.J. Augustin in. Still, another year’s maturation for Paul George and Roy “Gangnam Style” Hibbert will help a club that still managed 42 wins last year in a 66-game season against what was a more top-heavy East.

Philadelphia 76ers
I can’t figure out why there isn’t more talk about this young Philly team that made the Conference’s biggest addition by trading for Andrew Bynum. It cost them long-time face of the franchise AI, but the two-way veteran is a small price to pay for the league’s second best center. Beyond Bynum lies the rest of a potential-laden core (Jrue Holliday, Evan Turner, Thaddeus Young) supported by complementary incoming veterans (Jason Richardson, Nick Young).

Chicago Bulls
The Bulls’ presence on this list, which would have been perceived as an unimaginable slight at this time last year, speaks volumes of the value of Derrick Rose. With a healthy Rose, Chicago would be a lock for a top three seed. Without him, the team faces plenty of questions as to whether it can simply tread water while awaiting the return of their point guard (likely around February). Can Kirk Hinrich balance the offense? Can Luol Deng or Carlos Boozer take charge as leading scorers?

Atlanta Hawks
A salary dump usually coincides with a drop down the standings. However, credit Hawks GM Danny Ferry with not only keeping the rest of a productive core (Smith, Al Horford), but bolstering it with some savvy additions to offset the loss of Johnson. The signing of Lou Williams helps address the scoring void in the back court, while acquiring Devin Harris from Utah for Marvin Williams creates depth at the point alongside Jeff Teague. The club also quickly accounted for the loss in outside shooting from the Johnson trade, bringing in veteran shooters Kyle Korver and Anthony Morrow and will find minutes for rookie marksman John Jenkins. One more thought: are we sure that Johnson is actually that good?

New York Knicks
All the stories gleefully talking about the Knicks and their historically old roster are missing the point. Truth is, all of Jason Kidd, Marcus Camby, Kurt Thomas and Pablo Prigoni could wind up showing their age and flopping in NYC – and this team could STILL be a top four seed. This team will go as far as Carmelo Anthony, Amare Stoudemire and Tyson Chandler (and, strange as it sounds, Ray Felton) take them – no more, no less.

Brooklyn Nets
The addition of Joe Johnson could easily be costly in the long term, but that’s not the concern of Mikhail Prokhorov and the Nets for now. Heading into their first season in Brooklyn, the club boasts a defensively porous high-priced star-laden back court, but could struggle when it comes to getting stops and securing critical rebounds. Still, those in attendance at the Barclays Center likely have playoff dates to look forward to.

Quick omission explanation: Miami and Boston are too good, whereas I don’t see any of Toronto, Milwaukee, Cleveland, Detroit, Charlotte, Washington or Orlando being in the mix.

Rockets Amnesty Scola

The Rockets have decided to amnesty fan favorite forward Luis Scola, according to Yahoo! Sports. Scola who had three years and $21 million left on his contract, is now a biddable piece for multiple teams in the league.

The Rockets are clearing space for Dwight Howard. The “Dwightmare” saga continues, and the Rockets are not bluffing. General manager Daryl Morey is swinging for the fences, and no matter how irresponsible it looks, Morey is trying to land the best center in the NBA. If the Rockets are able to land Howard then the adventure is just starting. The team will finally have a superstar, but one that may not be around for long. Howard will arrive in Houston without an extension, meaning the Rockets will have to roll out the red carpet, and somehow convince Dwight that Houston should be his next stop for a championship.

In order for the Rockets to make that sales pitch, they would have to do a whole lot more than just acquiring Dwight. We don’t know the specifics of any deal yet, and it’s still being reported no deal is imminent, but that seems far-fetched at this point. With the Nets out of the picture, the Rockets are the best option the Magic have.

With the amnesty of Scola the Rockets will put themselves in a position to acquire a second max deal next summer. This situation gives the team a realistic chance of pairing Dwight with a star, and having him sign with the Rockets long term.

In the midst of landing a superstar, the Rockets have lost an extremely hard working player in Luis Scola. The Argentinian was drafted 56th overall in the 2002 NBA Draft by the San Antonio Spurs. The Spurs traded Scola to the Rockets who flourished for the team. It was a sweet victory for management and fans. Not only did they acquire a hard working player, but they pried him away from a division foe. Ironically rumors now show the Dallas Mavericks being front runners for Scola, which couldn’t be more painful for Rockets fans.

