Mar 10, 2014 5:43 PM EDT
In a quality stretch with important games at the top and bottom of the standings, we have something truly unusual in NNGW this week: a team listed four times. The Warriors have three key games in terms of the Western Conference playoff battle and one match-up of the starting PG’s in the All-Star Game.
Raptors @ Nets: After all the consternation and disappointment, the Atlantic division has two teams above .500. Toronto has a major edge on the division crown but a Brooklyn win here would make that a more reasonable proposition. I am most intrigued by how Amir Johnson handles the unusual power forwards the Nets have been rolling out in 2014.
Wizards @ Heat: A potentially dangerous game for Miami since it comes the day after facing the Bulls in Chicago. Washington has played well since the All-Star break, but will need their best to take out a Heat team that has only lost four times at home.
Magic @ Bucks: With about 20 games left, Milwaukee still has a three game “lead” on the worst record in the league. That said, winning three games might put them in a tie with Philadelphia since the Sixers may not win another game over the rest of the season. Orlando winning a few games has put them in a perilous spot because a series of teams are sitting in the lower twenties in terms of wins right now.
Spurs @ Bulls: Potentially a not super fun game to watch considering the fact that the Bulls will want to make this one a slog but it could end up being important. Chicago needs to keep playing well to get the third seed and potentially avoid Miami while the Spurs have plenty of challengers out West.
Trail Blazers @ Grizzlies: A statement for both teams since the Blazers need to firm up their place in the top four seeds while Memphis has to fight for a chair when the music stops. Mike Conley continues to fly under the radar but could have a nice showcase here against Damian Lillard.
Mavericks @ Warriors: These teams have had many fun games against each other including a barnburner at Oracle earlier this season that ended with a Stephen Curry game-winner. Dirk Nowitzki provides a matchup problem for the Warriors and will need to play well unless Monta Ellis has a huge game at the arena he used to call home.
Bobcats @ Wizards: Want to hear something crazy? This could be the 3/6 playoff matchup, though I do not expect that to happen. Despite some high profile failings, Charlotte has a quality defense and could wreak havoc on a flawed Washington offense. One of the Washington perimeter players will need to take control of the game in order for them to win.
Warriors @ Clippers [Game of the Week]: Beyond being a potential playoff preview and a duel between players who can stake claim as the No. 1 and No. 2 Point Guards in the world (not that Steph is necessarily No. 2 over the stacked PG crop), this game also represents a rematch of two of the most entertaining games of the entire season on Christmas and Halloween. Andrew Bogut could have a huge factor on the outcome if they sic him on Blake Griffin for extended stretches.
Grizzlies @ Raptors: It is pretty remarkable that as of this writing these two teams are actually tied in the loss column. Kyle Lowry and Mike Conley are among the best two-way point guards in the entire league but the Toronto bigs will have a bigger challenge against the Memphis front line.
Cavs @ Warriors: Whether or not it stays close, Kyrie Irving and Stephen Curry sharing the court makes for compelling television.
Nets @ Wizards: The importance of this game varies pretty significantly on how the preceding part of the week goes for both teams. Brooklyn still has a fighting chance at a top four seed but will need to play incredibly well while Washington has a much clearer opportunity.
Pacers @ Pistons: Makes the list because I am fascinated by Andre Drummond and Roy Hibbert playing against each other.
Mavericks @ Thunder: Could be the 1/8 or 2/7 series a month from now and that would be quite fun because of the talent involved. Plus, this is a Slim Reaper game so it can get included for any reason.
Warriors @ Trail Blazers: Another huge game for both sides that marks a rematch of one of the more interesting games of the 2013-14 season. For those who do not know, there is some bad blood between these teams and they already had an on-court conflict this year.
Mar 11, 2014 2:48 PM EDT
The Cleveland Cavaliers added a jersey to the rafters of Quicken Loans Arena on Saturday night, retiring the No. 11 worn by Zydrunas Ilgauskas for over a decade.
This was a can’t-miss event for me, as Ilgauskas is my all-time favorite NBA player. That’s a status he shares with many Cavs fans, which speaks to both how loved and respected he was by Cleveland and how little premium talent the franchise has had in its 40+ year existence.
