Posts Tagged ‘Mavericks’

Dwight’s Response: ‘No Need To Be Mad’


VIDEO: Dwight Howard responds to Mark Cuban’s criticism of his decision

HOUSTON — Dwight Howard said he wasn’t at all bothered by NBA owner Mark Cuban questioning his decision to choose the Rockets over his Mavericks last summer in free agency.

After scoring 13 points and grabbing 16 rebounds in Houston’s 113-105 win over Dallas on Friday night, the 6-foot-11 center shrugged off what had blown up in national headlines after Cuban said Howard had made “a mistake.”

“What would you want him to say?” Howard shrugged. “I mean, he’s taking up for his team. I would do the same thing if somebody didn’t want to come with me. I would think they’re making a bad decision.

“There’s no need to be mad. He said what he had to say. We talked about it already. I totally understand. It’s business. If I would have went to his team, he’d be happy. If not, he would have felt like that wasn’t the best decision. But I have to do what’s best for Dwight.

“I mean I really wasn’t upset about it. He just said, ‘Dwight, it’s business.’ That’s it. We laughed and talked about other things.”

Cuban: Only Idiots Spurn The Mavs


VIDEO: Cuban talks about the Mavericks’ offseason moves.

HOUSTON — Just so you know, if LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony become free agents and don’t pick Dallas as their new home, they’ll also be error-prone idiots.

“I can’t talk about anyone specifically,” said Mavericks owner Mark Cuban. “I’ll get fined. So any potential free agent is an idiot if they consider the Mavs and don’t come.”

Speaking to a handful of reporters about an hour before Friday night’s game at the Toyota Center, the Mavericks loquacious and opinionated boss was following up on his statement a day earlier when he said Rockets center Dwight Howard made a mistake by choosing Houston over Dallas in free agency.

Cuban and Howard had a brief conversation when they happened to cross paths in a back hallway prior to the game.

“When he stops, it wasn’t tough to figure out,” Cuban said. “He’s saying, ‘What’s going on?’

“He was fine. It was nice. I said I wasn’t picking on him. It’s common sense. I think anybody who doesn’t come to the Mavs is making a mistake, an error in judgment.

“I used stronger words, but I told Dwight ‘Anybody that doesn’t come here is an idiot.’ And if I didn’t say that, I’d be an idiot, because that’s reality, you know. Whether you’re buying a product from one of my companies or making a deal versus somebody else on Shark Tank, if I don’t have the confidence in our product to think you make a mistake if you don’t do business with me, then it’s on me.

“I don’t know if he understood, but that’s the reality. If you’re a free agent and you picked somebody else, you made an error in judgment. And if you’re a lot younger than me, then you’re a kid.’

“Like I said, I like Dwight. It’s not like I don’t like the guy. We get along.”

Having recently been cleared of insider-trading charges by the Securities and Exchange Commission, Cuban said he’s just happy to be back stirring up headlines in the fantasy world of sports.

“I always like to have people to mess with,” Cuban said. “You’ve got to throw out a few jabs every now and then to have fun. Wins and losses are serious, but this is still fun and if you guys (media) don’t like it, that’s your problem…It’s great fodder. I’m not gonna stop having fun.

“There’s things you don’t say, because you know what’s gonna happen. And there’s things there’s no reason to hold your tongue because you know exactly what’s going to happen and it makes it even more entertaining that the stupidest little things become headline porn.”

You can criticize Cuban for being over the top or wrong with some of his opinions and off the cuff remarks. But you cannot say that he doesn’t know how to enjoy his high profile role and doesn’t add spice to the NBA, if only to keep himself amused. Through the years, he’s waged verbal wars with Shaquille O’Neal, Kobe Bryant and Phil Jackson of the Lakers, not to mention infuriating the entire city of San Antonio for insulting the beloved River Walk.

“The back and forth is the best,” Cuban said. “Especially Shaq was good and Phil Jackson was great, because he’s smart. When you get somebody like that who’s witty, it’s a challenge, it’s fun. Whether it’s Phil Jackson every now and then or Pat Riley a few times, that’s the kind of public battles that are fun.”

Is Howard a worthy verbal sparring partner?

“I don’t know,” Cuban said. “You’d have to ask him. I’m not going after that one.”

The truth is, Cuban wishes that a few more NBA owners would get engaged the way he does, heckling opponents from their court side seats and standing up publicly for their teams.

“Yeah, it would make the game more entertaining,” he said. “It really would. At the end of the day, people don’t come to be serious about sports. We take our sports seriously and it’s emotional. But we come to have fun. It’s entertainment. Does anybody remember the score of our exhibition game when we played (the Rockets)? Anybody remember the score of any of our games last year?”

He cackles. He giggles. He rarely ducks a question and always has an opinion on any issue, especially the Mavs, whom he’ll never miss an opportunity to promote. Even at the expense of a high-profile opponent.

Remember that player who made “The Decision” to take his talents to South Beach in 2010 and has since won two championships when he could have jumped to Dallas?

“You know, what can I say? It was still a horrible mistake,” said a grinning Cuban. “I can’t talk about free agents. So whoever you’re referring to, he could have had three (championships).”

LeBron: On His Way To G.O.A.T.?

Editor’s note: As the NBA embarks this week on a new season, Miami Heat superstar LeBron James stands as the league’s most iconic figure. In today’s final installment in our three-part series on James and his place in the league, we weigh in on where James stands in the greatest-of-all-time argument.