Scola was known for his brilliant post moves, and quick scoring abilities. He quickly became a fan favorite and was labeled the “Ice Cream Man,” because of his finesse scoop like finishes. His defense certainly declined, but working hard was never an issue. Scola’s struggles were not because of laziness, but instead lack of athletic ability. Scola scored a career high 44 points against the Nets, solidifying how gifted he was on the offensive end. He is and always will be a fan favorite in Houston for all his memorable performances, and kindness towards “Red Nation.”

The Rockets have been relentless, stubborn, ambitious, and crazy, but you can’t question perseverance. The front office is doing everything they can to better this team, and swinging for the fences is not a bad idea when you don’t have much to lose.

Rockets Trade Camby To Knicks

The Rockets have traded 38 year old veteran center Marcus Camby to the New York Knicks in a sign-and-trade, Adrian Wojnarowski reported earlier.

The Rockets will receive guard Toney Douglas (contract paid by the Knicks), Josh Harrellson, Jerome Jordan, and second-round picks in 2014-15. Camby agreed to a three year $13.2 million deal via the sign-and-trade.

Though Camby is 38 years old, the Knicks have sent a clear “win now” message by acquiring the veteran big man. The Rockets on the other hand have completely transformed the roster in search for an identity that they have not had in years.

According to John Hollinger, “Rockets now have six non-guaranteed contracts and Livingston’s partial, totaling $7 mil in confederate money to use in trades.”

Obviously the Rockets have set themselves up for movement, and have not surrendered the rebuild flag yet. Douglas is a talented combo guard, but has been criticized heavily by Knicks fans for his inconsistencies. After losing Kyle Lowry, and Goran Dragic, the Rockets will gladly keep Douglas around.

Harrelson is a 6’10 275 pound big man who has shown signs of life. He certainly doesn’t solve the problem at center for the Rockets, but that’s easier said than done.

Jordan is a 7’0 big man that has yet to see any significant time in the NBA. He has been bounced around the D-League and overseas continuously. Jordan has lots of work to put in before he sees any serious time on this roster, but he could be a nice piece down the line.

Wojnarowski recently tweeted, “The Rockets refuse to give up on the Dwight Howard derby, gathering more assets to try and entice the Orlando Magic to engage in talks.”

The Rockets have been relentlessly involved in the “Dwight Derby,” and no matter how tired people are with the never ending “Dwight-mare,” the Rockets will continue to test the Magic’s patience.

Wojnarowski also excited Rockets fans when he tweeted, “Among Bynum’s short list of potential free agent landing spots in 2013, Houston is prominent with Dallas and Cleveland, sources tell Y!”

If the possibility of Dwight is slipping, then Bynum is not a bad consolation prize. Bynum is just 24 years old and would give the Rockets another big center to build around for years to come. Bynum’s knees have been an issue, but the Rockets are very familiar with taking a risk on a big man.  Bynum is an unrestricted free agent after 2013, but time will tell what the immature center will decide.

The bottom line for general manager Daryl Morey still remains finding a foundation player.

“When you’re close and have a foundational piece, you should be willing to give up picks and overpay players, whatever it takes while you have that precious foundation to get better,” Morey told the Houston Chronicle. “When you don’t have a foundational piece to build around, you should do every move in reverse, which is how does each move get us closer to getting a star, how does it get us more cap room, how does it get us more high picks and how does it get us more players with potential.”

The Rockets have acquired a plethora of players through trades that will likely be cut. Two specific contracts that involve Omer Asik, and Jeremy Lin are still on hold until the moratoriums comes to an end. That means the team will have to clear roster spots for those two guaranteed rotational players if they are eventually acquired.

The Rockets currently sit in uncertainty. With so many players lost, and so many random ones gained, the team must sift through the cluster. One thing the front office has made clear; they aren’t finished wheeling and dealing. If a superstar deal is approachable, the Rockets will be first in line.

Orlando Took Dwight Howard For Granted

The Dwight Howard saga appears nearing an end. The Magic franchise appears ready to part ways with their superstar center and are exploring their trade options to get some type of value in return for him. That was always something Orlando was determined to do, but the hope of having Howard sign an extension has waned.

The reports this weekend appear to have put a nail in that coffin. A divorce seems inevitable.

Why did this have to happen? What went so wrong in Orlando for Howard that he had to engineer his exit in such an embittered, secretive and senseless way? What brought the frustration level with the franchise so high that this was the way Howard had to go?

