Posts Tagged ‘Magic’

Vucevic Wears Scars Of Progress

Coaches are always looking for those signs of production that go deeper than stats in a box score. Scratches on the back. Black and blue marks on the shoulders. Welts on the chest or even the side of a face.

Nikola Vucevic probably couldn’t have looked more beat up if he were a crash test dummy, and that had Magic coach Jacque Vaughn grinning from ear to ear.

Vucevic blocks Howard

Vucevic blocks Howard (Bill Baptist/NBAE)

“I love it,” Vaughn said. “He has a bruise on his arm and under his eye a little bit, so that means he came to play. You should go home every night with some sort of scar, scab or Band-Aid to prove that you came to play. So he got a couple of bruises and I loved seeing it.

“He just has to understand that [physical play] is part of the game. Everyone understands that when you are a big there is more contact down low than there is up top, so accept that that’s the way it is and embrace it. Just do what you have to do to survive in this league and he’s learning to do that.”

As the Magic continue to shape and establish a roster that is full of solid, athletic, potentially explosive prospects at forward and guard, it is the development of Vucevic in the middle that will likely determine how fast Orlando returns to the playoff race.

The 22-year-old center has already shown in his first two NBA seasons that he has offensive moves around the basket and was a surprise last season as the league’s second-leading rebounder (11.9 per game). But there remained questions about his ability to defend the rim and not get outmuscled in the paint.

So it was nothing less than a revelation Wednesday to see Vucevic go toe to toe with the big man he’s replacing in Orlando, more than holding his own against Dwight Howard. He opened the night by blocking Howard’s shot in the low post on the Rockets’ first possession and then played aggressively by fronting and denying passes.

“You’ve got to do your job early against a guy like Dwight because he’s very physical,’’ Vucevic said. “If you let him catch it deep there’s not a lot that you can do. So I was trying to be as physical as I can be. I tried to make him catch it as far away as I could and my teammates did a great job of helping me on the backside when I was fronting him. I tried to limit him as much as I could and still help on the guards when they drove.’’

It was more than just limiting Howard to a 2-for-6 shooting night. It was the way that Vucevic never backed down from the rippling muscles of the would-be Superman.

“I am going to have to play physical against a player like Dwight, against all of the best big men in the league,” Vucevic said. “It is not trying to feel comfortable playing a physical style. It is just what I must do.”

The Magic, of course, have already received credit, though a year late, for getting the most out of the complex deal that sent Howard out of town. They are the only team that has any of the principals left from the trade — Howard gone from the Lakers, Andrew Bynum from the Sixers and Andre Iguodala from the Nuggets.

It figured that Orlando was getting a potential scoring piece on one wing in forward Maurice Harkless, but Vucevic was more of a question as someone who might give up on defense anything that he added offensively. In his first two seasons in the league, he had a tendency to avoid contact.

If that can change, so can the character of the young Magic. That’s why standing in and standing up to Howard was so important.

“It tells me I can go against the best players in this league,” Vucevic said “I think I held my own pretty well. I think I limited him pretty well. Obviously, it wasn’t easy. It took a lot of energy to do it, but it showed me that I can do it. I’ve got to keep building myself, keep going and keep working. When I go against the best guys, it’s only going to make me better.”

Those scars and bruises are signs of progress.

T-Mac Provided Sizzle, Little Substance

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HANG TIME, Texas —
When word spread that Tracy McGrady had announced his retirement, how many folks went straight to YouTube?

There were those 13 sizzling points in 35 sensational seconds that defined a career. Memorable and yet fleeting.

For 16 tantalizing NBA seasons, he was never the main event in the center ring under the big top when championships were to be decided, but always in a booth just outside on the carny midway — T-Mac next to the bearded lady.

Oh, there was never any doubting his ability to put the ball into the basket from any angle and from anyplace on the court. He was a deft and willing passer, could be a strong rebounder for a guard and could get after it defensively out on the wings.

Yet after all those years we’re left with a legacy that is lighter than cotton candy and with just as much substance.

While making the announcement on ESPN and looking back on his career, McGrady made the Hall of Fame case for himself that at one point in their careers there was debate about whether he or Kobe Bryant was the better player. And that is exactly the point, there came a fork in the road and their resumes went in distinctly different directions.

The price of admission to the Hall of Fame should not merely be the gaudy jewelry of a championship ring. But it should matter that a perennial All-Star performer, a franchise’s foundational player lifts his team up in the playoffs and, despite a scoring average that often increased in the playoffs, McGrady could not do that. Not in Orlando, not in Houston, where he had his chances.

