HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS – When the U.S. Men’s Senior National Team finished off the competition at the London Olympics in 2012, head coach Mike Krzyzewski was primed to ride off into the sunset with a sparking 62-1 record, two gold medals in Olympic competition (2008 in Beijing) and one in World Championship competition (2010 Istanbul).
Every indication was that the longtime Duke coach had finished the job USA Basketball chairman Jerry Colangelo needed him to and that his replacement would be sought while Coach K moved on in some capacity to assist Colangelo manage the rebuilt program.
It’s an abrupt about-face after months and months of speculation about who might replace Krzyzewski on the sideline with the Men’s Senior National Team and also a stern departure from Coach K’s own words, as recently as February on an ESPN Radio program where he suggested that his successor could be named by this summer.
Things changed dramatically today, per that SI.com report:
On Saturday, Krzyzewski said he and USA Basketball Chairman Jerry Colangelo have been talking about his return “quite a bit.”
Colangelo said Saturday he and Krzyzewski have been discussing his return “in installments.”
“I think it’s very close to being resolved,” Colangelo said. “That’s all I can say for sure.”
He added: “Give it another week and it should be resolved.”
Nailing down a head coach is the only outstanding business Colangelo has to tend to right now, because the player pool for the national team is as strong now as it’s since he took over in 2005.
Scores of NBA superstars, All-Stars and role players will be eager to be a part of the teams that represent the U.S. in Madrid and Rio De Janeiro. And that list should include four-time MVP LeBron James as well as All-Stars Kevin Durant, Chris Paul, Carmelo Anthony and plenty more.
Were Coach K to return to the program, procuring commitments for future competition wouldn’t appear to be much of an issue, given his history with so many of the players that would be in the mix. The continuity alone would ensure that the U.S. program resembles, at least in structure, many of the international programs they’ll compete against in the coming years.
HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS — Steve Kerr understands the importance of every shot, every possession and every games this time of year. You don’t win five championships in your 15-year career and not comprehend the significance of each and every step you take in the middle of May.
That’s why the sweet-shooting TNT analyst was a must-get for Episode 117 of the Hang Time Podcast. With the conference semifinals winding down and the conference finals looming, a sobering dose of perspective was needed here at headquarters. We needed someone to provide a little context and perspective to what LeBron James and the Miami Heat are going through right now, what Steph Curry and the Golden State Warriors are dealing with right now and what it all means in the grand scheme of things.
Things are fluid for so many of the teams still alive in the playoffs, not to mention the teams whose seasons have finished and are searching for coaches and eventually players to help them get to the point where they are still play in mid-May. Kerr breaks it all down, and more, including his assessment that Heat star Dwyane Wade is no longer an “everyday superstar” but an “every other day superstar.”
We thought Kerr’s presence might defuse the normal mid-week volcano that is Rick Fox, whose “Get Off My Lawn” rant of the week includes his debunking of the NBA’s great point guard myth (as he describes it only the way he can).
In Rick’s estimation, we might have seen the last of the point guards to win MVP in the The Finals when Spurs point guard Tony Parker did in 2007. He’ll could very well be the last of his kind, according to Rick, to find his way into the company of elite players at his position like Magic Johnson, Isiah Thomas and Chauncey Billups, the only PGs other than Parker since 1980 to claim that hardware.
(Sorry Chris Paul, Derrick Rose, Rajon Rondo, Russell Westbrook, Kyrie Irving and the rest of you, Rick says don’t bother.)
You get all of that and a whole lot more on Episode 117 of the Hang Time Podcast …
HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS – Only eight teams remain in the playoffs, meaning the fans of 22 other teams have turned much of their attention to the offseason and the free-agent summer of 2013 in particular.
We will encounter a familiar name there, one Dwight David Howard of the Los Angeles Lakers, who along with Chris Paul of the Los Angeles Clippers, will be at the center of all things come July 1 (when free agency kicks off in all of its usual craziness).
There are a dozen teams, most notably Dallas, Atlanta, Houston, Utah, Cleveland, New Orleans, Detroit, Charlotte and Washington, with the cash to spend and the flexibility to significantly tweak, and, in some cases, totally remake their rosters. All these teams need is a free agent willing to give them a chance to make the proper sales pitch.
For the top-level free agents — and this summer that list it two truly elite players deep, Howard and Paul — the list of potential suitors will be exclusive. Only those franchises with championship potential need bother.
But that’s what makes the summer, the scramble by a large number of teams for the same small group of big-time free agents. We have more than seven weeks to before free agency goes into complete crazy mode, but why wait until then to get the party started?