In Part One, we looked at the people who have helped shape James into an international marketing force and a difference-maker for at-risk kids in his hometown of Akron, Ohio. And in Part Two, we examined how James’ on-court game has changed since he burst onto the scene straight out of high school in 2003, and how his early failures shaped the player he is today. 


VIDEO: The LeBron Series — G.O.A.T?

Perhaps it would all be different if LeBron James had not come to our doorstep prepackaged and hermetically sealed, all but tied up with a pretty ribbon and bow.

The Chosen One.

We generally like to pick our own heroes and villains, so as the media hype machine began to serve him up when he was still a teenager too young to drive to school at St. Vincent-St. Mary’s in Akron, Ohio, it was only natural that some would instinctively turn up their noses as if he were a heaping serving of broccoli.

Wilt Chamberlain was an overwhelming, almost indescribable giant. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was towering, majestic and aloof. Oscar Robertson was angry and unshakable. Magic Johnson wore an endearing, embracing smile that could light up a thousand nights. Larry Bird was a good ol‘ boy caricature come to life. Michael Jordan was transcendent as a competitor and a cultural icon.

Yet now, almost despite all that hype, the argument — joining so many others that seem to constantly swirl around him — can be made that James is indeed on track to go down as the best of them all.

Just the mere suggestion that he could one day soon lay claim to the label of Greatest of All Time — G.O.A.T., as it’s known in the vernacular — will bring baas of protest from the anti-LeBron crowd. They’ll call him a preener, a whiner, a shrinker, a choker, a deserter, a pretender, a poseur.

And yet the resume James has compiled in his first decade in the NBA has not only lived up to the advance billing, it’s exceeded it.

Consider that if he were to fulfill the expectations of most of the experts and be voted the league’s Most Valuable Player again in 2013-14, James would join Chamberlain, Bill Russell and Bird on the short list of three-in-a-row MVP winners. If the Heat play for the championship again next June and he is named MVP of The Finals, he would equal a feat only achieved before by Jordan (twice) and Shaquille O’Neal.

And if James were to claim his third straight regular season MVP, third straight championship and third straight Finals MVP, it would be a first in NBA history.

“He has four MVPs already, before he’s 30,” said long-time foe and close friend Jermaine O’Neal. “He has a lot of confidence and I think the sky’s still the limit as long as that same drive is still there. And I think it will be. I don’t see why it wouldn’t be. Sometimes, after the first MVP or whatever the achievements are, people tend to cut the motor down a little bit. But I was talking to people and they said he’s better than he was last year. Pretty difficult to be.”

A desire to get better



VIDEO: LeBron goes global with visit to China

That drive, to constantly put down every outside challenge and thrive on the fires from within, forged Jordan’s reputation as the ultimate big game warrior, practice scrapper, teammate-fighter and I’ll-gamble-on-anything competitor. Jordan would let rivals see the perspiration on that gleaming shaved head, but he’d never shed a drop of sweat from worry or doubt.

James is different. He’ll sit in front of his locker or behind a post-game microphone and admit that he fell short and pledge to do better.

Jordan entered the league as a tongue-wagging, gravity-defying, splay-legged phenom that played with the frisky abandon of a colt that leapt the corral fence. He gave us Air Jordan and taught us to fly while he played basketball in the movies with Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck. He sold sneakers, burgers and sports drinks. Everybody wanted to be like Mike.

James’ arrival was more of an orchestrated corporate sales pitch, pushing a man-child built like a locomotive that barreled down the tracks on the strength of a $100-million endorsement deal with Nike. It seemed a boardroom-drawn image. His game, early on, seemed more manufactured muscle than magic. No one could be King James.

Yet LeBronmania delivered in both form and function. Immediately. He became only the third rookie in NBA history — behind Robertson and Jordan — to average more than 20 points, five rebounds and five assists.

“I thought he’d be OK. I thought he’d have a little bit of a learning curve,” said former NBA forward and current Chicago Bulls assistant coach Ed Pinckney. “But I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone come in with that much hoopla and perform the way he did.

“Magic and Bird, similar. But they were older. Not a high school kid. He came in and hit the ground running.

“I asked Earl Monroe pretty much the same question. And he said, ‘There was a time when a high school kid coming into the NBA, physically, could just not play. Maybe he’d have a good game or two, but not sustain it.’ Where was the rookie wall [for James], all of that? He just busted right through it.’ This was Earl Monroe saying it.

“For an 18- or 19-year-old kid coming in to the league and performing the way he did, on a nightly basis with all the pressure of handling a team, I think he handled it great and he continues to.”

James’ offensive repertoire keeps expanding, and his four MVP awards in the past five seasons are matched only by Russell (1961-65). Another championship this season would give him three by the age of 29. Jordan won his third at 30.

Tuning out the noise

James has been delivering at such a high level, under such intense scrutiny so consistently and for so long,  that many are expecting a fall. Surely, The Decision to jump from Cleveland to Miami and all that came with it still resonate for many who will never let go of the grudge. He is reminded of it every day in a social media world of instant and constant criticism, where every missed shot and misplay is bitterly dissected. That did not exist for Jordan.

Another debate may still rage — mostly out of Los Angeles — but the truth is, James has clearly surpassed Kobe Bryant as the best player in the game today.

“Nobody with a brain would even begin to argue that,” said one league executive.

James’ Player Efficiency Rating (PER) of 31.6 last season was more than three whole points better than runner-up Kevin Durant (28.3) and was the second-highest single season ever behind 31.7 by Jordan in 1987-88.