Until he was a decorative ribbon on the Spurs’ machine as they marched to The Finals last spring, McGrady was the only NBA scoring champion (two times) to never advance past the first round of the playoffs.

For all of the improbable 3-point shots he made, high-rising slam dunks he threw down, thread-the-needle passes that he delivered right on the money, what McGrady could never do was close the deal. He was the front man of teams that blew 3-1 leads in Orlando and Houston and another pair of 2-0 leads with the Rockets.

“It’s all on me,” McGrady said prior to the 2007 series against the Jazz.

“It was never on me,” he said when the Rockets lost.

McGrady never understood how or what it meant to lead, even though he pretended to embrace the role.

It is not enough to say that, because another prolific scorer from another era — Walt Bellamy – was eventually voted into the Hall of Fame, McGrady should be, too. It would be wiser to see Bellamy’s inclusion as a mistake and move on.

Indeed, there were injuries to his back and knees. But there was an ugly end to McGrady’s tenure in Orlando when he sat out the end of a 21-61 season and the microfracture surgery that signaled the end of his relevance as a star or even as a starter in Houston came again with much recrimination and little remorse.

How very fitting then, for comparison’s sake, that McGrady’s retirement comes within days of Allen Iverson calling an end to his career. They entered the NBA a year apart and for nearly a decade they were the yin and the yang of the league for nearly a decade. Passion and passivity. Fire and ice.

Iverson was the rail-thin waif that seemed to be held together by pipe cleaners who threw himself into every game he ever played and constantly went crashing to the floor like grandma’s finest china, only to always pick up the pieces and come back even stronger. Iverson was voted MVP of the league in 2001 when he carried the Sixers to The Finals with an indomitable will. McGrady was cooler than an ice cube, but just as prone to melt.

The Hall of Fame should be a place for enduring greatness, a career masterpiece like the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.

We looked up at T-Mac like fireworks on the Fourth of July. Oooh, isn’t that pretty?

Good thing we’ll have those 13 points in 35 seconds on YouTube to remember him.

Summer Dreaming: Comeback Player

HANG TIME, Texas – Officially, the NBA has not recognized a Comeback Player of the Year since the 1984-85 season.

But these are the dog days of August, this is just an exercise in summer daydreaming and that means, well, we can pretty much do whatever we want.

Besides, it’s so rare that we have so many big name players on the mend, several with a chip on their shoulder and something to prove.

So grab a seat in the shade and let’s run my top candidates for a make-believer honor — the 2013-14 Comeback Player of the Year:

Kobe Bryant, Lakers – Yes, it’s still all speculation at this point, and even Bryant has said that he’s not sure he’ll be ready yet for opening night. But if, at 35, he somehow gets back onto the court less than a year after tearing his Achilles’ tendon and manages to come close to being the beast of his former self, Kobe will have eclipsed Adrian Peterson as a modern medical marvel and raised his already considerable legacy way past Michael Jordan‘s “flu game.”

Dwight Howard, Rockets – Can a guy who averaged 17.1 points and led the league in rebounding (12.4 rpg) last season really be considered a comeback candidate? He can if he’s this guy, who could only have taken more abuse if he’d played every game with a “Kick Me” sign taped to the back of his jersey. A return from back surgery and an in-season shoulder injury contributed to Howard’s lost season in L.A. A healthy and happy season in Houston could produce fireworks.

Derrick Rose, Bulls – He hasn’t played in an NBA game since April 28, 2012 and he may not return immediately to his old MVP form on opening night. But there are reasons to expect that Rose will want to use this season to make a loud statement about himself as a competitor and warrior. First of all, he is both of those things. Second, he heard all the sideline critics complain that he was soft or afraid or something less than a team player by not returning at the end of last season. If anyone has a point to prove about who he is, it’s Rose.

Kevin Love, Timberwolves – Flip the calendar back 12 months and there was so much for Love to anticipate in the year ahead, especially coming off his success at the World Championship. Not the broken right hand in training camp. Not breaking it again in January. Not the surgery on his left knee that ended any chance of a late return. Love averaged 18.3 points and 14 rebounds in the 18 games he played. Teammates Ricky Rubio, Nikola Pekovic, Andrei Kirilenko, Brandon Roy and Chase Budinger all suffered injuries in a lost season for the Wolves. Now it’s Love who’s champing at the bit to lead the comeback that could get Minnesota into the playoffs for the first time since 2004.