These are complex questions that do not have easy answers. Far from them.

In each of Howard’s statements he professes a love for the city of Orlando and a request fans stay patient with him and believe in him. But at the same time, he has avoided the truth that seems undeniable at this point: he does not want to play in Orlando anymore. His relationship with the Magic franchise has soured beyond the point of repair and he is trying (emphasis on trying) to secure an exit while maximizing his earning potential.

It has created an ugly divorce with the fans stuck in the middle.

Those same fans who have followed Dwight Howard the past eight years know this is not who Dwight Howard is. That is why hope that he would ultimately re-sign in Orlando remained — and why some fans I have talked to still believe Howard will stay if the team can gather the right pieces (bless those optimists, seriously).

Howard is a fun-loving, smiling center who plays hard and works hard. There is not a single reason to hate Dwight Howard the player. This is why fans attached to him and these Magic teams so much, creating a buzz around the team that was felt only once before in the franchise history (with a similarly gregarious center).

The Dwight Howard the Magic and Magic fans saw in 2012 did not seem to enjoy the game as much. He was serious and guarded, with every word carefully measured for some ulterior motive. Not the Howard that Magic fans grew to love in seven years.

This marriage did not seem destined for divorce. Not after the 2009 Finals trip. Not even after the Magic fell in the 2010 Eastern Conference Finals. The fate may have been sealed in December 2010 when the Magic boxed themselves in with two horrific trades.

And then with the landscape completely changed from one of hope and promise to one of mediocrity in the matter of a year and a half, the Magic began to ask the question of Howard — how long do you want to commit to this franchise? It is easy to see from that lens why you might hesitate to say yes and exert your leverage and power a little bit more.

Getting up to 2009 was a painstaking process of clearing some bad contracts — most notably, Steve Francis and Grant Hill’s expiring deal — and creating an atmosphere where the team could succeed. Stan Van Gundy pulled the right strings in getting Rashard Lewis, Jameer Nelson and Hedo Turkoglu to play their best basketball surrounding Howard.

But after 2009, Orlando succumbed to short-sighted moves to fling the window open, hoping it would not come crashing down on the franchise.

A lot of the moves made in the summer of 2009 proved to be the correct ones for the 2010 season alone. Vince Carter replaced Turkoglu’s production (although he did not improve on it) and Orlando had a deep and versatile bench to call on for the Playoffs.

But there was one underlying assumption in how that summer-long rebuild was executed — Dwight Howard would fix everything.

It is a testament both to Van Gundy’s schemes and Howard’s excellence that the 2010 team tied for the top defensive rating in the league. After all, no one considers Jameer Nelson, Vince Carter or Rashard Lewis elite perimeter defenders. Howard’s shadow cast all over the paint and he put together impressive defensive performances all by himself.

So when Otis Smith saw the wheels coming off his team in December 2010, this assumption still rested in the back of his mind. A quick fix could work because Dwight Howard can fix a whole bunch of holes.

And for a good chunk of the 2011 season, he did. Howard posted a career-best 26.0 PER and 7.7 defensive win shares. He was an absolute monster and carried his team to become third in the league in defensive rating. This was a team, mind you, that featured Nelson, Jason Richardson and Hedo Turkoglu as defenders in front of Howard.

The chance for a title was slipping though. Orlando struggled when teams could single cover Howard and no one else on the perimeter seemed able to step up in a six-game, first-round exit to the Hawks.

If you look at things through this prism, it is easy to see why Howard was frustrated by his waning voice within the franchise and his lack of help on it. Howard had to do everything. And moves and transactions were seemingly made with the assumption that Dwight Howard can make everything work on his own. He is so gifted and talented that, for a long time, he did make it all work by himself.

But that is not how he is going to win championships. That is not how you build a championship team.

And so, with his ability to exercise his leverage at its maximum, Howard asked out. Orlando had run out of time to build him a championship team and boxed itself in, unable to get him help. The Magic as a franchise, simply took Howard’s good nature and talent for granted, souring him away from the team’s plans.

This does not in any way excuse the bungled way Howard has handled his exit. It has been ugly and confusing. A fan base that appreciates and supports a superstar the way Orlando did with Howard deserves a straight answer from the player himself — the December 2011 press conference he held would have been fine if he let it stay at that. They certainly do not deserve the winding road and drama the franchise has endured.