In the annual NBA.com poll of the league’s general managers, James was an 89.7 percent choice as the single player they would sign for their team and a 66.7 percent pick as the player that forces opposing coaches to make the most adjustments. He was voted most athletic and most dangerous in the open floor.

Still, James’ game has its flaws, at least according to some. In an ESPN the Magazine poll of 26 anonymous players, Jordan was named by 88 percent as the man they’d want taking the final shot with the game on the line. Bryant received 12 percent. James didn’t receive a single vote.

James, though, is universally regarded as more of a natural playmaker than those two, more able to draw defenses to him and more willing to make the pass to a teammate for a better shot.  Former coach Jeff Van Gundy told ESPN:

“When I think of a closer, it’s a guy who can beat you with the pass or the shot. I’d take LeBron James to close it for me.”

New Orleans Saints tight end Jimmy Graham recently told Dan Patrick in a radio interview: “If there’s any player in the NBA who could come and be a complete superstar in the NFL, it’s LeBron. He would be the man.”

Jordan vs. James

If Jordan is considered the G.O.A.T. now, James can’t be far behind. The career stat lines of Jordan and James are strikingly similar. And James is only 28, perhaps just entering the meat of his career.

A young LeBron James meets Michael Jordan in 2003

A young LeBron James meets Michael Jordan in 2003
(David Liam Kyle/NBAE)

James has averaged 27.6 points, 7.3 rebounds, 6.9 assists, shot 49 percent from the field and 40.6 percent on 3-pointers for his career.  Jordan’s numbers were 28.3 points, 5.9 rebounds, 4.9 assists, 49.7 from the field and 32.7 on 3s. Jordan was a lockdown perimeter defender in his day and James is an elite defender at four positions. James is bigger, stronger, much more of a brute force than Jordan, but still can soar with a jaw-dropping 40-inch vertical leap. Jordan was the long, rangy, sinewy embodiment of the ultimate basketball player. James is an athletic anomaly, a virtual tank with the speed of a motorcycle.

As much as the anti-LeBron crowd will protest, it is probably already down to just a three-man debate. And, if you set aside Chamberlain’s gargantuan feats in terms of sheer numbers and records set from a long ago era as too far off the charts to even compare, it comes down to James and Jordan.

Jordan clearly has the edge in the ability to simply pile up points, get buckets when they’re needed. But the analytics crowd will tell you that today’s game is about being able to do more than score. James is the better passer, rebounder, has deeper range and can defend more places on the court.

Jordan dragged his teammates along to championships with the sheer force of his talent and his will. James plays a style that actually makes his teammates better.

On the all-time list of PER, Jordan sits at No. 1 with a career 27.91 rating. James is second at 27.65 and closing.

Want more numbers? How about the Cavaliers winning three out of every four games (61-21) with James in 2009-10 and then losing three of every four (19-63) the next year without him. That’s having an impact.

For all the credit he gets raising his performance for the Heat in back-to-back title drives over the past two seasons, it may have been James lifting an otherwise anemic Cavs roster onto his shoulders and carrying them to the 2007 NBA Finals that was most Herculean.

“Jordan was never able to do anything like that with those Bulls teams before [Scottie] Pippen arrived,” said an NBA general manager.

“I would have to say Bryant and Jordan had that same ability to defend from the perimeter spots, score and make plays from that position, but they never put up the assist numbers that he has,” said Dallas Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle. “He’s more of a hybrid-type guy and you don’t normally think of all-time great players as being hybrid-type players. The truth is he’s Magic Johnson, but much faster and much more dynamic athletically. Really all that’s left to be determined is how many championships he’s going to win. That’s an honest assessment.”


VIDEO:
Would LeBron James have been a star in the NBA of the 1990s?

The measure of the G.O.A.T.

If it’s the counting of the rings that matters, then James still trails Jordan’s six and Bryant’s five. But again, he is only 28. At that age Jordan had just one.

And, really, should that be the measure anyway?

“When anybody says you measure guys by rings, that’s a crock of [bleep],” said Robert Horry, who won seven with the Rockets, Lakers and Spurs. “That’s like saying I’m better than Karl Malone, I’m better than Charles Barkley or Patrick Ewing. We all know that ain’t true. You can’t go by that. You can’t measure guys by their rings. It’s just ignorant. Having said that, I don’t exactly think LeBron’s done collecting them yet.”

After settling in comfortably in Miami over the past two years, embracing more of the role of alpha dog and learning to enjoy the responsibility and reap the rewards, it is not hard to envision a more relaxed, more confident James climbing higher.

“The story is how far LeBron has come in the last two years on every level,” said TNT analyst and former Jordan teammate Steve Kerr. “Where he was three years ago with The Decision, his play in the Finals against Dallas, the way he handled the post-game interview after Game 6 and the comments he made? He was really at a low point.

“What he has done the last two years is remarkable. He handles himself with grace and class. He’s elevated his game. He is now a champion, he carries himself like one. I think it’s fantastic to see the resilience, particularly in modern society with what he faces. I love what LeBron has done and I have a ton of respect for him. He’s on his way.”

Perhaps closer already to the top than so many think, or will admit.


