The Wandering Beard

As Thunder GM Sam Presti was watching his former sixth man run circles around the Pistons, I suspect he had a moment of recoil. At least he should have.

Keep in mind that as the Lakers struggle to 0-10 (including preseason) much like the Heat struggled a couple of years ago, NBA analysts around the country emphasize that a team needs time to “gel”. And while I don’t doubt the acumen or insider expertise of any of these former players and coaches, I did just watch James Harden turn into “Big Game” James and drop a LeBron James like stat line without ever having played with any of the current Rockets.

James Harden came off the bench last year and regularly sparked the Thunder to victories. He was a burst of energy that the other team rarely saw coming, and often had no answer for. Standing 6’5” and 230lbs, Harden has prototypical size for his position and is one of the best athletes in the NBA. If he had LeBron’s size I could make a case for him possibly growing into the best in the game. He drives the ball with raw power and swift feet. He shoots the ball with a silky release and a confident follow-through. He’s already one of the most intelligent players with the ball in his hands. And he is COLD BLOODED.

Now, none of this is news to Sam Presti. So why get rid of him? Money, money, money. He saw Harden was in line for the type of deal he got from Houston and simply could not fit that into the Thunder’s current budget. The key word there being “current”. Durant, Westbrook and Perkins are all locked up to big deals and Harden’s deal would have meant another $30 mil in luxury tax.

I get that, but here’s the thing: Would you rather have Westbrook or Harden signed to a max deal?

Russell Westbrook is one of the best talents in the NBA and there is absolutely no disputing that. But he is a little behind the curve from the neck up. He fires wild, wayward passes; often turning the ball over more than 7 or 8 times in a game. Most possessions that begin with the ball in his hands end that way. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen him dribble the ball up, then just pull up from 15 feet. That’s great when you make 70% of them, but that seems to be happening less and less. Meanwhile, the best scorer in the game goes possession after possession without touching the rock. My biggest problem with him is he clearly thinks he’s a better player than Durant. That’s not a strategy conducive to winning.

Presti could have, and in my opinion should have dumped Westbrook on a team for a good young point guard who is years away from a big payday or a veteran who can be an extension of Scott Brooks on the floor. Even Harden himself would have been an excellent solution at point guard.

But c’est la vie, Presti decided to hold on to one of the more volatile personalities in the NBA and dumped his 23-year-old Sixth Man of the Year.

My second problem here is the haul he got for Harden. Presti brings in Kevin Martin, who was a good scorer in Houston, but who else was going to score for them? Martin is a solid talent, moves off the ball well and has a good, albeit funky-looking jumper, but he has been apathetic to coaching in the past.

My big problem is after that they landed Jeremy Lamb and three draft picks. Picking in the NBA draft can truly be a lottery experience. The Thunder have drafted well, yes, but there is also a lot of luck involved in that. They could have easily ended up with Greg Oden, OJ Mayo and Hasheem Thabeet (who is ironically on the team this year) in the drafts that netted them Durant, Westbrook and Harden.

Obviously, only Presti knows what other offers were out there, but I can’t believe he got all he could for a man on the verge of becoming one of the best shooting guards in the NBA. If anyone had to go, Westbrook should have been the guy here. Only time will tell of course, but I seriously doubt any of the other teams in the West are sad to see Durant and Harden split up. They could have been a new generation Jordan-Pippen.

I’m afraid in the next five years Durant will have to endure some serious frustration with Westbrook and that this could end in tragedy for OKC.

Harden Trade Bad For NBA

The Oklahoma City Thunder’s decision to trade James Harden to the Houston Rockets has left a bad taste in my mouth.

Late last night — during the middle of a tough loss by the Oklahoma Sooners that was distracting most of the state — the Thunder traded Harden, Cole Aldrich, Daequan Cook and Lazar Hayward to Houston in exchange for Kevin Martin, Jeremy Lamb, two first-round picks and a second-round pick that belonged to Charlotte.

One of the draft picks is Toronto’s from the Kyle Lowry deal and the other comes courtesy of the Los Angeles Lakers in the Jordan Hill deal last season.