Ilgauskas started inauspiciously. When Cleveland made him the 20th overall pick in the 1996 NBA draft, most Cavs fans had never heard of the Lithuanian center with the strange name. He missed his entire rookie season with a foot injury, and many Cleveland faithful expected this to be yet another wasted draft pick for a franchise that was mired in NBA no-man’s land.
Big Z endeared himself to the fans by working hard to get his feet right. He endured painful surgeries that essentially rebuilt his foot. It would have been easy, and fairly expected, for a foreign big man to just say enough was enough, but that was not Z.
He flashed his ability right away, earning all-rookie honors in 1997-98. Z also won MVP of the rookie All-Star game, the first foreign-born player to accomplish that feat.
His smooth shot, deft touch, strong rebounding, and ball handling skills were all something to behold from a 7’3” plodder. Unfortunately, he would play just five games over the next two seasons as his problematic feet required reconstructive surgery.
Once again, it would have been easy--and expected--for him to say enough was enough and call it a career. And once again, Z showed his heart and love of the game by fighting back.
I was fortunate enough to attend his first game back in Cleveland in the 2000-01 season, a home date against the high-flying Sacramento Kings. Z was slow up and down the court, but he proved lethal in the half-court sets, scoring 10 points while also blocking two Chris Webber shots in a single possession. He received a loud ovation from a nearly full (a rarity for that time) Gund Arena crowd.
Ilgauskas earned respect from the fans for playing hard, and with attitude. He was not a gentle giant, often flashing an elbow-y temper and not afraid to stand up for himself or his teammates. He was also eminently approachable in the community. Z embraced Cleveland as his home, a very visible and proud citizen of his adoptive city.
He only made two All-Star teams in Cleveland, but he was remarkably steady as one of the better big men in the league. Five times in six seasons he averaged between 14 and 18 points and from 7.5 to 9.3 rebounds. He finished in the top 5 in offensive rebounds and top-8 in blocks in all those seasons as well.
His ability to run the high post offense, a nod to his own hoops hero in countryman Arvydas Sabonis, opened open the lane for lots of drives. His pick-and-pop game was outstanding.
Z ranks first in franchise history in both blocks and rebounds. He is second on the career scoring list, trailing only LeBron James.
Ah yes, LeBron…
Cleveland’s king, in self-imposed exile, returned to honor his friend and longtime teammate. After much consternation leading up to the event, it barely registered a ripple; LeBron watched the game out of sight in a private suite, and he stood with other former Z teammates in a receiving line in the player entrance tunnel. Many folks in my section (215) didn’t even notice King James.
Z’s best seasons coincided with LeBron’s arrival in Cleveland, and arguably the greatest image in Cavaliers history was LeBron leaping into Z’s arms after the Cavs won the team’s first and only Eastern Conference title. It was a heartwarming moment between two great friends and excellent teammates, the two men who knew better than any what that unprecedented success meant to their “home” city.
The home in Cleveland is why Z’s 11 hangs from the rafters. He’s perhaps the most apt icon for the city the Chamber of Commerce could create. Owner Dan Gilbert mentioned this in his well-received halftime speech. Z still lives here. He recently became an American citizen, and he’s chosen to stay in Cleveland instead of Miami, where he spent a year with LeBron.
It’s that juxtaposition, choosing to stay in Cleveland over Miami, that epitomizes why nobody in Cleveland questioned retiring his jersey even if the rest of the nation raised a cocked eyebrow for honoring a historically mid-level talent. He’s the most beloved Cleveland athlete of the last 25 years, with only Indians great Jim Thome in the argument. For this city, my home even though I haven’t lived here in 15 years, that’s eminently worth celebrating.
I was proud to take my 8-year-old budding hoopster son with me. He never knew Z’s game, and he’s a loyal Rockets fan from living in Houston for three years. Yet it was important for him to see a truly beloved player get honored by a team that has seldom tasted even moderate success. It’s a lesson in respecting the game, the passion, and the success that can come even without winning a title.
Thanks for the memories Z!
Mar 05, 2014 9:19 PM EST
With a 106-103 victory over the Miami Heat on Tuesday, the Houston Rockets moved into a tie for third place out West. Winners of 8 of their last 10, Houston has found a groove - every man in their 9-man rotation has settled into a role. With a 41-19 record and a +4.5 point differential, they are on pace to win 55 games in a stacked conference. The 13-14 Rockets are the best team Dwight Howard has been on since the 08-09 Orlando Magic, whom he lead to the NBA Finals.