Rajon Rondo, Celtics – When he gets back out onto the court, should we start calling him “Domino?” After all, think of all the dominoes that fell after he tore his ACL and had to be shut down for the season in January? That’s the way former teammate Paul Pierce views it. Rondo’s injury ended the Celtics’ real hopes of being playoff contenders or at least spoilers. Rondo’s injury likely led to the trading of Pierce, Kevin Garnett and Jason Terry to the Nets. Rondo’s injury led to coach Doc Rivers wanting out of a rebuilding project. Rondo’s injury brought rookie coach Brad Stevens to Boston. Now Rondo gets to be the big dog who runs his own show and there’s no doubt he’ll bark loud.

Danny Granger, Pacers – On a team that already pushed the Heat to a seventh game in the Eastern Conference finals and is feeling more confident from the experience, how much of a boost could they get if the former All-Star forward can return to form? Granger played only five games last season after having surgery for patellar tendinosis. He said he expects to be back in the starting lineup. But even if he winds up coming off the bench, a Pacers team that sometimes had trouble putting points on the board will welcome the help.

Russell Westbrook, Thunder – Sure, it happened in the playoffs. Sure, he had never missed a single game in his NBA career until that night when he had the run-in with the Rockets’ Patrick Beverley. That doesn’t make it any less significant. The loss of Westbrook ended any real hope of the Thunder getting back to The Finals and maybe it quieted some of the carping complainers who love nothing more than to pick at the flaws in his game. Will the torn meniscus slow down any of his freakishly physical play or seemingly superhuman sorties to the rim? Doubt it.

Anderson Varejao, Cavaliers — With all the attention focused on free agent Andrew Bynum and No. 1 draft pick Anthony Bennett, the return of Varejao to the Cleveland lineup could be just as critical at making a run at the playoffs. The 30-year-old was averaging career highs of 14.1 points and 14.4 rebounds in 25 games last season before tearing a quadriceps muscle in January and then requiring further surgery when a blood clot developed in his lung. Coach Mike Brown says the perpetual motion machine might start at power forward and that could get him back to making a run at his first All-Star berth.

Andrew Bynum, Cavaliers – If any player ever needed a comeback, it’s the big man who was a key part in the four-team trade between the Lakers, Magic, Nuggets and Sixers in the summer of 2012. Those chronic knee problems that had always made his future a big question mark in L.A. kept him on the sidelines but not out of the limelight all last season in Philly. He showed off flashy hairstyles. He went bowling. He just didn’t play. Now that Jan. 7 cutoff date to be on the Cavs roster that guarantees the other half of this season’s $12.25 million contract should be some real motivation.

PREVIOUSLY: MVP | Coach of the Year | Sixth Man of the Year | Defensive Player of Year | Most Improved Player | Rookie Of Year

Summer Dreaming: 2014 Rookie Of Year

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HANG TIME, Texas — Maybe it’s the heat. Or the humidity. Or those icy margaritas that have been sipped by the pool.

The beginning of August gets the mind to wandering in all sorts of different directions. Sure, it’s tempting to start thinking about the season openers that are barely three months away. But why stop there? Let’s wander all the way out to next spring when the 2013-14 season is over and get a head start on candidates for all the awards.

Today we’ll look at my hot fun in the summertime top five picks for Rookie of the Year. Send me yours.

Victor Oladipo, Magic The No. 2 pick in the Draft showed in the Summer League that he has a long way to go to run an offense as a point guard. But that doesn’t mean Oladipo won’t get plenty of chances to shine as the young Magic just turn him loose. Arron Afflalo will have to move on in order to let Oladipo fully blossom. However, the nonstop, high-energy guy with the first-class defensive chops will thrive in the transition and find plenty of opportunities to get to the basket with the floor spacing in the NBA. In a Draft that seemed to jump the rails right from the first pick, Oladipo was the player the Magic targeted to be a star for the future. There’s no reason to think that he won’t get off to a fast start on a young team that craves a leader.

Ben McLemore, Kings He came out firing unconscionably and mostly missing in his first two Las Vegas Summer League games, but give him credit for not reacting by crawling into a hole and becoming shy. By the end of the his desert run, McLemore was as hot and flashy as anything on the Vegas strip. The long-suffering franchise wants him to run the floor, use his athleticism and fill up the basket. He’s got a sweet stroke, plenty of range and now that Tyreke Evans is gone to New Orleans, he should have plenty opportunity. The lesson learned from Vegas is not to paint himself strictly as a long bomber and work to improve the other areas of his game. It’s also about his attitude. There is a reason that some folks had him tabbed as the No. 1 pick and could be part of the road back for a Kings franchise that will celebrate staying in Sacramento.