The way Howard continually professes his love for Orlando makes you believe things really could have worked out if the Magic remained perpetual contenders and he had no reason to be discontent. But it is clear from the way things were run, Howard had plenty of reasons to be off put by the Magic’s next attempt to placate him.

It all started with the franchise and its personnel not living up to its potential and bungling move after move at a time when it could not. Howard played the good teammate and did everything he could. The problem was, too many mistakes around him were made. It seems like it made him feel like he was taken for granted and ignored.

Howard was no longer a good soldier. He wanted a larger say if he was going to expend the effort and energy to (literally) carry a team through the postseason. Orlando did not give it to him.

And so here we are, ready to divorce much more bitterly than it had to be. A relationship broken that did not have to be.

How Much Will Orlando Clean House?

The rebuilding has begun. Orlando is heading in a new direction. What that direction will be is hard to say. But the one thing that is clear is that the Magic are done with Stan Van Gundy and Otis Smith and everything they built the last five years.

There are a lot of retrospectives.

Many applauding the job that Van Gundy did and lamenting the circumstances that led to his firing (ultimately agreeing that it was time one way or another with how stale the Magic had gotten the last two years).

There are many also giving rightful criticism toward Otis Smith. After all, things were going swimmingly until his tinkering became too ruinous for chemistry and he depleted his assets and the team’s talent level. A more full evaluation of Van Gundy and Smith’s tenure will be coming in the following days.

The more pressing and immediate concern is the Magic’s future. That is where the focus has honestly been since the beginning of the season and Dwight Howard announced his trade request. Even though he eventually waived his early termination option the feeling is that he has never really officially moved off his demand. He just believed in the team he was on or something.

In any case, Van Gundy and Smith’s firing have only spurred on rumors for what is next for the Magic. At this point, all anything is are just rumors. We have hit the point of the season where everything is based on a whisper and an agenda. There is nothing concrete, no matter how much everyone from management to the fan base wants some finality entering next season.

And, again, it all revolves around Dwight Howard.

The way the rumor mill is swirling, it is sounding like the Magic are preparing to completely clear the deck — coach, general manager and star player.

That seems to be what many people think. Ken Berger of CBS Sports reports that the firing of Van Gundy and Smith does not necessarily mean that Howard is staying, much like retaining one or both of them would have meant that Howard was gone.

There were rumors circulating throughout the season that there was something of a rift between Van Gundy, Smith and management. The rumor was that Van Gundy and Smith were ready to move on from Howard and expected him traded by the deadline. In fact, there were some who believed that Smith was ready to pull the trigger on a deal that would have sent Howard to the Nets at one point. Obviously Alex Martins and Magic management had the final say and they elected to keep Howard at, seemingly, all costs.

I am sure Van Gundy airing the Magic’s inner workings and dirty laundry virtually unprompted did not endear him to his bosses. And I am sure the bosses did not appreciate having their strategy disputed with their top basketball man. Otis Smith may actually have been doing his job right in trying to get the best deal for Howard in March or sooner. Who knows?

Now, it appears (if you believe certain reports) that Howard is still unsure of his future in Orlando.

Chris Sheridan of SheridanHoops.com reports Howard still wants out of Orlando. What is more, a source told Chris Bernucca of SheridanHoops.com that Howard wants out of Orlando “more than ever.” (h/t Evan Dunlap of Orlando Pinstriped Post)

Of course, Howard has yet to say anything more than the short comment-and-response interview he gave Ric Bucher of ESPN the Magazine. So, again, everything is just a rumor.

The franchise has thrown itself into another round of silly season where rumors and whispers rule the day. Only Alex Martins and the people in power really know what is going on at this point. And so the decision lies squarely with them.

The first task, as Josh Robbins of the Orlando Sentinel pointed out, is to find a new general manager to spearhead the NBA Draft preparations and hire a new coach. The first task of the new general manager is to get a feel for what Dwight Howard wants and try to build a relationship that will hopefully keep him in a Magic uniform.

This might be why the Magic are looking for someone with championship experience and someone who has been around the NBA. The hope, it seems, is to instill confidence that the franchise is moving in the right direction.

No matter what is reported, Orlando has committed itself to keeping Howard in uniform. That was the long-stated goal and it was supported by the franchise’s actions in talking to Howard and getting him to waive his early termination option. Even though the Magic appear unwilling to go through the will-he-won’t-he drama of the 2012 season again, the goal is still to have Howard in a Magic uniform for a long time. Clearing up the rumors stated above is job one for the new general manager.