Status on July 1: Unrestricted free agent What he’s selling: A three-time Kia Defensive Player of the Year and five-time rebounding champ, Howard is a seven-time All-Star and, when healthy, the NBA’s most dominant big man. When your down year sees you lead the league in rebounding and still help power the Lakers to a playoff spot in an absolute train wreck of a season, you’re worth every penny a team throws at you. What he’s not saying: He still a putrid free throw shooter and has been known to struggle with decision-making. What he’s worth: A max contract, worth approximately $118 million over five years. Who might be buying: The Lakers have no choice but to beg him to stay, with Kobe Bryant on the mend from Achilles surgery and no one else on the roster capable of carrying the mantle as face of the franchise. Houston, Atlanta and Dallas will launch all-out assaults to sway him. Likely landing spot(s): Lakers. They can offer $30 million more than anyone else. Howard will have a hard time walking away from that kind of cash.
Status on July 1: Unrestricted free agent What he’s selling: A six-time All-Star and culture-changer (see Clippers before and after his arrival), Paul is the best in the business at his position, a gold medal winner and an All-Star Game MVP. Toss in his work as a pitch man (Cliff Paul comes with the package) and it’s easy to see why he’s one of the most recognizable players in the game today. What he’s not saying: He has to stay healthy. He’s not getting any younger and he has to get to winning in the postseason, the one glaring hole on his so-far sparkling NBA resume. What he’s worth: A max contract, worth approximately $108 million over five years. Who might be buying: The Clippers are desperate to hold on to him. But they have coaching issues to resolve before that can happen. Houston, Atlanta, Dallas will all make pitches in hopes of prying Paul away. Likely landing spots: Clippers … depending on what happens with Vinny Del Negro. Like Howard, Paul would have to walk away from extra cash if he decides to go elsewhere. But he’s hungry for a title, wherever he goes.
Status on July 1: Unrestricted free agent What he’s selling: An absolute game-changer when he’s focused, Smith makes plays only a few players in the league are capable of on a given night. For all the drama and criticism thrown his way, he helped power the Hawks to six straight playoff appearances. What he’s not saying: His shot selection and motor remain issues. After nine years in Atlanta, his next spot needs to be an ideal fit, because this is likely Smith’s last big deal. He has to make sure it’s in a place where he can thrive. What he’s worth: A max contract of approximately $95 million over five years doesn’t fit here, not from the only team (the Hawks) that can offer him that much. But a deal worth approximately $75 million to $85 million over five years is doable. Smith turned down a $47 million extension offer from the Hawks, so he’s obviously looking for a starting salary of $16 million-plus. Who might be buying: The Hawks say they are interested in keeping Smith, at the right price, of course. Houston, Boston, Phoenix, New Orleans, Philadelphia and the Lakers will all investigate this situation. Likely landing spots: Houston is the frontrunner and is the ideal fit and a place Smith would be comfortable. (more…)
OKLAHOMA CITY — Mike Conley might still have that smile of a schoolboy, but the Memphis Grizzlies point guard now has the courage of a warrior.
In years past, Conley might mot have taken the go-ahead 3-pointer with 1:58 to go. He might have passed on the jumper over 6-foot-7 defender Thabo Sefolosha with 1:04 left that hit nothing but net. But this is Conley now: calm and cool when his team must have it.
“That’s how he’s grown as a player,” teammate Zach Randolph said following Memphis’ 99-93 Game 2 victory over the Oklahoma City Thunder that tied the Western Conference semifinal at 1-1 with three days off before Game 3 on Saturday in Memphis.
Only moments earlier during a fantastic fourth quarter that boasted five ties and five lead changes in a game that had 27 in all, Kevin Durant looked to be composing yet another masterpiece. He was closing in on his first career playoff triple-double and OKC was nearing a 2-0 series lead, a mere two nights after he sank the game-winner with 11.1 seconds to go.
Neither would come to pass.
Durant missed his final three shots and lost the ball with less than a minute to play, with Memphis leading 94-90. Bulldog defender Tony Allen, who said he finally got paired up on Durant in Game 2 out of desperation, stepped back instead of putting his body on Durant as he turned his back to the basket to gain leverage on the smaller Allen. Durant lost his balance, fell to the floor and lost the ball.
“That was just a last-minute thought in my head,” Allen said. “I just thought it would work and I was fortunate enough for it to work.”
Durant finished with 36 points, nine assists, 11 rebounds and five turnovers in 43 minutes. Without Russell Westbrook, Durant’s fingerprints are everywhere as he brings the ball up the floor and sets the attack or calls for the ball almost as quickly as point guard Reggie Jackson crosses mid-court.
