May 23, 2013 3:19 PM EDT
Not much has gone right for Dwight Howard since he first demanded to be traded by the Orlando Magic. When this process began, he was widely considered the best big man of his generation. Two years later, the endless speculation about his future has left his reputation in tatters. The scrutiny was his fault, but the devastating back injury that left him a shell of himself was not. Now, with the worst of his recovery behind him, the biggest decision of his career looms ahead. The contract Howard signs this summer will take him through the end of his prime years. This time, he has no one to blame but himself.
When he came to the Los Angeles Lakers, the drama was supposed to end. He would be the next in a long line of Lakers' big men, the centerpiece of a championship organization for the rest of his career. Instead, one by one, the stars he was supposed to play with began going down. Next season, Steve Nash will be 39, Kobe Bryant will be 35 and Pau Gasol will be 33. They’re unlikely to get healthier as they get older. To keep Dwight in town, the Lakers will have to sell him on a vision for 2014 and beyond. As a result, if championships are his goal, the Houston Rockets are the safer bet.
Of the teams lining up to make a run at Dwight this summer, Houston is the one who should scare the Lakers. The Dallas Mavericks and Atlanta Hawks have worked furiously to clear cap space, but in the process, they’ve left their teams without the pieces necessary to lure a star in the first place. The Mavericks had a 41-41 record this season and their best players are all over 34. The Hawks, in theory, could sign Howard and Chris Paul, but all signs point to Paul re-signing with the Clippers. There certainly wouldn’t be Cliff Paul ads all over TV if he was losing in the first round in Atlanta.
If Dwight goes to the Rockets, everything would already be in place. Rather than playing with aging stars at the tail end of their careers, he would be joining one of the youngest and most exciting cores in the NBA. Houston, meanwhile, is becoming a model organization. They have an aggressive front office who can find talent anywhere in the world and a coaching staff willing to think outside the box. On the court, they operate by many of the same principles used by Stan Van Gundy with the Magic, with an offense revolving around spacing the floor and moving the basketball.
Most importantly, they have James Harden. While many doubted whether he was a max player, he established himself as one of the NBA’s best this season. Still only 23, the bearded wonder averaged 26 points, six assists and five rebounds a game on 44/37/85 shooting. Harden is the rare young player who relies more on savvy and feel than pure athleticism; he should be a lock for the All-Star Game for the next decade. An unselfish superstar who enjoys giving up the basketball, Harden would be an ideal pick-and-roll partner for Dwight, getting him 3-5 easy baskets a game rolling to the rim.
The supporting cast is in place too. By the end of their first round series with the Thunder, the Rockets were starting Harden, Chandler Parsons, Patrick Beverley and Carlos Delfino around Omer Asik. Insert Dwight for Asik and that is a serious team. Delfino’s $3 million team option for next season would have to be declined to clear cap space, but Beverley and Parsons are both locked into outrageously team-friendly contracts until at least 2015. The Rockets' core would make Dwight’s life easier, not more difficult. After missing the second round for three straight seasons, there’s something to be said for that.
Only a few tweaks would be necessary to build an elite team. A power forward capable of defending on the low block and stretching the floor out the three-point line would be ideal, but a marginal defensive 4 with an 18-foot jumper would suffice. Then a 3-and-D wing, a backup big man and a second ball-handler to fill out the bench. It’s hard to say exactly how Omer Asik, Jeremy Lin, Greg Smith, Thomas Robinson, Terrence Jones, Donatas Motiejunas and Royce White would fit in with the new plan, but all have enough value on the trade market to be flipped for usable pieces.
And while Houston would be tinkering around the edges, the Lakers would be undergoing a wholesale renovation. How much can you count on Nash, given how fragile he has become? Can Kobe make it back from an Achilles injury at 100 percent? If he does lose a step, will anyone tell him he needs to become a secondary player? Does Mike D’Antoni have the backing of the organization in the event of a power struggle? For that matter, can D’Antoni even build an offense that incorporates Dwight and Pau’s talents? Why am I asking these questions like we don’t already know the answer to most of them?
With so many questions about their top players and absolutely no room to maneuver under the salary cap, the Lakers won’t be in a position to improve until 2014. At that point, Dwight and Nash would be the only significant contracts on the books and they would have the freedom to make any number of moves. But while Los Angeles is a proven attraction in the free agent market, there’s no way to know what players will be available after next season. A number of big names could conceivably be in play, but as Dwight knows full-well, a lot can change in that much time.