The question then becomes in the hiring process which general manager that fits the Magic’s criteria would be willing to go through the rebuilding process if Dwight Howard elects to leave.

Donnie Walsh, a rumored candidate for the Magic’s open general manager job, just left a tumultuous relationship with New York. Does he want to enter a potentially similar situation and build from the ground up in Orlando?

And what about the head coach? The Magic want someone who will take the team to a championship. But many of the coaches with that championship experience are not the kinds of coaches that typically relate well to players — at least, not in the way that Dwight Howard seems to want. It would appear then, that a young coach like Brian Shaw who lacks experience could be on the way in.

That kind of a coach might be better suited to a rebuilding job then a “get us over the top” job. And what the Magic’s ultimate goals are depends, of course, on what Dwight Howard wants to do.

There is a lot on the plate for whomever the Magic decide to hire for sure. The future is quite clearly at stake with the decisions the franchise is preparing to make.

Big Baby Had A Big Impact In Orlando

The Magic did not make the splash many expected in the shortened offseason. Orlando had some work to do to appease Dwight Howard, so the thought would go, this summer and there hardly seemed to be a splashy move in sight.

The biggest offseason acquisition was a sign and trade of power forwards. Orlando sent Brandon Bass to Boston for Glen Davis. Davis got a four-year deal for $24 million. He was allegedly on the list of players Dwight Howard had requested the Magic to go after in trades and add to the team. This was the move for this team.

Fans were admittedly skeptical.

It was not just that Davis was “the enemy” for so long. One of the admittedly funny issues that had to be resolved when Davis came over was the reconciliation between Davis and the fan he bumped into during the 2009 Finals. That family still owns seats right near the Magic bench. That was a non-issue, of course, but it shows the emotion that had to be overcome when Davis officially donned Magic blue.

Those defending the deal only saw it as a step to the side, not a step forward. Bass was a much better shooter and seemed to pair up with Dwight Howard a lot better than Davis would. The differences defensively and with his leadership seemed negligible or intangible at that point.

Things got off to a poor start, too.

Davis averaged 7.3 points per game and 5.2 rebounds per game. More alarmingly, Davis was shooting 36.1 percent from the floor. His shot was noticeably flat and he was a liability offensively. Davis was not delivering on the Magic’s faith in him.

Davis admitted that he was trying a little too hard to match Bass’ production in Boston. Bass came right into the starting lineup for the Celtics and made an impact. Davis wanted to do the same. The only problem was he was playing behind Ryan Anderson, the league’s Most Improved Player and someone who proved to be a better fit for the offense.

“I know the beginning of the year was kind of rocky for me,” Davis said at exit interviews. “A lot of people didn’t know what was going on, how I was going. A lot of stuff happened that I had no control over. When I finally settled down and began to do the things that I love to do — and that is play the game of basketball at a high level — I feel like I did a pretty good job coming in and filling the void that was there with Dwight (Howard) leaving.”

It was a tough year for Davis and he said he was frustrated by his lack of playing time and his smaller role with the team. Things did not turn around until he accepted his role and began to do what he does best — play with energy and enthusiasm and provide a defensive rock in the paint.

This became even more evident when Dwight Howard went out.

Davis’ numbers remained virtually the same into February and March after his slow start. But his field goal percentage began to slowly creep up. With Howard out in April, Davis began to really flourish. He averaged 16.4 points per game and 8.8 rebounds per game. He shot 50.3 percent from the floor, a dramatic increase from his middling shooting from the beginning of the year.

With this responsibility, Davis flourished. He stepped up his game even more in the Playoffs with 19.0 points per game and 9.2 rebounds per game.

More than that though, Davis became an emotional leader for the team. It was Davis who coined the rallying cry, “We All We Got,” and energized his team with over-the-top efforts in the playoffs. Davis was key to all those crazed second quarter comebacks and you could see by the way Davis was struggling to get up and down the floor how much the effort meant to him and his teammates.

By the end, he had endeared himself to Magic fans. He had won them over. And the Magic would have tanked without him in the lineup for sure. No offense to Brandon Bass.

Davis said his goal this offseason is to build his conditioning so he can play 40 minutes per game. That is a big goal. And Davis said he intends on starting next year.

“That was one of the reasons I went through my funk because I thought I should be a starter,” Davis said. “When I finally got over that, I started playing better. Then at the same time, you pray and God delivered for me the opportunity to play big minutes and I showed the world what I can do.