ESPN Stats & Info tweeted out a telling stat after the game: Durant has averaged 264 dribbles per game since Westbrook’s injury. His season average was 134. Thunder forward-center Nick Collison was asked if Durant has to do too much in crunch time: “I mean, what are we going to do?” Collison said.
Durant certainly was in control until it slipped away late. He started the fourth quarter 4-for-4, but ended it 0-for-3. Meanwhile, the quiet Conley drained five of six shots for 13 points in the quarter. He finished with 26 points on 11-for-22 shooting, nine assists and 10 rebounds.
Allen, perhaps Conley’s biggest fan, took responsibility for the missed triple-double with his errant attempt from under the bucket after Conley had secured an offensive rebound with 1:23 to go.
“I’ve been saying it for a long time, he’s up-and-coming,” Allen said. “Mike Conley is now one of the top five point guards in the league whether anybody likes it or not. I know a lot of people got their favorites and who they think should be, but Mike Conley is in that conversation now. He’s able to do these things on the court night-in and night-out.”
On this night his performance was huge. A 2-0 deficit is not the end of the series — the Grizzlies proved that last round when Conley and Co. took down Chris Paul and the Clippers in four straight after falling into the 0-2 hole — but it’s not the way anybody wants to go about a series with the West finals at stake.
Conley’s 26 points tied his regular-season high. So did his 11 field goals. His season-best rebounding game was seven. Conley got that number in the fourth quarter alone.
He’s scored at least 20 points in these playoffs four times, has dished out at least nine assists four times and has put up three double-doubles. And it’s the second time now he’s rebounded from an otherwise dull night with a big effort.
On Tuesday, Conley, just 25 and in his sixth season with Memphis, was aggressive, streaking into the lane and finding teammates. And with the Thunder sagging down heavily to defend Marc Gasol and Randolph, Conley took the jumpers afforded him.
Having already dispatched Paul in the first round, and with the injured Westbrook watching from high above in a suite, Conley is taking control.
“I didn’t come in looking at it like that. I came in looking at if that what I need to do for our team to win, I’ll do it,” Conley said. “If I have to score, I’ll score. I have to be a facilitator, I’ll do that. I’m just trying to do whatever it takes to win.”
HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS – The locals will talk about it forever.
What would the Hawks have been like with Chris Paul or Deron Williams instead of Marvin Williams? Or Rudy Gay or Brandon Roy instead of Shelden Williams orbasically anyone other than Speedy Claxton?
Conference finals appearances instead of first round exits? Global recognition of a basketball brand reborn with superstar talent instead of a league laughingstock (after a 13-win season in 2004-05) and the team that can always be counted on not to come through when they should?
Hypothetical questions with no clear-cut answers make the Hawks’ past every bit as murky as their immediate future. They enter free agency this summer with only six players under contract, four Draft picks (two in each round) and approximately $33.1 million in cap space for their GM, Danny Ferry, to work with in rebuilding the roster.
The Hawks choices in the Draft and free agency have come to define the franchise over the past eight years more so than anything they have actually done on the court. They ended an eight-year playoff drought after the 2007-08 season with a core group of Joe Johnson, Josh Smith, Al Horford, Mike Bibby, Josh Childress, Marvin Williams, Zaza Pachulia, Shelden Williams and Acie Law. That group kicked off a run of six straight playoff appearance that came crashing to an ugly end Friday night at Philips Arena in a Game 6 loss to the Indiana Pacers in their first round series.
It was the official end to not only their season but also an era for the Hawks, who have just three players — Horford, Lou Williams and rookie John Jenkins – under guaranteed contacts for next season. Even Hawks coach Larry Drew, who has been on staff (the last three as head coach) throughout this entire era, does not have a contract for next season.
We’ve seen the last of these Hawks as we know them, Drew acknowledged as much after the Game 6 loss.
“Even with the injuries to Zaza and Lou, we were able to juggle some things around, move people around,” Drew said. “And we stayed together. We did not fragment. We stayed together even when it got tough. A lot of people didn’t predict us to make the playoffs. No one gave us a chance, but this group hung in there. They persevered and I’m really proud of them.”
It was an honorable finish to a tumultuous season for all involved. A team loaded with three times as many pending free agents as players under guaranteed contracts, has issues that go above and beyond the professionalism required to do the job under those circumstances.
That said, Ferry is sticking to his plan. He’s going to be rebuilding basically from scratch, with nine players heading into free agency July 1.
Smith, one of the only remaining building blocks from the franchise’s last rebuild and a long-time source of division within the franchise (some folks loved the hometown kid who flashed signs of being an All-Star caliber player over the years while others loathed the enigmatic performer who clashed with his coaches and drove fans nuts with his play), going into the summer as one of the marquee names on the market.