Some fans will debate whether it was worth it for Harden to fight for the extra $5.5 million he will get from Houston, but I don’t think fans would be willing to leave money on the table when they negotiate their next contract.

On top of that, Oklahoma City was unable to offer Harden the fifth-year that Houston can because of the new collective bargaining agreement. According to that document, teams can only sign one player to a five-year deal, the rest of the roster can only accept a contract for a maximum of four years.

While it may seem blasphemous to say right now, there’s a strong possibility that Martin will provide more reliable outside shooting than Harden provided and that Lamb could develop into a great compliment to Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and Serge Ibaka. The problem with playing that “what if” game is the fact Harden was already a great compliment to their core group of players and he was their best three-point shooter last season.

Oklahoma City might also win the “lottery” with one of the two draft picks they secured in this trade. If they can get a top-five pick in the draft next June then Sam Presti will once again look like a genius.

So while there is hope for how this deal could play out in the future, what really stings is the fact the Thunder made a business decision instead of a personnel one when they were poised to start a season where they challenged for an NBA Championship.

When Oklahoma City dealt Jeff Green to Boston for Kendrick Perkins a couple seasons back it stunned the fans and the players left on their roster. However, that was clearly a move made to give a young roster more experience and to toughen up their bigs. But trading Harden to Houston? That amounts to the Oklahoma City not having the kind of money needed to pay him $five million over five seasons due to worries about luxury tax payments. That’s a scary message for a small-market team to be sending to its players and fans.

What frustrates fans of the team is that Oklahoma City could have played out this season without any real penalty. Before this trade went down they were almost guaranteed a spot in the Western Conference Finals and many pundits had them playing in the NBA Finals.

Now? They still have a chance, but the odds aren’t nearly as good.

If Oklahoma City rode out this season they could have at least matched any offer that Harden received next summer and then traded him. So, they would have still gotten some pieces back and they would have been able to play out this season competing for an NBA Championship.

Last season the NBA played 66 games so that the league would have a competitive playing field. The idea was that bigger markets like Los Angeles, New York, Boston, Chicago and Miami would no longer be able to dictate where the star players went.

So much for that utopian idea.

Heading into this season, Los Angeles alone is home to Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol, Chris Paul, Dwight Howard, Steve Nash and Blake Griffen.

Meanwhile, Miami boasts heir own big three and Boston has three future Hall-of-Famers in Rajon Rondo, Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett.

It’s a shame the rich continue to get richer while small-market teams will continue to struggle to compete.

Even worse, it stinks that Oklahoma City cashed in their chips before even giving this season a chance to unfold.

Toronto Steals Lowry From Houston

It took Bryan Colangelo less than 24 hours to regroup from losing Steve Nash.

In a move that won’t have the same flash or sizzle of adding Nash, Colangelo made a bold move by stealing Kyle Lowry from the Houston Rockets for a heavily protected first round pick.

It may not be the sexy move, but it was probably a better move than adding Nash.

Lowry finished last season averaging 14.3 points, 6.6 assist and 4.5 rebounds. Keep in mind for a stretch of the season Lowry flirted with 20 points and 10 assists per game. During the month of January he averaged 15.0 points, 7.1 assists and 6.7 rebounds while playing gritty defense.

It’s not like Lowry is the only possible target for Colangelo. There was talk leading up to the NBA Draft that Andre Igoudala and Rudy Gay might be headed to Toronto. While new management in Memphis has quieted the rumours of Gay being dealt, it wouldn’t come as a surprise to see Igoudala dealt this summer.

Igoudala only averaged 12.9 points and 5.7 rebounds while having a player efficiency of 13.77. Hardly the stuff to excite fans in Toronto. But, due to the playing style of Doug Collins, the Sixers’ leading scorer last season was sixth man Lou Williams.

There are a lot of people in the NBA who feel that if Igoudala was playing in a system where he was featured it would allow him to average close to 18 points like he averaged a couple seasons back.