“Yeah, I want to start. But at the end of the day, I can’t leave it for no chance. I’ve got to be the best player that I can be, so when it comes down to pick the starters, there can be no question. I don’t want no question, nothing in nobody’s mind to make them feel like I shouldn’t be starting. And that’s my approach to the whole summer.”

As Otis Smith described it, having two guys who want to and expect to start is a good problem to have. He certainly likes that Davis has the ambition to play the majority of the minutes next season.

Yes, Orlando still has three more season with Davis. There remains some trepidation about the length of that contract.

For the first year, Davis proved his worth. He won over the skeptical fans enough and became the team’s emotional leader. There were not many surprises in this forgettable season, but this one certainly qualified as a pleasant one.

Howard Still In Touch With Magic

The Magic are in a full holding pattern.

This week management will meet and begin making decisions and evaluations of everyone on the Magic staff and roster. Ultimately though, the Magic’s future lies in the decisions of one Dwight David Howard Jr.

This past season was all about Howard decision or indecision. It dominated headlines throughout the season and it is something that the Magic do not want to go through again. So at the end of the season as Orlando sorts through what is looking to be a mess of an offseason it all boils down to one decision once again:

Will Dwight Howard sign a long-term extension with the Magic? Does he want to be in Orlando for the short or long term?

It seems every decision the Magic are going to make this offseason will depend on that answer. Alex Martins has all but said that if Howard will not sign a long-term extension this offseason, the team will go forward with what is best for the team. That likely means getting what value the team can for Howard in a trade. And it seems that will get done before the season begins.

The one voice that has been uncharacteristically quiet though is Dwight Howard himself.

The public has not heard from Howard since TMZ cornered him coming out of rehab a little more than a week ago. There, Howard said he had been in contact with coach Stan Van Gundy and his teammates. Van Gundy confirmed that he had chatted with Howard via text before Game 2 but said at exit interviews that he had not spoken to him since.

Several players, including Jameer Nelson, said they had been in touch with Howard via the phone.

“He is bored to death because he can’t really do anything,” Stan Van Gundy said before Game 4 of his conversations with Howard. “He is sitting in a motel and doing his rehab. and the rehab is not like he is running three miles or anything. You are starting out slow. He is bored more than anything.”

Howard said in that interview with TMZ that he feels like he is in jail because he cannot go anywhere and could not be with his teammates. Howard grew visibly frustrated in the interview when the interviewer brought up the subject of whether he was faking any part of his injury. That is how the interview abruptly ends if you watch it again.

Fans I have talked to have been very critical of Howard’s absence from the team during the Playoffs and at the end of the season. It is tough to say exactly what Howard is thinking. I will not pretend to know — otherwise, reporting would be easy at this stage of the offseason.

Garnett’s Remarkable Resurgence

LL Cool J once said, “Don’t call it a come-back. I’ve been here for years, rocking my peers and putting sucka’s in fear.”

Well, the same could be said for Kevin Garnett, who has enjoyed a resurgence in the playoffs. 

This postseason, Garnett’s player efficiency rating has improved to 23.82, compared to last season’s 17.3.  In the first round series against the Atlanta Hawks, Garnett averaged 18.7 points, and 10.50 rebounds. These numbers are reminiscent of his days on the Minnesota Timberwolves, when he was affectionately known as The Big Ticket.

So far, Garnett has produced on par with his 2008 playoff campaign with Boston, which was above his career averages.

Since Doc Rivers shifted Garnett to center, he has played like he is 25, as opposed to the 35-year-old veteran with bad knees. As a center, he is posting up more in the post, rather than shooting jump shots on the perimeter.

Since the All-Star break, Garnett has failed to reach double digits in points scored in only two games. To put this into a broader view, in the first week of the season, Garnett had two games in which he failed to reach double digits in points.

Also worth noting, Garnett recorded thirteen double digit rebounding outings after the break and he pulled down eight or nine boards in nine other games.

The defense that Garnett provided on the opposing team’s center proved to be just as much of a nightmare as it was for the opposing team’s center trying to cover Garnett and his mid-range jumper.

One downside to Garnett playing center on a consistent basis is injuries; in particular his history of knee injuries. He has the length but not the girth to defend the likes of Dwight Howard and Andrew Bynum, day in and day out. The continuous banging in the paint would take a toll on him and that would make him less effective in every aspect of his game. Furthermore, it would wear him down a lot faster. For example, former Celtic center, Kendrick Perkins suffered numerous shoulder injuries due to the constant battles in the paint. His shoulder was a problem by the end of the year, almost every season, due to the pounding of being backed into the post or from backing into the post. Garnett, with his small frame, would be back on the injury report sooner than expected.