It’s time for Smith and the Hawks to go their separate ways, amicably, of course. Everyone involved knows that it’s time for a mutual parting of the ways for the good of all involved.
Point guard Jeff Teague is a restricted free agent and while he’s shown loads of improvement since Drew took over for Woodson, there remain questions about whether or not he is best suited as the starting point guard for this team.
Ferry can make a clean break from the Hawks’ recent past, from all of the second-guessing, head-scratching and eye-rolling that has surrounded the Hawks for years. No one will vilify him for cleaning up the mess made before he arrived last summer, the one he started clean up himself by moving both Johnson and Marvin Williams in trades last summer.
It’s the uncertainty of what’s to come, however, that makes skeptical Hawks fans nervous. There will be big fish on the free agent market, guys like Los Angeles Lakers’ big man and Atlanta native Dwight Howard and the Los Angeles Clippers’ Paul, stars capable of turning an uncertain situation around by signing their names on the dotted line.
The Hawks have the necessary resources to pursue those two, who will be first and second, in whatever order, on every free agent wish list of a team with money to spend this summer.
The summer of 2013 is the Hawks’ biggest since the summer of 2005, when Johnson (sign-and-trade) and Marvin Williams (No. 2 pick overall in the Draft) were added to the mix. That was the beginning of a painstaking rebuilding process that ultimately led to six straight playoff appearances, the second-best stretch of its kind in the Hawks’ Atlanta history.
For a franchise that has endured a recent stretch of complete insignificance during that playoff drought, followed by the past six postseason runs, a return to the non-playoff abyss is a bit frightening.
That’s what made the end of Friday night so bittersweet for Horford, who has only known the playoffs during his time with the Hawks and in the league.
“I feel for our fans,” he said. “I know they wanted us to do better. I felt like, as a team, we did about as much as we could. We had some adversity and we handled it well. We had a good season, looking at the big picture. One thing I appreciate about these guys was how they competed. Even tonight, we could’ve gone the other way. That is something I’m proud of the guys for.”
The “guys” will look a lot different next season.
In fact, Horford might be one of the only truly familiar faces around if Ferry carries out his master plan.
HANG TIME SOUTHWEST – California’s basketball hierarchy is on its head.
As the second round is set to begin, in is the All-Star-snubbed Stephen Curry of the Golden State Warriors; out are the two biggest superstars set to hit the free-agent market: Dwight Howard of the Los Angeles Lakers and Chris Paul of the Los Angeles Clippers.
In strange symmetry, Howard and Paul were both ejected in their final games of the season. Howard twice lost his cool and got the heave-ho early in the third quarter of the Kobe-less and totally injury-depleted Lakers’ Game 4 loss to the San Antonio Spurs. Referee Joey Crawford gave Paul a more controversial walk to the showers late in the fourth quarter of Friday’s Game 6 downer at the Memphis Grizzlies, the Clippers’ fourth consecutive defeat after taking a 2-0 series lead.
Both superstars will become free agents on July 1. While the smart money still says D12 and CP3 love L.A. and will stay, unceremonious endings to what were supposed to be storybook seasons for both franchises at least adds a layer of intrigue and speculation to the proceedings.
For the Clippers, 118-105 losers Friday, suddenly the celebrations of a franchise-best 56-win season and a first-ever Pacific Division title are being washed away by a tidal wave of disappointment and tough offseason decisions headlined by Paul’s choice of where next to take his talents.
“I got a lot of time to think about that,” Paul, wearing a Clipper red sports coat, told reporters after Friday’s game. “As I do with any decision I make, I consult with my wife, my parents, my brother, my family. I might even let little Chris chime in on this. We’ll see what happens.”
L.A.’s front office will wait on pins and needles for July 1 to get Paul’s answer, but they will likely move much quicker to determine the future of lame-duck coach Vinny Del Negro. When management assesses the job he’s done in leading the Clippers to the playoffs in consecutive seasons for just the second time in the franchise’s 29 years in L.A. and first time in 20 years, there will be two sides of the coin to each topic of debate.
Since being hired to lead Chicago with no previous coaching experience, Del Negro has been scrutinized, even ridiculed, like no other coach regarding his acumen of the X’s and O’s.
In this series, Del Negro’s team allowed a 2-0 lead to slip away. But how much of that is on the coach and how much is on a team that seemed to get outworked in the final four games? Did the coach not have his team prepared or did the players not show up? Did the coach fail to make proper adjustments or did the players fail to execute?