Cody Zeller, Bobcats Zeller was a standout in Las Vegas, showing all the hustle, smarts and athleticism that made him a star at Indiana. Never mind that his arms are short and some think he’ll have trouble on the inside at the NBA level. Playing for the hapless Bobcats, Zeller is going to get all the time he needs to figure things out and find a way to get off his shot. This is the umpteenth time that Michael Jordan’s Bobcats are starting over and rookie coach Steve Clifford will be happy to plug the Zeller’s intelligence and skills into the lineup and let him complement free-agent signee Al Jefferson.

Anthony Bennett, Cavaliers There’s a chance the Cavs will bring the No. 1 pick in the Draft along slowly. That’s especially likely since he is a frontline tweener (6-foot-7) who will have to learn to maneuver around the bigger bodies in the NBA and learn how to get off his shot inside (since he’s not especially mobile). He’s 3-point range and while he may struggle to find his place in the offense, Bennett has a nose for rebounding and could make his presence felt by going to the glass. That’s a good way to make an impact, put up numbers, get attention and maybe even work his way off the bench by the second half of the season.

C.J. McCollum, Trail Blazers Can the Blazers go back-to-back on Rookie of the Year winners? After Damian Lillard practically went wire-to-wire to claim the award last season, Portland went out and almost drafted a clone. The conventional thinking is that McCollum will get stuck on the bench playing second fiddle to Lillard and that will limit his production. But there is really no reason to think the Blazers were drafting a sub at No. 10. They’re gonna find a way to get their pair of ball-handling scorers on the floor together as much as possible. There are plenty nuances of the game McCollum has to learn, but he’s got the swagger to take on anything thrown at him and find a way to shine.

Rudy Gobert, Jazz OK, he’s No. 6 and is a longer shot than a mule winning the Kentucky Derby. But give me a personal indulgence after watching the 7-foot-2 Frenchman with the 7-foot-9 wingspan and 9-foot-7 reach — that’s five inches below the rim — swat down everything that came into his airspace in the Orlando Summer League. He’s raw and must bulk up to eventually thrive in the NBA. But he’s only 21 and defensively has a nose for the ball that says he’s going after every shot. Of course, the shot-blocking Gobert will get time sparingly this season, but I’m telling you he’ll be fun to watch whenever he’s on the floor. Besides, you’ve got to love a guy who’s already picked up a classic nickname — the Stifle Tower.

PREVIOUSLY: Sixth Man of Year | Defensive Player of Year | Most Improved Player

Oladipo Ready To Make His Point

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ORLANDO, Fla. — It was one thing for Victor Oladipo to take the floor in his first summer league game and fill up the box score with a handful of impressive stats. He stuck in 3-pointers and got to the basket with his speed and aggression.

But the nod of heads among members of the Magic coaching staff said they were just as impressed the next day when the ball was bouncing off the rim and shots weren’t falling. That’s when the No. 2 pick in the draft gave that he just might be able to play some time at point guard, as they’d hoped.

“Shooting guard, point guard, whatever you want to call me, it doesn’t matter,” Oladipo said. “I just think of myself as a guard and I’ll do whatever the coaches want me to do. I don’t want to limit myself or any possibilities with a label or a position.”

James Borrego, the Magic’s summer league head coach has put Oladipo at both backcourt spots at different times in games and has been satisfied with the results.

“I’ve thought he’s looked solid,” Borrego said. “He’s a guy that takes what the defense gives him and doesn’t try to force something that isn’t there. Teams will apply pressure and test his skill, but he’s responded well and got us into our sets. He’s been aggressive, looked for his shot and found open bodies. We put him in the pick and roll a lot to see what he could do. And overall we were very pleased with his effort.’’

Oladipo’s high energy made him a star last season at Indiana and that’s the attribute the Magic want most as a leader to ignite this young team. What he doesn’t lack is confidence and what he won’t do is back down from a challenge. He’s ready to push at his limits and try to measure up against the established scoring point guards in the league such as Chris Paul, Derrick Rose, Russell Westbrook and Tony Parker.

“I’m up for all of it,” Oladipo said. “I’m a rookie, but all those guys were rookies once, too. Everybody’s got to start out somewhere and build their game. I just don’t want the building to take too long.”

The 6-foot-4, 215 pounder has both the speed and the size to thrive by driving to the basket, can create his own shots and can make jumpers coming off screens.

“I’ve never played [point] at any other level, so it’s a little challenging just because you don’t want them to speed you up. You’ve still got to run all the plays, but you’ve got to pick you times when to be aggressive and when not to be aggressive.

“Whatever you want me to play, I’ll play. “If you want me to come off ball screens, I’ll come off ball screens and if you want me to set up the offense I’ll set up the offense. If you want me to stand in the corner and shoot, I’ll do it because that’s how badly I want to win.’’

Does Mike D’Antoni Help Or Hurt The Lakers’ Cause With Dwight Howard?