The consensus around the NBA from writers and fans is that it is a two-horse race, between the Orlando Magic’s Dwight Howard and the Los Angeles Lakers’ Andrew Bynum, for the best center in the NBA. Statistically, Howard has a strong case. But anyone who knows anything about basketball knows that the stats sheet does not tell the whole story of Dwight Howard. In his eighth season in the NBA, Howard has yet to develop a true offensive post game and simply does not hit free throws; making him nearly impossible to go to late in games. He has, to this point, unsuccessfully run two campaigns: one for being traded out of Orlando, and another to have head coach, Stan Van Gundy fired.

Garnett’s defense is undeniable, but the health concerns he faced this season, the drama off the court, and his inability to close out games makes him a more viable option at the center position. Garnett just capped off his sixth consecutive season shooting over 80% from the line, has a well-established offensive game on the block or from the elbow, and has a certain fire that Howard does not seem to possess.

Most importantly, Garnett’s team feeds off of his fire while it looked like Howard’s team was feeding off of his childish antics at times. The advantage goes to Kevin Garnett today. It was like a switch was turned on and the Kevin Garnett of old came back for one last run as the big men went down one by one for the Boston Celtics. Only this time, Garnett is doing it in a different role but with the same mindset.

It’s time for the certifiably insane, chest-pounding, lockdown-defending, 6’11” big man to get the love he deserves; this time, as the best center in the NBA.

A Meeting Of The Minds In Orlando

The Magic’s season is not a week over, and uncertainty regins at Amway Center an in the Magic offices. Really, uncertainty has reigned in the Orlando Magic front office since early December when Dwight Howard formally requested a trade and perhaps even before that when the franchise had no idea what Howard wanted or his position on his future with the team.

With the team facing and dealing with a second straight first round exit, the Magic have questions to answer as they try to figure out what lies in their future.

Alex Martins said earlier this week at the team’s exit interviews that the team will take some time to decompress before beginning postseason evaluations. He would not put a time table on when that process would begin or would result in a decision to retain or release the team’s head coach and the team’s general manager.

I have learned that this process is expected to begin this week when Magic ownership meets to evaluate the season. My source told me that the feeling is this meeting may result in a final decision concerning Stan Van Gundy’s future with the team by the end of the week.

There is no guarantee that there will be action coming out of these initial meetings between Magic CEO Alex Martins, Magic chairman Dan DeVos, owner Rich DeVos and the others involved in this meeting of the Magic’s ownership and management group. But the postseason evaluations have begun in earnest. And certainly the Magic would like to have some things resolved with the coach and general manager before the team enters full NBA Draft preparations ahead of the June 28 NBA Draft.

“We’re going to start a full evaluation process of our entire organization. That’s what we do at the end of each season,” Martins said at the Magic’s exit interviews last week. “We base everything that we do on trying to win a championship. So we’re going to do that this offseason like we do every offseason. Everything will be evaluated so that we get to next season and we will be in a better position than we are today to have won a title.

“Everything we have done over the years is about getting to win a championship. Unfortunately getting to the Playoffs is just not good enough. We have to find a way to get back to the Eastern Conference Finals and back to the Finals and have an opportunity to win a championship. Everything has to be evaluated.”

Nobody was very happy with how the Magic ended this season. As I noted earlier, Martins, Otis Smith and Stan Van Gundy were sure to mention that the team was 32-18 at the 50-game mark and looking to take the third seed in the Eastern Conference before Dwight Howard was lost for much of the end of the season with a back injury. Nobody faulted the team’s effort on the floor in the Playoffs, but there was certainly a sense that the team is going backward.

Throw in the constant drama surrounding Dwight Howard and his request to management to fire Stan Van Gundy and it is not hard to sense the uneasiness around the franchise.

“At some point in the future, hopefully the near future, they’re going to decide one way or another and you go with it,” Stan Van Gundy said at exit interviews last week. “It doesn’t weigh on me. There’s only two things that can happen. There’s not a menu of options here. You fire me or you don’t fire me.”