At 28 and in the prime of his career, Howard has become a somewhat forgotten man in the NBA. After burning bridges on his way out of town in Orlando and Los Angeles, his Q rating has fallen off a cliff. At the same time, a lengthy recovery from back surgery had many questioning whether he was already peaked as a player. This season, almost two years removed from the procedure, Howard has reestablished himself as the best center in the NBA.
At 6’10 260 with a 7’4 wingspan, Howard is one of the most physically imposing players in the league. Even though he gives up height to a lot of centers, his broad shoulders carve out a tremendous amount of space in the paint. He’s a force of gravity - he has tremendous mass, very long arms and he still has the ability to play high above the rim. When he gets the ball inside, help defenders are naturally drawn to him. On defense, few can move him out of position.
Howard is the anchor of the 12th rated defense in the NBA, an impressive number when you consider the youth of the players in front of him. Patrick Beverley, Chandler Parsons, James Harden and Terrence Jones are all 25 or younger and Beverley is the only one with much of a defensive reputation. Parsons, Harden and Jones are more focused on the offensive end of the floor, particularly Harden, whose defensive effort is lacking at best, if not outright egregious.
And while he’s no longer leading the league in rebounding, Howard is still grabbing 12.5 bounds a game. His ability to clean the defensive glass allows the Rockets perimeter players to leak out in transition, where they are particularly deadly. Once he gets the rebound, Howard can get down the floor quickly, drawing defensive attention and opening up shooters on the perimeter. You can count the number of centers who can bang and run with Howard on one hand.
Where Howard differs from guys like DeAndre Jordan and Andre Drummond is his effectiveness in the halfcourt. He may never have the refined post moves of Kevin McHale, the Rockets coach, but he’s light years ahead of most modern centers who can’t play with their back to the basket. Howard commands a double team on the block; he gives his team the versatility to play either out of the post or the pick-and-roll. Few teams have the personnel to defend both.
Add it all up and you have a very impressive package of skills at the center position - an elite defender who averages 20 points a game on 59 percent shooting and is also a Top-5 rebounder. When guys play with Howard, they benefit from the attention he draws on offense and his ability to cover up their mistakes on defense. The centerpiece of Houston’s offense and defense, he makes his teammates better on both sides of the ball, the mark of a true superstar.
To understand his importance, all you have to do is look at his former teams. The Magic turned Howard into some quality young players, yet they still have a 19-43 record and are years away from respectability. The Lakers, meanwhile, are already selling their fans on the 2015 and 2016 free agent classes. There’s just no way to replace the canyon-sized hole Howard’s absence creates. When Dwight leaves town, turn off the lights, because the party is over.
Howard has made only one NBA Finals appearance in his 10-year career, but that’s mostly a testament to how shallow his supporting casts have been. Who was the best player he played with in Orlando - Rashard Lewis, Hedo Turkoglu or Jameer Nelson? He was certainly not in a situation like LeBron James in Miami, playing with Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade, or Kevin Durant in Oklahoma City, when he was teamed up with Harden and Russell Westbrook.
Who knows what would have happened if the Magic had a perimeter player like Harden, instead of relying on Nelson and Turkoglu as their primary playmakers. The combination of Harden and Howard shifts the balance of power in the West, not only this season, but well into the next decade. In 2020, Howard will be 35 and Harden will be 31, younger than what Tim Duncan and Tony Parker are now. The Rockets aren’t going anywhere for a very long time.
When you project Howard’s career going forward, it’s hard not to see him as a first-ballot Hall of Famer. In his first 10 seasons in the NBA, Howard has made the All-Star team eight times, the All-NBA team seven times and the All-Defensive team five times. He has won three Defensive Player of the Year Awards, scored over 13,000 points and grabbed over 9,000 rebounds. Keep in mind, he did all of this while he was too “immature” to be a championship-caliber player.
Just like LeBron in Cleveland, Howard has been psychoanalyzed to death by a culture that can’t accept the fact that basketball is a team game. Over the course of his career, Howard has done more than enough to put his teams in championship contention. The reality is that no one was winning a title with Howard’s supporting cast in either Orlando or Los Angeles. He’s in a better situation in Houston, with a shrewd front office and a talented young core around him.