VIDEO:
LeBron James’ top 10 plays from 2012-13

Mavericks’ Plans Change At Point Guard

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LAS VEGAS –
The Mavericks have gone from the enviable problem of not having enough minutes after initially making investments in four point guards to possibly opening training camp with only one proven player and a rookie as the lone backup.

summer-league-logoDays after appearing ready to move into 2013-14 with free agent Jose Calderon as the projected starter and two other signees, Devin Harris and Gal Mekel, contesting for reserve minutes with first-round pick Shane Larkin, the Mavericks are down to Calderon and Mekel.

Coach Rick Carlisle said it is too soon to know whether Larkin will be ready for camp after fracturing his right ankle in a final practice before the summer-league opener here. But plans to sign Harris, once the Mavs’ point guard of the future before being traded to acquire Jason Kidd, were tabled after it was learned Harris would need surgery to repair a toe injury. Reports indicated the sides could try again for a reunion when Harris is closer to returning.

“Guys get hurt and they do get better,” Carlisle said. “It’s bad timing for Shane because this would have been a great experience for him, the Vegas summer league. But we’ve got 2 ½ months to get him better and that’s going to be our focus. He had three or four days of practice before he got the injury, so he’s gotten a little taste of it and he’ll be fine because he’s a great athlete.”

The Mavericks also agreed to terms with Monta Ellis and could play him at the point.

Mekel was signed to a three-year deal after spending the last five seasons in Italy and his native Israel, which followed two seasons at Wichita State. The 25-year-old NBA rookie, very good running the pick-and-roll, may immediately step into a prominent role for a team in win-now mode.

“It’s part of the business,” Mekel said. “It’s really bad for Shane. It’s not a simple injury. But it’s part of the business and if I get an opportunity for that, I’ll be ready to step in and take it.”

‘Cap Space’ Isn’t Always What It Seems



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HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS – In some places they are the magic words, the path to a new future and,  hopefully, championship glory somewhere down the line.

Go ahead, say it out loud. “Cap space.”

It’s all people talk about during free agency. Who has it? Who’s trying to get it or at least create a little more? And who is going to have it next summer?

The better question is when you do get it, can you make anything out of it? Because we’ve all learned over the years that cap space isn’t always what it seems, especially when it is misappropriated or even worse yet, unused altogether.

There was an estimated $300-plus million in cap space available across the league on July 1, the day free agency began. With Chris Paul ($107 million with Los Angeles Clippers), Dwight Howard ($88 million from the Houston Rockets) and Josh Smith ($54 million from the Detroit Pistons) chewing up the bulk of that cash, that left some teams flush with cap space scrambling to find an impact player to spend that money on.

The Dallas Mavericks, who struck out on their main targets for the second straight summer, and Atlanta Hawks stand out as the two teams who had their free-agent dreams dashed immediately. Howard choosing the Rockets and Paul deciding to stay with the Clippers days before free agency began, basically the moment Doc Rivers left the Boston Celtics for his new gig as coach and senior vice president of basketball operations for the Clippers, ended any parties before they began.

“That was the game-changer for free agency,” a Western Conference executive said. “The moment Doc made that move, anyone that was trying to find a way to lure CP3 away from the Clippers had to wipe their white board clean and start from scratch. Dwight was a wild card until he made his choice. And those were clearly the top two guys on the market. Once they’re off the board it becomes a free-for-all to get value out of that cap space. Given the circumstances, Houston pulled off a hell of a move by getting Dwight.”

The Hawks are a prime example of a team that spent the better part of the past year preparing to make a splash in free agency this summer only to get here and barely make a ripple.

They came into the process with champagne wishes and caviar dreams, Howard and Paul as a package deal, sporting in excess of $34 million in cap space and four Draft picks. They were fined by the NBA for tampering after mention those two impending free agents by name in a letter to season-ticket holders in June.

Instead of fine dining, the Hawks are trying to salvage their summer by grabbing a quality free agent in Paul Millsap but nothing else that sets off fireworks around the league. In fact, for all the resources the Hawks sported heading into the process, they are not a better team right now than they were when last season ended for them with a first-round playoff loss to the Pacers.

Champagne and caviar plans turned into a quick stop through the drive-thru. Al Horford is still stuck playing center, when his preference and natural position remain power forward. And two of the top players on the market, Smith and restricted free agent point guard Jeff Teague, who has signed a four-year, $32 million offer sheet with the Milwaukee Bucks yesterday, never got so much as a formal offer from the incumbent Hawks.

Two of Hawks general manager Danny Ferry‘s biggest potential assets could walk for essentially nothing, not even a second-round Draft pick. (The Hawks do have two days to match the offer sheet to Teague.) They’ll still have Horford as the face of the franchise and a player to build around, but they won’t be anything close to what they could have been, if all of these resources had been used differently.

Building for a brighter future is always the mantra of teams flush with cap space. And the Hawks, Mavericks, Los Angeles Lakers and other teams that missed out this summer or are scheduled to have cap space a year from now will point to the loaded free agent summer of 2014, when LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony, Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade could all potentially be available. Those teams will also keep an eye on a stout 2014 Draft class that could include Andrew Wiggins, Julius Randle, Jabari Parker, Aaron Gordon, Andrew Harrison, Marcus Smart and several other elite-level prospects.

The disappointment of the summer of 2013 has a silver lining in the daydreaming being done about the summer of 2014, as my main man Fran Blinebury of NBA.com pointed out recently.

But all of those teams need to beware. Cap space isn’t always what it seems … especially when you can’t find a superstar willing to take some of yours.

James Harden And The Good-Luck Beard

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HANG TIME SOUTHWEST – There must be magic in that there beard. As in The Beard: James Harden.