Van Gundy said then that he has “several meetings planned” including some time sitting on his back porch, spending time with his family (for real this time, not the Miami “spend time with his family”) and visiting friend and Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez when the Braves play the Tampa Bay Rays next weekend. It was a trying season for everyone in the franchise and regardless of his future with the team, Van Gundy deserves some much-needed rest and relaxation.

But certainly by sticking with Howard through the trade request and past the trade deadline and convincing Howard to waive his opt-out clause, the Magic seem to have put themselves in the “keep Dwight at all costs” camp.

If that means that the Magic will look for a new coaching staff both Van Gundy and Martins hopes that decision comes sooner rather than later. Martins said he does not want to leave anyone on the coaching staff “in limbo” and they hope to have a final decision made in time for the assistant coaches the team chooses not to retain to go out and find other coaching positions.

Van Gundy said he would be fine with management taking the time necessary to make a decision. In the end, he is the employee.

Orlando wants to move forward and begin aligning the pieces to build back up for a championship run in 2013. That is the unequivocal goal for the franchise at the moment. This week’s meeting will be the first step in solving that puzzle.

This is a team. This is an organization that focuses itself on a team and everybody working together,” Martins said. “When you talk about team, that takes a lot of different pieces. Dwight is just one piece of the big puzzle. Stan is a piece. Otis is a piece. Our ownership is a piece. Every single other person on that roster is a piece.

“It takes a lot to win a championship. Less than half this teams in the league have won a championship in the history of this league. Obviously it is not easy to do. We’re going to look at every single piece and make sure we put the right pieces together to have that chance next season.”

Howard-Less Magic Get An Early Vacation

The Orlando Magic were eliminated in the first round of the NBA Playoffs tonight, but this may prove to be a blessing in disguise. The Magic need time to put their drama filled season behind them and start to work on unity within the team in the offseason.

With all the chaos of the saga that interrupted their season, the Magic need to close ranks and build on the assets that they do have. Players like Ryan Anderson, Glen “Big Baby” Davis, Jameer Nelson, Jason Richardson and J.J. Redick have all shown their worth over the season, but were undermined by plays designed to get Howard in the paint to dunk. Now with Howard out of the picture, hopefully for good, they can concentrate on being the team that they are and build plays that use the strengths of these underestimated stars.

During the postseason, Nelson had become the leader on the court setting up plays and making it all happen. The Magic had expected Howard to be there to lead them through the postseason, as he had stated when he opted to stay with the team at the end of the trade deadline in March. He is currently in LA recovering from back surgery that ended his season in early April with the Magic.

Any team that takes Howard on has to know that he comes with issues. It would be like signing a Terrell Owens, or Randy Moss in the NFL; no one can deal with their attitudes or egos, but can’t deny that they have some talent.

Howard believes he’s so great that he won’t have a problem finding a team to take him, but it may not be what they bargained for. Sure, they can sign a franchise player, but look at his stats. His only two assets are getting into the paint and throwing down a dunk, and getting rebounds. He can’t shoot a 3-point shot, this past season he only shot 49% in FT’s, and 57% in FG’s.

Basically, his game needs work.

Chris Broussard at ESPN tweeted last week that he “asked 22 execs from 18 NBA teams: if you were [the] Lakers, would you trade Bynum for D Howard straight up? 16 said yes, 6 said no.”

They are all crazy if they think Howard would be an asset to the Lakers. Look at what Bynum has done for the Lakers in the post season. He broke a franchise playoff record of nine blocks in a game, which was previously set by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Bynum ended the game with 10 blocks against the Denver Nuggets on April 29th, matching two NBA records held by Mark Eaton in 1985, and Hakeem Olajuwon in 1990.

Believe it or not, but the Magic have a good chance at becoming a great team next season as long as they pick up a decent center in the off season. Once they move past the soap opera that plagued them this year, Magic fans can only hope for a refreshed and organized attitude next season.

Podcast: 2012 NBA Playoffs Preview

After nearly a year, the Hoops Addict Podcast is back on a regular basis. I’ve linked up with Mark Cheel with the intention of bringing back the Podcast on a weekly basis and we started with a preview of the 2012 NBA Playoffs.

Mark and I break down why Atlanta can give Boston a scare, we debate if Utah’s frontcourt can muscle San Antonio out of the playoffs, we lament that the Clippers lack of a strong coach will result in Blake Griffin and Chris Paul not lasting as long as they should in the playoffs as well as the rest of the first round match-ups.

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.

Here’s the MP3 of the Podcast if you want to download it.