In essence, while Mitch Kupchak can talk to Dwight about the labor pains, Daryl Morey can show him the baby. As Mark Cuban found out last summer, free agents value certainty more than “financial flexibility”. It’s easy for a GM to say they will improve the team down the road; it’s much harder to actually do it. That’s why so many Team USA players let their contracts lapse in the summer of 2010. If they were all free at the same time, they could lock themselves in a good situation without needing a front office to do much heavy lifting. From the players perspective, 99 percent of them haven’t earned the benefit of the doubt.
Of course, there’s more to Dwight’s decision than just basketball. Houston is a big market, but it doesn’t have the glamour or the weather of Los Angeles. The Lakers can offer him a fifth year and an extra $30 million and they will always be the most attractive destination for any player looking to build his brand. However, winning is the only thing that will fix Dwight’s brand now. If he leaves, he’ll be blasted for being disloyal, but if he stays and the team doesn’t improve, the knives will really come out. Money is money, but Dwight’s going to have to take less to win anyway. That’s what everyone in Miami did.
If Jerry Buss and Phil Jackson were the ones making the pitch to stay, a rebuilding year would be easier to swallow. Morey and Kevin McHale, in contrast, can pitch never rebuilding again. As Dwight ages out of his prime, Harden will just be entering his. In 2020, when Dwight is 35, Harden will be 31; Rockets versus Thunder could be the Spurs versus Mavericks of this decade. The Lakers might be able to find a star in 2014 or 2015, but he’ll probably be closer to Dwight’s age, shortening the window to win significantly. Things might work out there, but after the last two years, can Dwight risk turning down a sure thing?
May 17, 2013 11:16 AM EDT
On Wednesday, as the Oklahoma City Thunder were knocked out of the playoffs, the Miami Heat moved on to their third consecutive Eastern Conference Finals. Russell Westbrook’s season-ending injury dramatically weakened Oklahoma City, but Miami did a far better job without Chris Bosh, their second most-important player, when he missed 10 playoff games last year. While the situations aren’t identical, the Heat are ultimately the measuring stick by which the Thunder should be judged. In that respect, Scott Brooks comes up woefully short in comparison to Erik Spoelstra.
Spoelstra, operating in the shadow of Pat Riley and LeBron James, has done an excellent job since losing to Dallas in the 2011 NBA Finals. Not only has he managed the egos of the Big Three, he hasn’t been afraid to alter his team’s identity in order to find the right mix. In contrast, Brooks has pounded square pegs into round holes for years, refusing to make the adjustments necessary to win a playoff series against an evenly matched team. To understand how poor a job Brooks has done in Oklahoma City recently, let’s imagine what he would have done in Spoelstra’s shoes.
If Brooks were coaching the Heat, Joel Anthony would be the starting center. Anthony, a 6’9 245 defensive specialist, was a mainstay in the Miami rotation for four seasons. An undrafted free agent who clawed his way into the NBA, he is an excellent shot-blocker whose work ethic earned the respect of everyone in the Heat organization. However, his anemic offensive game was exposed in the 2011 playoffs, where he had a 7.9 PER. Spoelstra has steadily eased him out of the rotation ever since. Anthony has played only 17 minutes this postseason, going from a starter to end of the bench player in two years.
Anthony, like many defensive-oriented centers who can’t score, is less valuable in a more perimeter-oriented NBA. Spoelstra recognized this, moving to a smaller line-up with Chris Bosh at center. Brooks, in contrast, has faithfully stuck with Kendrick Perkins for years, despite ever diminishing returns. The 2012 NBA Finals, when Perkins couldn’t defend the smaller Heat players on the perimeter or punish them on offense, should have been a wake-up call. Instead, Perkins rewarded Brooks’ faith with a -0.7 PER in this year’s playoffs, the lowest mark in NBA history.
In a bizarro world where Brooks coached Miami, Mike Bibby would still be part of his rotation. Bibby started all 20 playoff games for Miami in the first year of the Big Three. However, his playoff experience couldn’t make up for his diminishing foot-speed. In their loss to the Mavericks, Bibby was a 6’1 spot-up shooter who couldn’t stay in front of JJ Barea; getting Barea a $20 million contract was one of the best assists of his career. Bibby, now out of the NBA, isn’t much worse than Derek Fisher. Fisher hasn’t had a PER above 10.0 in four seasons, yet Brooks has consistently given him as many minutes as he can handle.