Paul averaged 22.8 points and 6.3 assists. He shot 53.3 percent and rarely turned the ball over. He didn’t get a lot of help from what was considered to be the deepest team in basketball. His All-Star teammate Blake Griffin sprained an ankle and played 24 minutes in the final two games. He finished the series with a well-below-average 13.2 ppg and 5.5 rpg while nemesis Zach Randolph dominated in the final four games.
Veteran point guard Chauncey Billups, who missed most of the season due to injury, played as if his head wasn’t in it, finishing the series with more turnovers (eight) than assists (six). After going 4-for-8 from the floor in Game 1, he went 7-for-28 the rest of the way.
Sixth Man of the Year runner-up Jamal Crawford was 7-for-21 in Games 3 and 4 and was benched in the second half of Game 6 after going 0-for-5. Matt Barnes, who threw in 30 points Friday night, was 9-for-24 in Games 2 through 5.
Caron Butler averaged 5.8 ppg in Games 2 through 5 and scored five points in 34 minutes of Games 4 and 5. Del Negro ripped center DeAndre Jordan‘s effort. Grant Hill, either injured or buried on the bench this season, was on the floor in the second half of Game 6.
The Clippers could look quite different next season. They have $45 million tied into Griffin, Jordan, Butler, Crawford, Hill and Eric Bledsoe. Two million could get returned if Hill retires as he speculated he might last month.
So let the introspection begin for a franchise that has scrapped bottom for decades and seemed to be headed for better days, if not glory days. Owner Donald Sterling in his later years has seemed to soften and to smartly open his wallet to make things happen. It’s resulted in two sensational seasons that have produced regular-season results like never before, two rare trips to the postseason while also rousing a fan base and creating a fun environment at Staples Center.
Yet the Clippers failed to accomplish Del Negro’s goal and that was go deeper in the playoffs that last season’s second-round sweep at the hands of the Spurs when Griffin was again hurt and unable to perform at a peak level.
So while Curry and the Warriors keep doing their thing, the mood is considerably darker today down in L.A.
HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS – For those who truly love the reality TV drama of the NBA playoffs, this is what we pay and hope for every year. Elimination time, 48 minutes with everything on the line plus seasons (and sometimes careers) hanging in the balance.
The posturing is over. Wear black if you want to (New York Knicks), but if you’re not careful and don’t treat Game 6 with the urgency required, the funeral you’ll be attending might be your own (if the Boston Celtics are able to force a Game 7, that will put pressure on the Knicks that could shake the very walls of Madison Square Garden).
The Celtics, Atlanta Hawks, Houston Rockets and Los Angeles Clippers are all facing a win-or-go-home circumstance in their respective Games 6 battles tonight. Each one of them trails 3-2 and each one of them will have some serious thinking to do in the aftermath of defeats.
That said, the Knicks, Indiana Pacers, Oklahoma City Thunder and Memphis Grizzlies do not want to let this opportunity to end things slip away. A Game 7, be it at home or on the road, comes with an increased level of intensity that can make anyone crack.
So we’re going game-by-game and detailing exactly what is on the line tonight for the winner and loser of these games:
What’s on the line for the Knicks:Everything! An entire season comes down to whether or not they can survive their own foolishness. Suddenly the Knicks aren’t in a playful mood. Too bad they didn’t adopt that philosophy before Game 5, when they had a chance to end this series on their home floor. Kenyon Martin and J.R. Smith have to redeem themselves for their words and actions beforeand during that Game 5 disaster. Carmelo Anthony, on the other hand, needs simply to return to the MVP form he showed down the stretch of the regular season and early on in this series. Just 21 assists in two games is not the sort of ball movement that led the Knicks to that 3-0 series lead. They either find a way to fix that or face the possibility of a Game 7 at home, which sounds like a good thing … until you remember that the Celtics would welcome another opportunity to silence Spike Lee and the rest of the Knicks faithful at the Garden.
What’s on the line for the Celtics:An era! The Big 3 era ended last season when Ray Allen bolted for Miami. But that was the ceremonial end. The official end comes when this team sees its season finished. No one knows what Danny Ainge has in store for this group when it’s all over. Celtics coach Doc Rivers is a master at preparing his team for big games, but the Knicks did much of the work for him this time by calling out the Celtics. That’s usually all the incentive Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett need to get their fires raging. They responded like the true (and aging) warriors that they are. And they’ll bring a Game 7 zeal to Game 6 and dare the Knicks to match their effort before a home crowd that should be in a full lather by lunch time. While the Knicks have focused their attention elsewhere, Jeff Green has gone about destroying them in the past two games. The Celtics’ supporting cast will be the difference if this series goes to a Game 7.