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HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS – Houston’s Kevin McHale got the first crack at making a lasting impression on Dwight Howard, and from all indications did exactly that. Golden State’s Mark Jackson and Atlanta’s Mike Budenholzer acquitted themselves quite well, too, in their face-to-face meetings with Howard.

Dallas coach Rick Carlisle, easily one of the league’s top coaches and one of the smartest and most accomplished basketball minds around, is up next when the Mavericks’ contingent makes its sales pitch to Howard this afternoon. Los Angeles Lakers coach Mike D’Antoni has some ridiculously tough acts to follow. The fact that he’s one of the only coaches on Howard’s list of contenders who has actually worked with the prized free agent big man should be to his (and the Lakers’) benefit.

But if the rumblings about Howard and D’Antoni struggling to find common ground during their lone season together are true, D’Antoni’s seat alongside Lakers GM Mitch Kupchak, stars Kobe Bryant and Steve Nash and others at Howard’s final recruiting session this evening in Los Angeles might not be the trump card it should be.

In fact, it’s not unreasonable to wonder: is D’Antoni helping or hurting the Lakers’ cause here? For all of the stars who have lined up to woo Howard, all of the owners, living legends, titans of industry and what have you, no one is more important than these respective coaches.

They have to be front and center during this process with a clear-cut plan that details exactly how they will take advantage of Howard’s skills and what they’ll do to exploit them in a way that leads to championships.

Given Howard’s recent past with coaches (see Stan Van Gundy, Orlando), it’s not hard to overstate the importance of the coach-player dynamic in whatever becomes his final choice.

The Los Angeles Clippers took care of that extremely important piece of business with their own free-agent star, Chris Paul, by dumping Vinny Del Negro after the best season in franchise history and pursuing and landing Doc Rivers to replace him and take over the role as the Clippers’ senior vice president of basketball operations. Via Twitter, Paul committed to the Clippers Monday morning and will sign a five-year, $107 million deal come July 10.

Howard is extremely sensitive about the sentiment that he’s some sort of “coach killer,” as he should be, because there are few tags more damaging to a superstar’s profile.

“That’s a tough thing to live down once you get it,” said one Western Conference executive. “That’s the knock on Dwight right now, whether he likes it or not. Everyone knows he’d had issues with his last two coaches and that’s why you know whatever is there with D’Antoni would have to be fixed before he could honestly think about staying with the Lakers. There’s no way around it.”

If Howard decides he’d rather play elsewhere, D’Antoni will get plenty of blame — deserved or not. And that’s what makes his role today so crucial. With Bryant and Nash (two of D’Antoni’s greatest allies) flanking him, he has a chance to clean up whatever mess is there and do his best to talk Howard back into the fold.

We might never get any real answers anyway. Howard has never come clean on what went down with Van Gundy, even though their disconnect led to the dissolution of a championship-caliber team in Orlando. He will have a chance to walk away from the Lakers this time without having to publicly address the D’Antoni situation. But that won’t stop any of us from speculating.

And it certainly won’t silence the Lakers fans who are already convinced that D’Antoni ruined any chance of Howard sticking around, even with the $30 million and extra contract year the Lakers can offer that no one else can.

One of D’Antoni’s colleagues came to his defense, insisting that if Howard chooses one of his other options, it won’t be because of any rift — real or perceived — between Howard and D’Antoni.

“Don’t make this about Mike, that’s not fair to him,” said an Eastern Conference coach who knows D’Antoni well and has coached against Howard for years. “This is [Dwight's] thing. He has to own it and make it right. Blaming Mike for anything that hasn’t gone his way the last couple of years is just wrong. This is Dwight’s choice, he has to make it, own it and get back on the floor and do what he does. And I know people are convinced that he’s already gone, but I’m not in that crowd. I think he’s going to stay in L.A.”

Six Sensible Picks For Coaching Success



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HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS – Raise your hand, you twisted souls, if you’re ready for another episode of the Dwight Howard-Stan Van Gundy show.

Even Hawks fans, a group starved for both star power on the roster and stability with the coaching staff, are wary of the potential pairing of these former Orlando Magic stalwarts in the ATL. Their deteriorating relationship marred their final season together in a situation that was anything but magic in Orlando.

But when the coaching carousel kicks up this time of year, and a half-dozen or so different teams are picking over the same small pool of elite coaching candidates, all things are possible.

Van Gundy, and his brother, Jeff Van Gundy, are going to be on short lists everywhere, along with Phil Jackson, Jerry Sloan, Larry Brown and whoever the assistant coach(es) du jour might be.