There’s a domino effect to playing Fisher so much. While Reggie Jackson barely played as a rookie, Norris Cole was given the opportunity to grow into a role in spite of his mistakes. Both were backup PG’s drafted at the end of the first-round in 2011, but Cole hasn’t had to waste time behind a guy who can’t play. In their first two seasons, Cole has played over 1,000 more minutes than Jackson, whose still getting his legs under him as an NBA player. Jackson could have an an Eric Bledsoe-like breakthrough next season, but he still would have lost playing time to Fisher if Westbrook had been healthy.
Of course, even if Brooks had been as flexible as Spoelstra, the Thunder might not have gone further in any of the last three years. A coach can only do so much; in a seven-game series, the best team almost always wins. The real concern isn’t that Oklahoma City lost to Dallas, Miami and Memphis in the last three years, but how they’ve done so. They were knocked out 4-1 all three times. That tells you the coaching staff isn’t having success making adjustments against a better opponent, probably because Brooks never makes any. When you’re down 3-1, why not alter your starting lineup? What do you have to lose?
When the Heat faced the Pacers last season, Spoelstra emptied his holster trying to survive without Bosh. He used a different starting lineup in each of the first four games, before settling on a small-ball mix that often had Battier and LeBron James defending the Indiana big men. It’s easy to forget now, but after a 94-75 drubbing in Game 3, the grand experiment in Miami looked doomed. If Spoelstra had stuck with Anthony and Bibby the same way Brooks stuck with Perkins and Fisher, the Heat would have lost. Without Bosh, their margin for error was narrow enough for poor coaching to make a difference.
If Westbrook had stayed healthy, the Thunder would have been the odds-on favorite to return to the NBA Finals. That doesn’t mean Brooks is a great playoff coach; it means having two Top 10 players in their prime makes his job a lot easier. When evaluating coaches, it’s important to be process-oriented rather than results-oriented. Brooks has consistently left points on the board in each of the last three seasons and has shown no ability to learn from his mistakes. Worst of all, his refusal to adjust his rotation reveals a potentially fatal flaw in how he evaluates players.
Whenever he’s asked about Perkins and Fisher, Brooks points to their contributions in the locker room. However, it’s nearly impossible for an unproductive player to be a team leader, especially one keeping more talented players on the bench. How can you hold others accountable if you don’t hold yourself to the same standard? Fisher and Perkins can talk about sacrifice and playing for the team, but it rings hollow when they don’t practice what they preach. James Harden, an All-NBA player, came off the bench for the Thunder. Kendrick Perkins can’t swallow his pride and do the same?
It’s one thing for a coach to not play the match-up game well; it’s another when he can’t bench a player because he’s worried about his ego. There’s a reason Spoelstra so tirelessly preaches “family” in Miami. At some point in the last three years, he’s had to ask all of his players to sacrifice either playing time or shot attempts for the good of the team. In Oklahoma City, Harden is the only player whose ever had to sacrifice. Does Westbrook need to be attempting 3.7 three-pointers a game when he shoots them at only 32 percent? That’s inefficient basketball. You can’t beat Miami playing like that.
Replacing Brooks after a 60-win regular season might seem rash and unfair, but it would hardly be unprecedented. The Pistons fired Rick Carlisle in 2003, the Bulls let go of Doug Collins in 1989 and the Lakers removed Paul Westhead in 1982. For a coach, growing a young team takes a different skill-set than getting a team through the playoff gauntlet. Sometimes, a front office has to take a PR hit for the long-term good of the franchise. The Thunder made a business decision and parted ways with Harden nine months ago. Now, they need to be just as cold-blooded with Brooks.
May 14, 2013 1:19 PM EDT
A friend once asked me to explain the point of watching an NBA game in its entirety. After all, he said, games are usually decided in the last five minutes. I told him that when you have a large sum of money on the line, every possession is important. Everyone remembers the final five minutes, but they aren’t always the most decisive stretch of a game, even if it goes down to the wire. In a long playoff series, as two teams begin to know each other in and out, every five minute stretch is important. A playoff game can be lost at the start of the first quarter as easily as it can at the end of the fourth.
In the regular season, coaches think long-term, not short-term. They get their best players rest and keep their rotation as stable as possible, in order for everyone on the roster to get comfortable with their roles. An 82-game season is a marathon, not a sprint; it’s more important to be consistent from Game 30-60 than it is to win Game 45. That dynamic changes in the playoffs, as every coach starts to act like Tom Thibodeau and manage games solely for the present, not the future. They shorten their rotation and play the match-up game, trying to create an edge on a possession-by-possession basis.