This summer, the Rockets can either make a run at Kevin Love or count on internal improvement and Howard’s ability to lure free agents. Other players may not like his personality, but they respect his game. There are only three players who can swing the balance of power in the NBA - one is in South Beach, one is in OKC and one is in Houston. My guess is the team that knocks off LeBron James will have either Dwight Howard or Kevin Durant on it.
Mar 05, 2014
With the thinnest bench during the Big 3 era, Pat Riley may be forcing LeBron James to produce several 2007-esque performances to complete their threepeat.
Mar 03, 2014
The Pacers donít rely on George Hill to run the point in a traditional way, but handing the ball to Evan Turner on consecutive nights in close games down the stretch was certainly a gutsy call by Frank Vogel.
Mar 03, 2014
It looks like a strange week for non-national games considering Sunday carries by far the best slate of matchups. There are a few potentially fun ones during the weeknights though.
Mar 02, 2014
As Jimmer Fredette dons a new uniform, it will be interesting to see if Tom Thibodeau and the Bulls can find a way to utilize him within their system. Talent is only visible through opportunity; and Fredette could seize his opportunity very soon.
Feb 26, 2014
Anthony Bennett admitted to be being "as surprised as anyone else" when he was drafted first overall by the Cavaliers and the start of his rookie season demonstrated why. The undersized power forward is gradually starting to show flashes of the athletic talent that made him look like a lottery pick last June.
Feb 25, 2014
Nerlens Noel should not play this season, both for the good of himself and the 76ers franchise as a whole. He has to accept the teamís strategy and take full advantage of this time to focus on his development.
Feb 24, 2014
As the end of the season slowly comes into view, a series of different races have begun to take shape. Other than the top two seeds in the East, it seems like the rest of the playoff picture is wide open with chances to stratify if some teams slump while others surge.
Feb 22, 2014
The East deals included the only two All-Stars dealt (Antawn Jamison and Danny Granger), the two best players (Evan Turner and Spencer Hawes), and the smartest player (Professor Andre Miller, PhD).
Feb 21, 2014
The Western Conference is highly competitive this season, but that didn't carry over to a deadline in which Steve Blake was the most important acquisition after the Rockets were unable to cash in their Omer Asik chip.
Feb 19, 2014
The Kyle Lowry Vengeance Tour against Kyrie Irving and John Wall, along with multiple appearances from the Cavaliers and Blazers.
Feb 19, 2014
The Kings have been going through major changes with a new coach, new personnel on the roster and a new ownership group. Perhaps most importantly, DeMarcus Cousins appears to be maturing and he's also become one of the NBA's most productive players.
Feb 13, 2014
A little more than a year since going under the knife, Jared Sullinger is headed to All-Star weekend for the Rising Stars Challenge in New Orleans. He talks to RealGM about how he remained strong during rehab and where he sees his career going.
Feb 13, 2014
Trading Greg Monroe for a traditional small forward, recoups value for a player not expected to be re-signed, moves Josh Smith to power forward, and allows the Pistons to surround franchise player Andre Drummond with the right system.
Feb 12, 2014
Like Steve Nash, a player he often compared to in terms of style and production, Stephen Curry is a relatively old first-time All-Star. Whether Curry ever wins an MVP, or leads the Warriors to the appearance in the Finals that alluded Nash is of course yet to be seen, but he's certainly capable of surpassing Nash's peak production.
Feb 11, 2014
It would be easy for the Blazers to stand pat at the deadline, as theyíve already done more than enough to clinch their first playoff appearance since 2011. At the same time, their core is firmly in their 20s and the long-term status of LaMarcus Aldridge hasn't been resolved.
Feb 10, 2014
Unsurprisingly, the coming All-Star break wreaks havoc with the Non-National Games of the Week. Fortunately, the three days feature a swath of quality matchups featuring playoff teams and intriguing talents.
Feb 10, 2014
February 19, 2015 may seem like a long way away and in NBA circles it feels like an eternity at present, but it should hold significant importance for those who care about the Warriors, because the basketball world will know how serious and competent their ownership group will be for the foreseeable future.
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