What’s on the line for the Pacers:Legitimacy! The Pacers fancy themselves as championship contenders this season. And they are serious about it. Problem is, their performance on the road in this series suggests otherwise. If they can’t handle an inconsistent bunch like the Hawks on the road, what exactly can coach Frank Vogel‘s crew do against either the Knicks or Celtics in the conference semifinals? Paul George and David West have designs on leading the Pacers deep into the playoffs, but they better finish this series off first without having to host a Game 7 in the first round. A little help from Roy Hibbert would help. Vogel keeps talking about his team still being young and needing to learn some things along the way. Learning how to survive a mess of your own making with a Game 7 against an inferior foe can’t be what he had in mind.
What’s on the line for the Hawks:The (immediate) future! It’s no secret that the organization is pointing to this summer, and free agency, as their salvation. Any noise the Hawks made in this postseason was strictly for the men in uniform and on the sideline (most of them are playing out the final years of their respective deals). A sustained postseason run is just more advertising, sometimes good and sometimes not so good, for coach Larry Drew and stars Josh Smith, Jeff Teague, Devin Harris, Kyle Korver and others. The fitting way to end their six-year run of consecutive playoff appearances is to go out the same way they did in that first-round series against the Celtics in 2008, losing in a Game 7 in Boston. There is more respect earned going down like that than there is in going down on your home floor in Game 6. (more…)
There, I said it. He’s fun. He’s goofy. He smiles. He’s engaging. He talks to you in the locker room before games, about lots of stuff, when most “stars” are buried in their Beats or iPads or simply avoiding the 45-minute open locker room period as if it’s Matt Bonner coming for a bear hug.
And maybe those are all the things about Dwight Howard that so drive Kobe Bryant nuts.
But I like Dwight.
I’ve stood in line to dog pile him. Did it Sunday after his needlessly contradictory series-ending postgame media session. His ejection barely more than two minutes into the third quarter of the final game of the Lakers’ awful season earned him yet another Twitter-lashing from the greatest Laker of all, legend-turned-critical-analyst Magic Johnson.
Even before then I had ridiculed Howard for chronic indecisiveness, chided him for selfishness and criticized him for the overall insidiously poor manner in which he’s handled his contract business.
But dang it, I still like Dwight.
So I’m placing my faith in him now. I believe he will re-sign with L.A., giving him a five-year, $118-million exemption from further free-agent discussion and decisions that obviously fill his head with anxiety and self-consuming guilt.
“I just don’t want any pressure from anybody,” Howard told reporters Tuesday during the Lakers’ end-of-season interviews. “[General manager] Mitch [Kupchak] said he’s not going to pressure me. He’s going to let me make that decision and we’re in a good place.”
And that’s how I believe this ongoing drama, “The Dwightmare,” started: I doubt he ever listened to himself. Instead he allowed a thousand intervening voices promoting self-serving interests, whispering big market or endorsement deals or global reach or whatever else, to swirl in his noggin like piranhas in a fish bowl.
Just my opinion, but as the process slogged on, I don’t think Dwight ever fully embraced his own desires other than yearning to make everybody happy, of which only brought about the counter-result of being universally vilified, a la LeBron James after the Decision.
Through the self-inflicted surreal twists and turns of his final season with Orlando and his first unfathomably incongruous season with L.A., I believe Dwight lost connection to his own identity. What happened to the 23-year-old, fifth-year center who carried the Magic to the NBA Finals — one more than Chris Paul’s played in — and, like Superman, believed he was capable of leaping anything?
The process took a heavy psychological toll heaped on top of the later physical limitations of his back. With his image in tatters, fans everywhere turned on him. And now, after one failed season in Lakerland, home of champions Wilt and Kareem and Shaq, they’re saying good riddance to him.
By all accounts, including his own, Dwight could have sat out until December or even the All-Star break to properly rehab his surgically repaired back. But he wanted to play for his new team with championship aspirations on Day 1. Wisely or not, he did.
Yet when he didn’t possess his usual explosiveness, it wasn’t Dwight’s back that came into question, but his body language.
Then the labrum in his right shoulder tore in early January. He downplayed its severity at first and when he sat out a couple games to rest it he got crushed by every living legend now on TV telling him to play through the pain for the good of the team. Even Kobe offered such an opinion and later tried to retract it.
Of course, Dwight was already playing through pain, or at least discomfort. He underwent back surgery in late April 2012 and played on Halloween. Dwight had never missed more than three games in any season until his back last year forced him to miss 12. Steve Nash struggled with multiple injuries and played in just 50 games, but was spared the rip jobs. Chicago’s Derrick Rose hasn’t played all season.
“Knowing that I wasn’t in great shape, my body wasn’t all the way there yet, but I wanted to do whatever I could to help this team win,” Dwight said on March 5 before a game at Oklahoma City. “And you know, sometimes I have gotten beat up for it, but that’s fine. I took all those hits and I keep moving.”