Micro-management, however, doesn’t necessarily make games any closer. This season, the average margin of victory in the second round is 11.5 points. Some of that margin is padded by two blowouts in the Miami Heat/Chicago Bulls series and cheap points given up on the free throw line at the very end, but the broader point still stands. More often than not, the team that controls the action all game long will end up winning. The collapse of the Golden State Warriors against the San Antonio Spurs in Game 1 of their series is the exception that proves the rule. Before that, NBA teams were 392-0 in playoff history in the same situation.
Nevertheless, the last few minutes have an outsized hold on our collective memories. We remember the most notable moments of a series, condensing hours of action into a few “decisive” seconds. We remember Michael Jordan’s shot in Game 6 of the 1998 NBA Finals, not the shots he hit in the first 47 minutes. Jordan had a 28.1 career playoff PER while playing 42 minutes a night. He was great not because he hit the big shot, but because he hit all of the little ones. Over the course of his NBA career, he missed 26 game-winning shots. There are no guarantees in the final moments, even with the greatest closer in basketball history.
The first four games of the Memphis Grizzlies/Oklahoma City Thunder series have come down to the fourth quarter, but important things were happening in the first three quarters. While Oklahoma City’s execution at the end of games has been lacking without Russell Westbrook, the route to the end has been slightly different in each game. Both coaching staffs have been subtly making adjustments back and forth, altering their rotations and trying to find the most effective line-ups. Over the last three games, Lionel Hollins has had better luck with his adjustments, most of which were not made in the fourth quarter.
The big storyline of Game 4 was the adjustment of the Thunder to the Grizzlies' starting line-up. The Thunder shrunk the floor when both Tayshaun Prince, a reluctant three-point shooter, and Tony Allen, a non-shooter, were in. Memphis’ offense isn’t very explosive normally, much less playing 3-on-5. They were -11 with their starters in the first 11 minutes of the game and were lucky to break even at the start of the second half and overtime. They won because Hollins eventually went to a more explosive line-up, with Jerryd Bayless in place of either Allen or Prince. Bayless, who gives them another shooter and playmaker, was +18 in Game 4.
Nevertheless, if the Grizzlies had lost in overtime, the end of regulation would have stuck in everyone’s head. After Kevin Durant tied the game on a brutally efficient drive to the rim with six seconds left, Memphis had a chance to set up a final shot. In years past, Rudy Gay would have been their closer. Gay, an athletic 6’8 220 small forward with an effective step-back jumper, could always create a decent 1-on-1 shot at the end of games. As a result, he has an impressive number of career buzzer-beaters under his belt. But with Gay in Toronto, Hollins drew up an easily snuffed-out Zach Randolph isolation.
Not having Gay in that last six second sequence cost the Grizzlies, but their lack of shooting would have been the biggest reason for a loss. Since they have to stagger the minutes of Randolph and Marc Gasol in order to keep at least one on the floor, they have to maximize the time when they are playing together, the foundation of their best offensive line-ups. As skilled as Gay is off the dribble, he shot 31 percent from beyond the arc in Memphis and couldn’t space the floor for their two star big men. Going forward, Hollins has to find more time for Bayless and Quincy Pondexter, his two best wing shooters, in those minutes.
Nor is having a great closer enough to win an evenly matched series, as Oklahoma City is finding out. Durant is averaging 32 points on 49 percent shooting in the playoffs; he gets points as easily as anyone in the league. The problem is that he has to carry too huge an offensive load over the course of a game without Westbrook and James Harden. Their role players don’t get enough points within the flow of the offense and Brooks’ fairly questionable rotations have backfired without three star players. Durant can’t carry Kendrick Perkins, Thabo Sefolosha and Derek Fisher by himself, not over a seven-game series against the NBA’s best defense.
That’s the fundamental problem with judging individuals by team success. In a seven-game series, the best team, not the best player, will almost always win. While the best player will have the edge when he is in a great situation, like LeBron James in Miami, that doesn’t mean the best player in a series will always be able to carry his team to victory. Basketball is a team sport; the “Green Lantern Theory of the NBA” doesn’t hold. To return to the baseball analogy, it doesn’t matter who the closer is if there isn’t a starter who can get him a lead headed into the ninth inning.