Plus, a huge bonus for Toronto is that Igoudala is a small forward known for being a gritty defender.

Here’s to hoping that Philly would be willing to take on some young pieces like Ed Davis or DeMar DeRozan while taking some expiring contracts like Linas Kleiza or Jose Calderon in the process.

While none of these moves have the luster of inking Nash trading for a valuable piece or two may turn out better.

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.

Lowry Demands A Trade If Dragic Returns

Kyle Lowry, who opened the lockout driven season as the starting point guard for the Houston Rockets, is now ready to pack his bags if things are not addressed.

Lowry, who was discussed as a potential All-Star game reserve, saw everything crumble after a dangerous bacterial infection took over his body. Lowry only played 47 games this season, while backup point guard Goran Dragic wasted no time picking up the slack.

As you can imagine the situation does not favor Lowry in the slightest. While the infection was out of his control, it essentially took him out of the loop. Lowry went from the future, to the past, after unrestricted free agent Goran Dragic outplayed Lowry during his absence.

The Rockets have made it clear that Dragic will be retained even though he is expected to be approached by multiple teams who are willing to pay him a large salary. If the Rockets do stay loyal to their words, then Dragic will be paid a salary that will demand him to be the starter.

If this sounds eerily familiar, then you’re starting to make the connection. The carousel of point guards have been rotating now for a few years. Dragic is now taking Lowry’s spot, while Lowry did the same to former guard Aaron Brooks. Lowry has clearly seen the trend catch up to him, and isn’t willing to sit on his hands and watch it play out.

“We’re both capable starters,” Lowry told the Houston Chronicle. “We both want it. It’s going to have to be a situation where they make a decision on one of us.”

Lowry continued to reiterate his dilemma, making it very clear that the assurance he needs will be met, or his services may no longer be worthy to the Rockets.

“It has nothing to do with Goran,” Lowry admitted. “I’m not happy with the way (the) coaches handled things. If management wants to do something to keep Goran, I think I’ll have to be moved.”

With that quote comes act two of this story. The act in which Lowry calls out his coach, while his coach surprisingly raises his eyebrows after the comment is relayed to him.

“If things aren’t addressed coaching-wise, I guess I have to be moved,” Lowry said.

McHale replied with what you would expect from a head coach.

“That’s very surprising,” McHale said. “I didn’t think we had too much of a problem coexisting this year. Everybody has a little beef every once in a while. I didn’t feel like (there were problems). He apparently did.”

The beef with McHale really hit the boiling point in a game against the Denver Nuggets, when Lowry and McHale shared some words. Lowry showed his anger on the court, but later downplayed the situation as the heat of the moment, took over emotions. Now Lowry is using that scenario to further emphasize his discomfort with coach McHale.

Lowry, who clearly feels insecure with his position on the team, did leave a slight window open for adjustments. But his demands are steep, and the Rockets are not leaning towards those changes.

While McHale struggled to get this team into the playoffs as the season came to a close, he also joined the team in a shortened NBA season, with virtually no training camp. The Rockets would shock most people if they let McHale go after one incomplete season.

General manager Daryl Morey remains upbeat about the situation, and doesn’t believe it needs to end in this manner.

“I think Kyle and coach McHale are both winners and both competitive guys,” Morey said. “I don’t anticipate any issues going forward.”

Lowry and Dragic are both capable starters, and splitting time for either is really not an option. Dragic has made it clear if he signs with the Rockets, he wants starting minutes. Lowry has now made it clear that he wants the same, along with another coach in the mix.

Honestly, Lowry packing his bags seems like a very realistic scenario now.

While some of us know that these two players make a great duo on the court, or when used interchangeably, we also know that both players believe they are ready to run a basketball team. Splitting time isn’t the same as running the show. Lowry may look selfish right now, but he is speaking freely. He is looking out for his own good. He sees that his progression as a point guard is stalling. The Rockets may not be in the position to kick start that stall, when they have another point guard they will be committing a large salary to.

The Rockets have some major decision to iron out, and Kyle Lowry will be right in the heart of it all.