And the hits keep coming. After Sunday’s Game 4, formidable L.A. Times columnist Bill Plaschke offered the opinion that the Lakers and Dwight — who still averaged 17.1 ppg, a league-best 12.4 rpg, and fifth-best 2.45 bpg — should agree to walk away. He wrote that Dwight had proven over the season and in particular that very game that he is not a leader, at least not one of Laker ilk, and not one worth the heavy financial commitment.
But remove the raw emotion from this disappointing season, the depths of which run far beyond Dwight, and think about this: Dwight will enter training camp in October with a strong back, a healthy shoulder and reinforced maturity. He will be of clear mind and conscious.
The 6-foot-11, 265-pounder is L.A.’s best hope for the days beyond Kobe. Basketball will again be Dwight’s driving force, the distractions of the last two seasons drowned in the Pacific. He will rediscover himself and reassert himself as the league’s most dominant big man in his upcoming 10th season, just as he turns 28, just as he enters the prime of his career.
Going out on a limb? What can I say, I like Dwight.
HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS – You need a passport for this week’s stop on the Phil Jackson rumor train.
Cleveland is history, Mike Brown‘s the new (old) coach there. The Seattle situation, complete with Chris Hansen and his affinity for Jackson, took a serious hit Monday when Sacramento prevailed in its bid to keep the Kings in California. The Los Angeles Lakers’ situation is still in flux as no one knows what is going to happen with Dwight Howard (free agency looms), Kobe Bryant (rehabilitation from Achilles surgery is underway) and coach Mike D’Antoni (good for next season as coach), but they will all certainly be in the crosshairs this summer.
So the attention to Jackson has shifted north, to Toronto, where reports have the Raptors exploring the possibilities of trying to woo Jackson to be a part of their front office structure. Since he’s made it clear that he has no interest in returning to the league as a coach, the ideal situation for the Zen Master is to return as Front Office Phil.
One source said that Leiweke’s “vision and energy” and history of shared success at Staples Center with the 11-time championship coach ensures that Jackson will give the pitch strong consideration despite skepticism around the league about his willingness to relocate to Canada.
Amid its pursuit of Jackson in the wake of Leiweke’s arrival, Raptors president Bryan Colangelo is scheduled to meet with the MLSE board next week in hopes of convincing his bosses to pick up the option year on his contract. The 2013-14 option in coach Dwane Casey‘s contract was picked up by Colangelo before this season, but Leiweke’s arrival has thrown both of their futures into some immediate doubt.
In an interview last week with the San Francisco Chronicle, Jackson said “three or four teams” have already expressed interest and that “none of it involves coaching.”
“There are some interesting situations that are presenting themselves, but I really haven’t made up my mind yet what I’m going to do,” Jackson told the Chronicle.
Jackson also confirmed to the newspaper he’s interested in a developing team “where you’d have the influence in [selecting the] coaching staff and the kind of culture that goes along with it.”
It makes sense, until you remember that Jackson’s ties to the Lakers remain extremely strong. And until the Lakers make some concrete decisions about their future, there always be those who hold out hope that Jackson (alongside his fiancée Jeanie Buss) will return to the Lakers and help fix all that’s gone wrong since he departed two years ago.
That reconciliation seems impossible as long as Jim Buss and Mitch Kupchak remain at the controls for the Lakers. Quite frankly, they have more pressing matters to tend to, namely what Howard will do in free agency. Having him in the fold with Pau Gasol makes the Lakers’ recovery from their ragged 2012-13 season one of the most crucial stretches in recent franchise history, considering they’ll have to do it without a healthy Bryant to shoulder the bulk of the responsibility.
There remains another potential option in Jackson’s preferred Southern California, one that Lakers faithful fear above all others, and that’s Jackson working down the hall at the Staples Center in the Los Angeles Clippers’ locker room. What better way for the Clippers to cement their takeover as the city’s top basketball outfit than to lure Jackson over to their side in his return to the NBA?
A team with a nucleus of Chris Paul, Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan with Jackson working behind the scenes (or as coach/executive, if things don’t go Vinny Del Negro‘s way during this postseason) has all sorts of possibilities. Same goes for the Brooklyn Nets, who could have a coaching vacancy this summer, barring a surprise championship run during these playoffs.
So much of this is speculation at this point, with everyone believing that they have the perfect situation for Jackson to walk into and craft to his liking, it’s hard to know what’s a legitimate possibility and what’s just hot air.
But as long as Jackson is reportedly interested in making a comeback, in whatever capacity, there will be suitors lined up to pitch him and plenty of fans anxious to see if he bites.