The longer it grows the more magic it weaves.

The Beard’s latest abracadabra act: Luring Dwight Howard to the Houston Rockets, the Western Conference’s newest contender.

Nine months ago there weren’t enough sympathy cards to go around. Sure, Harden got a max-contract from the Rockets, but it came at the emotional expense of the breakup of Oklahoma City’s Three Musketeers, a trio that formed a youthful juggernaut that had one NBA Finals under its belt and had dynasty written all over it, if not for that one little detail called the luxury tax.

So here was Harden, the third amigo to Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, kicked overboard and eagerly scooped up along the Texas Gulf Coast by a team that hadn’t made the playoffs since 2009 and owned one playoff series victory since 1997.

Harden turned his circumstantial bad luck into a personally driven All-Star campaign. He delivered the Rockets back to the playoffs. And during this monumental past week, his presence on the roster was the prime motivator that sealed the decision from this summer’s most-coveted free agent to sign with Houston.

All at once, Harden received a partner-in-crime, an All-Star and three-time Defensive Player of the Year, at the toughest position to fill in the NBA, while wrecking the plans of Houston’s Western Conference rivals the Lakers and Mavericks, while putting that beard-less Thunder on alert for the better part of the next decade.

Let’s take a look at The Beard’s evolution and the good tidings that have followed:

The Pre-Beard Years: Think Harden was born with that thing? No. In fact, in high school in Southern California, Harden’s face was as smooth as a silk pillow. Then Harden signed on to play at Arizona State. It was Game On.

The College Years: First came the remnants of a goatee and then a pencil-thin beard filled in along his jaw line and under his chin. That’s when Harden decided to let it run wild, and so did his game. As a sophomore in 2008-09, the 6-foot-5 guard led the Pac-10 in scoring at 20.8 ppg and shot 50.4 percent from the field. He also averaged 5.4 rebounds, 4.1 assists and 1.7 steals and was named the conference’s player of the year. He led the Sun Devils to consecutive 20-win seasons for the first time since 1981.

The NBA had taken notice, not so much of the beard, which was really still more of a starter’s kit than a full-fledged freak flag. With the third pick in the NBA draft, the Oklahoma City Thunder selected Harden. On draft night, Harden, already styling with a bow tie, wore a thickening beard in the cheeks, but it was nothing more than your run-of-the-mill NBA beard. From that moment, it was Beard on.

The OKC Years: Slowly but surely, Harden’s face became a memory. The Beard took over like an ivy that climbs the brick face of a house only to eventually completely cover it in green, leafy foliage.  Harden trimmed his beard up around the cheek bones, but his neck soon became masked by a mashing of black, wiry whiskers that protruded like a blanket of coal from his chin, angling down and out, a description that did not fit his burgeoning game.

Harden blossomed from 9.9 ppg and 1.8 apg as a rookie to more than 12 and 3 in his second season to nearly 17 and 4 in his third season when he became the league’s top sixth man at just 22 years old. By then, fans were wearing fake beards to games and the beard took on a life of its own, appearing in advertising and marketing gimmicks all over OKC. Harden’s success paralleled the Thunder’s, growing from a first round loss to the Lakers in 2010 to the West finals in 2011 to the NBA Finals in 2012. The Durant-Westbrook-Harden Thunder were the favorite to get back there again in 2013 until late October 2012 when…

…The Beard got traded

The Houston Year(s): This could be a long (really long) and glorious ride. In his first season, Houston fans welcomed The Beard and all its glory to town, and he didn’t disappoint, averaging 25.9 ppg and 5.8 apg in his first season as an NBA starter. He was the toast of All-Star Weekend in his new hometown and he led the Rockets back to the playoffs with visions of greater things to come in the offseason and beyond. Now Harden has Howard and the legend of The Beard completes another chapter.

There’s been no official word whether Rockets general manager Daryl Morey actually rubbed The Beard with his palms for good luck prior to free agency. Maybe he didn’t have to. Maybe simply being in its presence is good enough.

Fearless Cavs Offer Bynum 2-Year Deal


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HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS – From Dion Waiters to Anthony Bennett and now Andrew Bynum, Cleveland Cavaliers general manager Chris Grant is fearless.

In a copycat league, he’s decided to go his own way and usually in dramatic fashion.

We’ve come to expect the unexpected from Grant in the Draft, both Waiters in 2012 and Bennett last month were surprising picks at No. 4 and No. 1 overall, respectively.

Grant doubling down on Bynum in free agency though, with a reported two-year deal that could be worth some $24 million with incentives, pushes the envelope to the brink.

Yes, there is a team option on the second season and plenty of incentives. So Grant has covered himself in ways the Philadelphia 76ers could not when they acquired Bynum in that blockbuster Dwight Howard trade last summer from the Los Angeles Lakers. The fact that they are even entertaining the risk of adding Bynum to a roster that was ravaged by injuries last season (most notably to Kyrie Irving and Anderson Varejao) tells you how desperate the franchise is to rise from the ashes of The Decision and move back into playoff territory.

Grant obviously isn’t alone in his risky business this summer. Bynum has face-to-face meetings scheduled with the Atlanta Hawks and Dallas Mavericks this week, following Monday’s visit to Cleveland. I don’t care if he works out for these teams or not, entertaining the idea of adding him to your team (I don’t care what the price) is an extremely dicey gamble.