What looks good on paper and sounds sweet in theory, however, doesn’t always hold up in reality. Multiple reports of Stan Van Gundy being pursued by the Hawks, who have announced that they will explore all options in determining who replaces Larry Drew (if they replace him), make perfect sense. Hawks GM Danny Ferry is in the process of rebuilding his roster and needs a coach on board before the Draft.

“I have great appreciation and respect for Larry and how he led our team this season,” Ferry told Chris Vivlamore of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution on Saturday. “At the same time, it is my responsibility and in the best interests of the Hawks organization to consider all of our options, and talk with other potential head coaches before making a decision about who will lead our basketball team. Larry and I have had open communication about this approach. If Larry and I continue to work together, we ultimately will be a stronger organization because of our discussions and this thorough process.”

That’s an eloquent way of stating the obvious: that the Hawks plan on moving on from the past nine years (Drew was an assistant under current Knicks Mike Woodson during his six seasons with Atlanta before Drew spent the last three season its coach). And it’s understandable. No one will blame Ferry for making a clean break from the Hawks’ recent past, provided he upgrades the coaching situation and the roster with all of that $33 million in cap space and the four Draft picks the Hawks will be armed with this summer.

The burning question remains, then, is Stan Van a legitimate upgrade?

He did take the Magic to The Finals in 2009, the Miami Heat to the Eastern Conference finals (2005) and did the same with Orlando (2010). But he was shown the door in both places after his star players grew tired of his grinding ways. Weighing the pros and cons of Stan Van being the face and voice of your franchise heading into a huge free-agent summer is a risky proposition for the Hawks, one that Ferry is surely aware of as he continues to sort through the process of finding the right coach.

There are five other current openings around the league, with another one (Los Angeles Clippers … ?) still looming. With a bevy of candidates, we take a look at who fits best where and why …

Atlanta Hawks: Mike Malone, assistant coach Golden State Warriors

In a realm where it’s often who you know as well as what you know, Malone can check those boxes with the Hawks. He’s done stellar work with the Warriors, helping guide them into a prime time position this postseason under Mark Jackson. He also worked under Mike Brown in Cleveland when Ferry ran that franchise. Malone is a nuts-and-bolts coach who won’t come with the baggage of some of the more recognizable candidates for the job. He’s universally respected and will likely be on the interview list for every opening out there.

Brooklyn Nets: Jeff Van Gundy, ABC/ESPN analyst

No available coach has a better handle on the rigors of guiding a team in the New York area. Van Gundy’s Knicks history, along with his work on ABC and ESPN broadcasts, has kept him in the forefront of a lot of people’s minds. He’s got the coaching chops required to manage a complex and talented roster that clearly needs a guiding force to reach its potential. His former partner in the booth, Mark Jackson, has done wonders in his first coaching stint in Golden State. Van Gundy could work similar magic with a Nets team that underachieved this season.

Charlotte Bobcats: Larry Drew, coach Atlanta Hawks

Drew worked alongside Bobcats owner Michael Jordan when they were both in Washington, so there is plenty of familiarity there. He also impressed many around the league with the work he did in an impossible situation in Atlanta the past three seasons. Even with constant changes on the roster and in the front office, Drew coached the Hawks to three straight playoff appearances. He would walk into a situation in Charlotte that looks a lot like the one he walked into with the Hawks nine years ago. That blueprint for thriving in the face of adversity could come in handy for the Bobcats.

Detroit Pistons: Jerry Sloan, former coach Utah Jazz

The Pistons have a roster filled with talented young players in need of guidance and direction. That’s the idea fit for a disciplinarian like Sloan, who could work wonders with bigs Greg Monroe and Andre Drummond in particular. Sloan’s Jazz teams were known for being the model of consistency. He won with superstar talent (Karl Malone and John Stockton) and kept on winning after they retired. The Pistons have had their greatest success in recent years under another veteran coach, Larry Brown, and could return to relevance under Sloan.

Milwaukee Bucks: David Fizdale, assistant coach Miami Heat

With the Big 3 in Miami, most of the attention has been strictly on the players. But Erik Spoelstra‘s key hire since taking over as coach in Miami was luring Fizdale away from the Hawks. He’s considered one of the brightest up-and-coming coaching candidates in the league and has done fantastic work with the continued development of both Dwyane Wade and LeBron James. Luring him away from a championship situation in Miami won’t be easy for the Bucks or anyone else. But Fizdale has designs on running his own team and working with Bucks GM John Hammond would be a good place to get that first shot.