Over time, the mythology surrounding the closer position has overshadowed reality, in both basketball and baseball. Mariano Rivera is widely considered the best closer in baseball history. From 1997-2011, with Rivera in the bullpen, the Yankees won 97.2 percent of the games where they lead in the ninth inning. That sounds impressive, but from 1961-1964, before baseball began using set closers, the Yankees won 97.3 percent of their games when leading in the ninth. It’s the same in every sport. Execute on both sides of the ball all game long and the final moments will care take of themselves.
May 09, 2013
When healthy, Andrew Bogut is one of the best centers in the NBA. Going small around him has been a best of both worlds scenario for the Warriors: all the benefits of a small-ball offense without the downsides that come on the other end of the floor.
May 06, 2013
If the Grizzlies and Pacers can't dictate the match-ups in the second round, there’s no way they’ll be able to do so against the Heat. Only the 2011 Mavericks have forced the Heat to stay big. Against everyone else, the postseason record of the Heat with their Big Three healthy is 24-3.
May 02, 2013
With the modern game becoming more perimeter-oriented, lumbering centers have become an endangered species. As a result, there’s a fair chance Jason Collins’ NBA career is over, not because of his sexuality, but because his job description is obsolete.
Apr 29, 2013
Patrick Beverley could be the Rockets' point guard of the future, a tremendous coup considering how they acquired him. He’s the new poster boy for the benefits of mining Europe for talent as well as a walking embarrassment for every point guard-hungry team in the league.
Apr 25, 2013
The best teams in the NBA can spread the court on offense without sacrificing much on the defensive end because of the versatility of a star forward. That’s what makes LeBron James and Kevin Durant so scary; the best two players in the league just happen to play the most important position in the game.
Apr 19, 2013
Along with Duncan, Garnett, Webber and Dirk, Rasheed Wallace redefined the power forward position and revolutionized the game. But while he was as talented as his four contemporaries, he's the only one who won't wind up in the Hall. Wallace never cared much for his image or his legacy, which is why, paradoxically enough, he became such a beloved countercultural figure.
Apr 15, 2013
The Lakers will have to make some hard decisions on Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol and Earl Clark, but they won’t make or break the franchise. No matter who is around him, if Dwight Howard can be as dominant as he was with the Magic, L.A. could be a title contender next season.
Apr 11, 2013
There was only so long Mavericks and Suns could paper over their inability to find and develop young talent. This season, those chickens have come home to roost. With the importance of the draft magnified by the new CBA, both teams have to turn some draft picks into home runs.
Apr 06, 2013
Louisville is more vulnerable than Kentucky was last year, especially without Kevin Ware, but a lot of things will have to go wrong for them to lose. There isn’t a team in Atlanta that can match their speed and athleticism at all five positions, a testament to the program Pitino has built.
Apr 03, 2013
Stripped of its pomp and pageantry, the business model of the NCAA is rather ugly: inner-city kids putting their bodies on the line in order to fund scholarships for suburban teenagers to play country club sports.
Mar 30, 2013
The Spurs have more continuity than any other team in the NBA, which allows their front office to identify players who could fit specific roles in Gregg Popovich’s system. In effect, the great job he’s done coaching from 1997-2012 has made his job in 2013 that much easier.
Mar 20, 2013
Just like in the NBA, floor spacing has become the name of the game at the top of the NCAA. Nine of the top 12 seeds start a three-point shooter in their frontcourt. Get as much shooting on the floor as possible without compromising your defense and rebounding.
Mar 15, 2013
The Big Three and Pop get most of the headlines for the Spurs, but the play of Tiago Splitter and Kawhi Leonard will ultimately determine their season. The Spurs offense has been a championship-level unit for years; their lack of speed and athleticism upfront has been their issue since 2007.
Mar 12, 2013
A 7’2 240 stretch center capable of running point and playing dominant interior defense is possible. But until “Point Kareem” emerges, Brittney Griner is as close to the platonic ideal of a great basketball player as there is.
Mar 07, 2013
The Kings thought Andre Drummond was too big of a gamble, but passing on him for Thomas Robinson was always the riskier move.
Mar 01, 2013
Canada, the only other country with an NBA franchise, has steadily developed a basketball culture over the last generation, the fruits of which are taking shape in college basketball this season. The level of talent being developed could culminate in a remarkable showdown in the 2020 Olympics.
Feb 18, 2013
Everyone always talks about how different he is from the average person, but Michael Jordan at 50 sounds like every other 50-year-old. He’s not totally sold on the young kids today and he isn’t sure they would have been as successful back in his day, though that's the wrong question entirely.
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