Bynum has experienced more highs and lows than your average 25-year-old should-be-dominant low-post monster. He’s got two championship rings, but also has only played more than 65 games just once in his eight seasons in the league. The talent is undeniable. Players his size and with his skill-set are rare.

I’m just not sure that being on the NBA’s endangered species list warrants the sort of pursuit we are seeing. The Mavericks and Hawks are desperate for big man help as well, and they could both use a healthy Bynum in the worst way.

How much are they willing to risk to take that chance?

A colleague and good friend suggested that the risk isn’t as great as some (me) are making it out to be.

“The second year is an option, right?” he wrote. “Makes it less of a gamble if they can drop him next summer and still have space for LeBron [James].”

Yeah, that sounds great until you remember that the Cavaliers cannot continue to play the waiting game year after painful year. After all, they were supposed to win a title or two before LeBron won anything in Miami, a prediction that came crashing down in the worst way.

I’ve heard all of the arguments to the contrary …

What if Bynum’s knees hold up?

What if he reverts back to the form he showed in his final season with the Lakers, when he averaged career bests in points (18.7), rebounds (11.9) and minutes (35.2) to go along with 1.9 blocks?

What if at 25 he’s still got five or six great years left in him, in those knees?

What if? is a loaded phrase lottery teams use to justify off-the-track decisions that usually come back to bite them in the end.

That’s a phrase the Cavaliers should avoid at all costs if they are intent on becoming the playoff team that gambler of a general manager of theirs believes they could be this season.



Projecting The West Playoff Order



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HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS – Adding Dwight Howard to a Los Angeles Lakers team that was one of the top teams in the Western Conference was supposed to vault the Lakers into the championship elite last summer.

It never happened. Howard and Steve Nash failed to move the needle for the Lakers, who had to claw their way to a seventh seed in the playoff chase, only to be swept by the San Antonio Spurs.

So please forgive me for not crowning the Houston Rockets prematurely. They’ve got Howard in the fold now, adding the best big man in basketball to an explosive core that includes All-Star James Harden and a solid supporting cast.

Legitimate playoff outfit?

Absolutely.

But contenders … not so fast my friends.

They should be in the mix. And as coach Kevin McHale told NBA.com’s Fran Blinebury, they should be able to “play with anybody.” Playing with the best and beating the best come playoff time, however, are two very different things. Just ask the Los Angeles Clippers, who thought they had arrived last season and were disposed of in the first round of the playoffs.

We’ve already delivered our projections, based on what we know now, for the Eastern Conference playoff-chasers for the 2013-14 season. These are the projections for the Western Conference:

OKLAHOMA CITY THUNDER

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Any suggestions that the Thunder would be better off without Russell Westbrook at the controls were answered in the playoffs. The Inside The NBA crew (above) knows as well as the rest of the NBA-watching masses. OKC was a shell of its regular-season selves without the All-Star point guard, who suffered a knee injury in their first-round series against Houston. Kevin Durant is a behemoth, the second best player in the league behind LeBron James, but no one superstar is going to climb the Western Conference mountain on his own. The Thunder are in a precarious position because all of their competitors seem to be making power moves to catch and surpass them. Without sufficient cap space to deal themselves, they have to rely on a rock-solid core group maintaining their respective positions. That means Serge Ibaka and Kendrick Perkins have to show better than they did in the playoffs. Reggie Jackson has to play a more prominent role this season and appears to be ready for that. And Jeremy Lamb has to move into a regular spot in the rotation as well. Rookie Steven Adams, the 12th pick in the Draft, is more of a project right now. But the Thunder don’t need him to be an impact player. Not if everyone stays healthy and Westbrook returns to form.

SAN ANTONIO SPURS

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When training camp begins, the Spurs will probably still be answering questions about the championship they let slip away. Two 30-second intervals during Games 6 and 7 of The Finals got away from them and cost Tim Duncan title No. 5 and Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili title No. 4. And make no mistake, that trio, and Duncan in particular, is the key to the Spurs getting back to that stage again. If Duncan can crank out another fountain-of-youth, All-NBA-type performance like he did this season, the Spurs have a shot to rule the Western Conference again. Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green emerged during the playoffs as more than just young prospects. Leonard could be a legitimate All-Star candidate himself if he picks up where he left off in The Finals. The Spurs always find a way to mine the Draft and free agency for young talent to incorporate into their system. But they won’t need as much assistance with both Ginobili and Tiago Splitter sticking around in free agency. Keeping their biggest stars healthy and rested, something coach Gregg Popovich paid for dearly last season, is of the utmost importance. As long as they do that, a top-four spot in the playoff chase should be a given.

LOS ANGELES CLIPPERS

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With all apologies to Howard and even Chris Paul, the biggest fish of the free-agent summer of 2013 was coach Doc Rivers — not one of the players projected to be the big prize. The fact that Rivers was under contract for three more years in Boston when the summer began makes what the Clippers did even more remarkable. Not only do the Clippers get one of the best coaches in the game, they got a senior vice president of basketball operations who paid immediate dividends by keeping Paul in free agency and helped them add J.J. Redick and Jared Dudley in trades. They had to move backup Eric Bledsoe and veteran swingman Caron Butler to make it happen, but they replaced him with Darren Collison. And they still have the key component from that explosive bench crew in Jamal Crawford, whose role could increase dramatically without Butler, Chauncey Billups or retired veteran Grant Hill in the mix. The one glaring issue they have is their frontcourt tandem of Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan. They weren’t up to the challenge against the Grizzlies and it cost the Clippers in a first-round defeat. Are they willing to accept the challenge Doc will pose to them? He won’t allow them to be outworked on defense and will demand they show the toughness that has eluded them in the past.