Philadelphia 76ers: Stan Van Gundy, former coach Orlando Magic

After the emotional roller coaster that was the Doug Collins experience, Jrue Holiday, Evan Turner, Thaddeus Young, Spencer Hawes and the rest of the Sixers’ young core need a savvy veteran to deal with, not a first-time coach who would have to transition to a new gig in a city known for chewing up the strongest of personalities.  Stan Van gives the Sixers a bold personality to lead the way and an absolute technician of the game to help push the right buttons for a team that needs the sort of stewardship he tried to provide in Orlando.

The Day Shaq Returned To Orlando

HANG TIME WEST – In typical Shaquille O’Neal larger-than-life style, the Big Redundancy had two first returns to Orlando as Lakers center, as Dwight Howard does tonight an NBA generation later, only nothing like Dwight Howard does tonight.

While Howard will have to face the fans of Central Florida but will mostly avoid the wrath of the Magic players because of the roster turnover from last season and this one, O’Neal got hit on both fronts. Twice. With musical accompaniment.

In the other true Shaq style, he brought a lot of it on himself. Bolting from the Magic to the Lakers in the summer of 1996 would have been cause enough for boiling emotions in Orlando, but he made matters worse. O’Neal mocked Orlando as a “dried-up little pond” (to be compounded years later when his coach, Phil Jackson, called the city “plastic”), did little to hide his disdain for top management and coach Brian Hill, and tweaked some players there. So of course they were ready when the Lakers made their lone visit of 1996-97.

It barely mattered that O’Neal was long sidelined by a knee injury. He stopped off at the arena to drop off Lakers security man Jerome Crawford, did a little small talk, and drove off to, he said, watch the game on TV. Then he got roasted in abstention as the Magic won 110-84.

“I knew Shaq wasn’t going to show up,” Orlando forward Horace Grant said that day. “He talks a lot, but I knew he wasn’t going to show up.”

“Say what you have to say,” Nick Anderson, one of the former teammates O’Neal had singled out for criticism, “but if you’re so much of a man and you’re in town, why not come here?”

One of the signs by a fan:

“WHAT DO THESE PEOPLE HAVE IN COMMON?

“JUDAS-BRUTUS-SHAQ”

That was March 23, 1997. Eleven months later – on Feb. 22, 1998 – the Lakers and a healthy O’Neal were back in Orlando for the actual homecoming.

In the minutes before tipoff, the Magic blasted a portion of “I’m a Loser” by the Beatles over the loud speaker, followed by a bit of Carly Simon with “You’re so Vain,” then the Steve Miller Band and “Take the Money and Run” and “Would I Lie to You?” by The Eurythmics. Fans booed loudly, although not at great length, when O’Neal was brought out for pregame introductions and then every time he touched the ball.

The signs:

“BENEDICT O’NEAL”

And:

“SHAQ

We’re the two

that saw your

movies!!!”

O’Neal finished with 20 points and 10 rebounds, but the Magic won 96-94 on Anderson’s 3-pointer with 7.1 seconds remaining.

“Am I going to go home and drink a whole bottle of Pine Sol?” O’Neal asked, probably rhetorically. “No. We’ve just got to move on. They did what they were supposed to do, win a home game.

“Every arena I go to, I get booed.”

Except, a reporter noted, this is the arena where you used to get cheered.

“Used to,” Shaq responded. “Used to. I used to drive a Porsche, but I don’t anymore. I’ve moved on.”

At some point, his former team and city did as well. Only to have to go through it again in 2013.

Dwight Howard Imagined Having To Retire


OAKLAND –
Lakers center Dwight Howard said he briefly imagined his career being over eight months ago when doctors said a herniated disc caused nerve damage in his left leg that could have forced him to retire.

“I did for a couple days,” Howard said Saturday night after the Lakers beat the Warriors at Oracle Arena.

What became a final season in Orlando, a contentious split marred by his wavering on a future with the Magic, ended with April 20 surgery, sidelining the three-time Defensive Player of the Year for the playoffs and the Olympics with Team USA. But Howard said the full extent of the injury was not known publicly, and that while he is still not 100 percent while playing for the Lakers, he is far ahead of the original timetable.

“When I got hurt, I lost my whole left leg, basically, from my nerves,” he said. “That takes at least nine months to get that strength back. I was able to get some of it back in a couple of months. But it’s always a process. I wish that it would all come back right away, but this is a great time for me to work on other parts of my game that’ll make myself better and also make the team better.

“It’s really, at this point, not even my back. The injury I had caused my whole left leg to just lose all strength. My nerves were severely damaged. It takes a while for those nerves to grow back and for you to have enough strength to play. All that stuff is coming back slowly. There’s still days, like I said, where I feel really good, and there’s day when I’m not so good. But it’s all a process. I’m pretty sure at the end of the year I’ll feel a lot better than I do now.