LOS ANGELES – It’s still difficult to process the devastation, that these are the Los Angeles Lakers. The 16-time champs. The team that coulda-woulda won 70 this season, yet suffered a third consecutive playoff loss and their worst one ever at home Friday, 120-89, to the San Antonio Spurs.
The classic gold uniforms emblazoned with purple down the sides and LAKERS racing across the front looked the same as playoffs past. But who were those guys wearing them? Even Jack had to raise his shades.
Guys named Andrew Goudelock and Darius Morris and Chris Duhon and Earl Clark were forced to play minutes better suited for a Vegas Summer League game. Meanwhile, $34.2 million of Laker payroll — or the club’s top four guards, including a cat named Kobe Bryant — watched from the bench, injured and dejected.
Actually, Black Mamba never even made it courtside. He probably knew what was ahead and knew he couldn’t stomach it, knew he couldn’t contain himself out in the open in front of restless fans, his fans, and grinding his teeth into talcum powder right there on the floor he’s so accustomed to dominating this time of year. Hidden from view, Bryant probably sent himself a thousand tweets.
After the game, being whirred away in a golf cart and wearing a gold Lakers t-shirt and a protective boot rising halfway up his left leg, Kobe was asked if it was hard to watch. “Of course,” he said, turning his palms up as if to say #WTH.
The game was uglier than even expected and the final result fit the description Mike D’Antoni used before the game for his state of mind considering the injuries and the crew he had left for a must-win Game 3: “As a coach you sleep like a baby and every 15 minutes you wake up crying.”
Then asked if his newly-christened backcourt of newbies Goudelock and Morris might actually improve the team’s perimeter defense from that of Steve Nash and Steve Blake, D’Antoni first laughed out loud, then said, “Uh, no.” He kept laughing.
Earlier in the day, the coach and his players tried to paint a scenario of success, talking of Dwight Howard and Pau Gasol taking care of the paint and the NBA D-League MVP Goudelock, thrilled for his first NBA start, he said, so his parents back home in Atlanta could watch him on TV, would go off as if Friday night was just another D-League Showcase. At least the kid came strong, and at least the Lakers didn’t allow their first 18-point deficit in the second quarter to wipe them out without a fight. The second one in the third quarter did, and then came the cheap “We Want Phil” chants, first short-lived and then more robust during the Spurs’ runaway fourth.
And with that, this stink-o, injury-ravaged Lakers season is finally in the spin cycle and ready to drain.
The San Antonio Spurs, with five players scoring in double figures and 13 in all scoring, seek to wrap up this fraudulent first-round series Sunday back at Staples. If accomplished it would be the second broom taken to the proud Lakers in three seasons. The unceremonious end will officially begin the unceremonious “Where’s Dwight Going?” reality show. Get your popcorn.
Of course, there’s still basketball to be played in L.A. as soon as Tuesday night when the toast-of-the-town Clippers and the once-upon-a-time-Lakers-bound Chris Paul return home for Game 5 against the Grizzlies. The Spurs, assuming they do close this sack of a series on Sunday, will go home to begin an extended rest awaiting the high-speed winner between Denver and Golden State, two clubs themselves that aren’t whole.
The Warriors’ David Lee (torn hip flexor) and Denver’s Danilo Gallinari (torn ACL), two high-scoring, highly productive forwards instrumental to their teams’ success, are each out for the duration. Oklahoma City now feels their pain. Point guard Russell Westbrook will have surgery, the team announced Friday, to repair a lateral meniscus tear in his right knee.
The Thunder and the Spurs, last season’s Western Conference foes, figured to be so again. OKC’s side of the bracket with the Clippers and Grizzlies has sprung wide open. And suddenly it’s the Spurs who look primed to make a real run at a fifth championship in the Gregg Popovich-Tim Duncan era, a number that would tie the 37-year-old wonder in rings with Kobe.
“We’re good. Health is good,” Popovich said prior to Game 3. “The last few weeks haven’t been great health-wise, but we’ve slowly gotten better and better. Considering how many people have problems around the league, and the Lakers having theirs, we’re feeling pretty fortunate in that regard.”
Only a few weeks ago, the Spurs were the walking wounded and now have their Big Three healthy and with Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker returning to All-Star form.
Of course health this time of year is fleeting and that fact came crashing home as starting center Tiago Splitter, having his best season in the NBA, hopped off the floor with his left foot dangling in mid-air and left the arena on crutches.
X-rays were negative, but chances are slim that he can play Sunday. It will leave the Spurs a little light in the middle for one last stand from Dwight and Pau, one, if not both of whom might be playing their final game in Laker purple-and-gold.