HOUSTON ROCKETS

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Welcome to paradise Jeremy Lin. Now you can officially put Linsanity behind you and play the role of facilitator. The real superstars are on the roster now, as both Harden and Howard will be the opposition’s focus every night. Lin, Patrick Beverly and Chandler Parsons have clearly defined roles on this team before they ever hit the floor together in an official capacity. Howard makes life easier on all of the Rockets’ specialists and role players, not to mention his fellow starters. Guys like Terrence Jones, Donatas Motiejunas, Greg Smith and even Omer Asik, should he stick around and back off his trade demand, will find out just how different life can be with a healthy, happy and motivated Howard operating in the middle. Despite two straight down seasons (by his own lofty standards), he still led the league in rebounding and looked like he had shaken off the ill effects of his back surgery. McHale has to pull this all together quickly to ensure these young Rockets don’t get swallowed up by the expectations sure to come with their newfound celebrity.

GOLDEN STATE WARRIORS

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Adding Andre Iguodala essentially at the expense of Carl Landry and Jarrett Jack, two key veterans who gave the Warriors superior bench production and quality locker room leadership, might not seem like a steep price to pay for some. But when you already have Klay Thompson and Harrison Barnes on the roster … let’s just say that is a luxury most teams wouldn’t indulge this early in the process of trying to build a contender. The Warriors showed us some serious flashes of being a big-time player in the Western Conference for years to come with the work they did in the playoffs. They had the Spurs plenty nervous in the conference semifinals. But their shortcomings came back to bite them in the end. And they didn’t solve those issues in the Draft or free agency. Andrew Bogut and David Lee will have loads of work to do this season, provided they both make it to training camp. Both of their names surfaced in trade rumors leading up to the Draft and through the first week of free agency. Lee is an All-Star and, when healthy, an absolute force. But Bogut, due to injuries, has only shown glimpses of what he’s capable of. And at this stage of his career, a $14 million spot starter is certainly not a luxury the Warriors can afford.

MEMPHIS GRIZZLIES

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How important was Lionel Hollins to the Grizzlies during their run to the Western Conference finals? We’re going to find out this season. Because for all of the promise Dave Joerger brings to the position, there is no denying the impact Hollins made on Zach Randolph and reigning Kia Defensive Player of the Year Marc Gasol. And even Hollins couldn’t get them in a comfortable groove against the Spurs. The Thunder proved that nothing is guaranteed from one season to the next, not with injuries and the race for the top spot being as competitive as it has ever been in the rugged Western Conference. Bringing this group — Mike Conley, Tony Allen and Tayshaun Prince, too — back intact might not be sufficient for returning to the Larry O’Brien final four tournament. The Grizzlies didn’t have the flexibility to tinker with the roster in free agency. The one change they could have made that could shake things up was to replace Hollins. By doing so with a guy who is familiar with this roster gives them some advantage that a completely fresh face would not have recognized. It won’t take long to see if Joerger has a handle on those intangibles. And if he does, the Grizzlies will climb this list.

DENVER NUGGETS

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The Nuggets will survive a tumultuous offseason that struck three significant blows to a team that seemed to be on the rise before yet another first-round playoff exit. The NBA’s Executive of the Year, Masai Ujiri, bolted for Toronto. The league’s Coach of the Year, George Karl, was relieved of his duties. And Iguodala is set to be signed and traded after agreeing to terms on that deal with the Warriors. That would normally be enough to knock a top team all the way back down to the lottery. The best move they’ve made so far this summer was hiring Brian Shaw to replace Karl. He’ll bring a steady hand to what was a shaky situation. The Nuggets will have an active and talented frontocurt rotation to work with in Kenneth Faried, JaVale McGee, Darrell Arthur and free-agent pickup J.J. Hickson. Wilson Chandler will step in for Danilo Gallinari, who continues his recovery from knee surgery, and Evan Fournier, Corey Brewer and Randy Foye will provide depth on the wing. Ty Lawson and Andre Miller combined to form one of the league’s best 1-2 punches at point guard and they should be allowed plenty of freedom to operate in the system Shaw will employ. The Nuggets will continue to play at a tempo that suits their talent and home environment. They shouldn’t lose anything defensively either. Shaw isn’t the wild card that some of these other new coaches (Jason Kidd, Brad Stevens) could be in other situations. So don’t expect the Nuggets to crumble just because they’ve lost a few familiar faces.

MINNESOTA TIMBERWOLVES

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No team endured more maddening injury issues this season than the Timberwolves. A healthy Kevin Love, however, changes their playoff outlook dramatically for the 2013-14 season. With their talent and dept, a legitimate run for the final playoff spot is not as far-fetched as it might seem. Ricky Rubio should be full healthy this season and the Timberwolves retained Chase Budinger, added Kevin Martin and have to do whatever it takes to keep restricted free agent Nikola Pekovic in the fold. Sure, it’s been a professional sports eternity since the Timberwolves last breathed playoff air (Kevin Garnett was still wearing the uniform in 2004). But coach Rick Adelman finally has the horses to make some serious noise. The franchise’s new head man, Flip Saunders, was the coach of that 2004 team that made the Western Conference finals, so he knows exactly what it takes for a Minnesota crew to cash in on its promise. It starts with Love and Rubio, their two biggest stars, staying healthy and playing up to their immense potential, both individually and as a dynamic duo.