“If I would have waited until after the season (to have the operation), if I would have tried to continue to play, then I probably wouldn’t be able to play anymore. I had to do it right away. I didn’t want to risk my career for some playoff games. They were important for me, but my health is important.”

Traded to the Lakers as part of a four-team blockbuster on August 10, Howard is averaging 17.8 points, 11.9 rebounds, 2.59 blocks and 36.4 minutes, second-most on the team behind Kobe Bryant. He has played all 27 games.

It’s Not The End Of the World, But…

HANG TIME, Texas — Go ahead, take another look at that Miami logo.

Maybe the Mayans weren’t predicting the end of the world for Dec. 21, 2012, but the beginning of LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh raining down on the planet in the fiery start to the Heat dynasty. Just missed it by six months.

Of course, if the Mayans were so good at predicting the future, there might still be Mayans.

Or as the famous Peanuts cartoonist Charles M. Schulz once reassured: “Don’t worry about the world coming to an end today. It’s already tomorrow in Australia.”

That said, there are a few things we wouldn’t mind seeing wiped off Planet NBA permanently:

P.A. screamers — We don’t need a courtside announcer to bellow that there are “Dos Minutos!” left in the game or to screech that it’s proper fan etiquette for the home crowd to make sure the visiting player is shooting “Two nooissssy free throws!” Doing the basics of the job would suffice, such as pronouncing names correctly. Though it’s too late for the former 7-foot-6 All-Star center of the Rockets, we would like you to become just the slightest bit worldly and understand that last basket was scored by Yao, not Ming. And we can only hope that more than a few of you to learn that it’s not RAY-jon Rondo.

Back-to-backs — In the days of private charter jet travel, computer programs and individual game tickets that cost in the hundreds — and even thousands — of dollars, there is no reason to keep selling an inferior product. When one team is rested and the other is flying in from having played the night before, it is the fan who is negatively affected most. Yes, some teams are different than others, but there is no reason that gap should be widened or closed by an uneven playing field. Since neither players or owners will accept the financial cutbacks necessary to play a 66-game schedule, there is another way. Eliminate virtually all of the preseason, start the regular season two weeks earlier, run the schedule two weeks longer and eliminate the exclusivity window that restricts the number of teams that can play on Thursdays. In addition to competitive balance, it’s time the paying customer doesn’t sit through a night where one team looks like the zombies from “The Walking Dead.”

Whining about Hack-a-Shaq – There are few things more deplorable than watching a supposed All-Star center stand at the foul line and struggle to make 50 percent of his free throws. The one thing that is worse is listening to the apologists who want to outlaw the intentional foul. If a batter in baseball can’t hit the curve, should he be allowed to request only fastballs? Try hypnosis, green tea, reciting poetry and going to your happy place while standing at the stripe. Or just shut up and stay in the gym until you learn to perform a fundamental part of the game.

Mascot skits — We understand that it’s not just a game anymore, but a full “entertainment experience.” Yet there are too many of the furry/silly mascots who don’t grasp the fact that their primary job is supposed to be generating enthusiasm for the team. When the home team is on a 10-0 tear, the visitors are disorganized and forced to call timeout, that is the occasion to keep the crowd cheering and whipped into a frenzy, not trot out a corny routine that you hope will one day get you an invite to “Inside the Actors Studio.”

Pointless fastbreaks — How many times will we be forced to watch a team come down the floor with a 2-on-1 or even 3-on-1 advantage and see a pass back outside for a 3-pointer rather than taking the ball all the way to the hoop? The analytics crowd can have their effective field goal percentage. A lot of folks would prefer to see a guard handle the ball in the middle of the floor and dish to a wingman for a simple layup or dunk. Wasn’t it good enough for Magic Johnson and Larry Bird?

Offensive basket interference — In effort to have the game played by the same rules all around the world, it’s time the NBA went with the international community and made any ball live and in play once it hits the rim. It means the ball could be swatted off the rim by a defender or tapped or pushed down into the basket by an offensive player. The play requires not just leaping ability, but timing and skill and does not happen as often as you might think in international play or in the NBA D-League, which is experimenting with the rule. For the anti-Hack-a-Shaq crowd, it could even help Dwight Howard with his free throws if a teammate was there to clean up his misses.

All-Star voting outrage — It’s time that the purists stopped the annual carping that accompanies the release of each round of vote totals. We know that Anderson Varejao, Greg Monroe, O.J. Mayo and Stephen Curry are having the kind of starts to this season that merit attention and admiration. But the All-Star Game is purely a popularity contest and, let’s face, it, everybody wants to watch LeBron, Carmelo, Kobe and CP3.