JUST MISSED THE CUT: Dallas Mavericks, Los Angeles Lakers, Portland Trail Blazers

Many Questions Amid Free-Agent Answers

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HANG TIME WEST –
Welcome to Phase 1A, the continuation foul of the first wave of the hectic opening days in free agency, as the Rockets break into the victory dance, the Hawks stay very busy from the Draft through the second week of July and the Nuggets do whatever it is that the Nuggets are doing.

This is still 1A because the first wave is not yet settled, not with deals set to become official on Wednesday and not with the next set of important decisions looming with Andrew Bynum, Brandon Jennings and Monta Ellis at the top of the list. If anything, the first wave was about raising questions moving ahead as it was about resolutions.

Now, for example, what do the Mavericks do at point guard? They went from needing a new start there to getting four. They nabbed Shane Larkin with the No. 18 pick in the June 27 draft and then notched a reported four-year, $29-million deal for Jose Calderon. When Dallas spent another $9 million over three years for a reunion with Devin Harris, and in the wake of luring Gal Mekel from Israel with a three-year contract, the issue quickly went from who has the position for 2013-14 to who gets squeezed out of minutes.

Calderon is the favorite to start. Harris’ defense and experience at shooting guard, and with O.J. Mayo gone from the Mavericks backcourt, makes it easy to envision Calderon and Harris playing together. But Larkin’s speed is a unique dimension that can also be utilized, depending on how well he acclimates to the NBA with the Mavs still in win-now mode.

Shifting to another division…what do the Warriors do for depth? They have a quality top six — Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Andre Igoudala, David Lee, Andrew Bogut, Harrison Barnes — and landing Igoudala while barely touching the core of the 2012-13 roster makes them one of the winners of the summer. But they need more bodies to really be in the conversation as one of the favorites to win the West.

Festus Ezeli, the backup center last season, is expected to be out another five to eight months after knee surgery. Carl Landry, the backup power forward, reached a deal with the Kings. Jarrett Jack, the backup point guard, reached a deal with the Cavaliers. That’s a lot of production to replace, or a lot of pressure on Nemanja Nedovic to go from the No. 30 pick to dependable backcourt reserve, though Golden State also likes the idea of Igoudala with the ball in his hands.

The Warriors will apparently have the benefit of acquiring Igoudala in a sign-and-trade, a technicality that creates flexibility under the salary cap that would not have existed if the deal was an outright signing. This way, they still have the mid-level exception and Traded Player Exceptions.

What becomes of Bismack Biyombo? The Bobcats spent a reported $41 million over three seasons to sign center Al Jefferson, the biggest free-agent deal in team history, after using the fourth pick in the draft on power forward Cody Zeller. That obviously takes minutes from Biyombo, the 2011 project of a lottery pick who needs playing time to have any chance of developing into the game-changer on defense a lot of teams thought two years ago he could become.

Maybe Charlotte sees him strictly as a third big man, and that’s fine. He fits well as a defensive presence with an awkward offensive game playing next to the post scoring of Jefferson or the fluid Zeller. But 2013-14 is the third season for Biyombo, ordinarily make-or-break time for players with a lot to prove. Managing frontcourt minutes will be a storyline to watch for new coach Steve Clifford.

Where does Josh Smith fit with the Pistons? Feel free to answer “he doesn’t.”

Detroit can use the frontcourt scoring – or the scoring, period – but Smith’s undisciplined offense, as several Hawks coaches were unable to change his shot selection, doesn’t help anyone. His shot blocking will help though. The real issue is whether the Pistons will take minutes from promising big men Greg Monroe or Andre Drummond to get Smith minutes at power forward, or whether Smith will play primarily at small forward.

Smith at $56 million over four years is a panic purchase by an organization trying to push back into relevancy. But Drummond, coming off an encouraging rookie season in a reserve role, and Monroe, their power forward and leading scorer, need the minutes, while No. 8 pick Kentavious Caldwell-Pope needs the ball at shooting guard.

Open For Business On Free-Agent Sunday



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HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS – There are still potentially two big fish available in a shrinking free-agent summer pond. And while Sunday saw no concrete offers for either Andrew Bynum or Monta Ellis, the general sentiment is that things could change dramatically at either time for one, if not, both of them.

The Atlanta Hawks and Denver Nuggets are reportedly interested in acquiring Ellis, who can slide into a specific role in either location. The Hawks need to restock their ranks with impact players and Ellis, a legitimate 20-point scorer, could add immediate punch at shooting guard. Denver has a hole to fill where Andre Iguodala worked last season and Ellis could also be a fit there.

The market for Bynum’s services seems to have taken a familiar turn in this wild free-agent summer, and that’s to Texas, where the Dallas Mavericks are looking for a frontcourt anchor to pair with Dirk Nowitzki. They had their sights on Dwight Howard, of course, but since that didn’t work out they’ve had to work down their list. Now Bynum appears to be in their sights, though they are cautious about his knees, as any team would be at this point.

That said, some folks believe a surprise team could win the Bynum sweepstakes.

This one could get really interesting before it’s all over.

Making things even more intriguing is what will happen with incumbent Rockets center Omer Asik, who reportedly wants no part of playing behind Howard and has asked to be traded. The Rockets have no intention of trading him, according to ESPN.com, making for an extremely intriguing next few days for any team desperate for a center.

Free agency is only a week old but there are already tons of wrinkles. As for the other business that went down Sunday, here are some of the highlights:

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