OKLAHOMA CITY –Dwight Howard was roundly criticized for not playing through the pain of a torn labrum in his shoulder earlier in the season. But has the Los Angeles Lakers’ center received fair praise for playing this season from Day One after undergoing back surgery just seven months earlier?
After Wednesday morning’s shootaround in preparation for tonight’s game against the Oklahoma City Thunder (9:30 p.m. ET, TNT), Howard reflected on the surgery and the recovery process.
“Looking back on it I could have sat the whole season until now and started playing now, but I just felt like we have such a great opportunity,” Howard said. “Some of these guys, their windows for winning are very small and I just wanted to get back and try do whatever I can to help this team, knowing that I wasn’t in great shape. My body wasn’t all the way there yet, but I wanted to do whatever I could to help this team win.”
Howard has played in 54 of the Lakers’ 60 games and has averaged 16.1 points and 12.0 rebounds. When he missed games with the shoulder injury, he took criticism for not playing through the pain from all angles, from teammate Kobe Bryant, who would later soften his stance, to TNT analysts Shaquille O’Neal and Charles Barkley.
“Sometimes I have gotten beat up for it, but that’s fine,” Howard said. “I took all those hits and I keep moving. I’ve been doing whatever I can to get back into the shape that I’ve always been into, and it takes a while. The people who watch games, they see me playing so they think that it’s all good, but it’s just a time thing. I’ve got to keep going, keep pushing myself and get better.”
Howard said he’s been told the recovery time from the type of back surgery he had is one year. And in an interesting twist, Howard said he has occasionally texted with former Lakers coach Phil Jackson, who was thought to be on his way back to coach the Lakers when the club fired Mike Brown, and recently told Sports Illustrated that the coach the Lakers hired instead, Mike D’Antoni, has not properly used Howard.
“I’ve asked people who really just helped me out, guys like Phil text me,” Howard said. “He understands how it is to come off back surgery. He just said it takes a full year to recover so you can’t beat yourself up over the things that are happening this year. That’s what I’m trying not to do.”
Howard underwent the surgery last April, which ended his season with the Orlando Magic. He was traded in August to L.A., where he had already been rehabbing his back. He said he was determined to play at the start of the season.
It’s certainly been a rough season, both mentally and physically as the star-studded Lakers fizzled out of the gate under Brown, who was canned after five games. He’s had an icy relationship with Bryant and he quickly became disenchanted with D’Antoni’s offense and his lack of touches on the block.
Things have finally taken a turn for the better over the last month with the Lakers winning 13 of their last 18 games and reaching the .500 mark at 30-30 heading into Wednesday’s measuring stick game against the reigning Western Conference champs.
Howard has looked more agile and explosive in recent games, and he acknowledges that he is only now starting to feel more like himself. He said he’s thought many times throughout the season that he came back too soon, but he said he’s forced those thoughts from his mind.
“I said that plenty of times but I don’t want myself to be thinking so much about what I should have done, what if I would have waited until this time or that time,” Howard said. “I just know the harder I push myself every day to get better every day, to get in shape, my body will respond. And then this summer after the season I get an opportunity to really train and get my body right.”
Now to see if Mike D’Antoni can play backup point guard, because if not, his arrival only solves part of the problem.
In the greatest of truths, the one the Lakers may not confront in the transition of the quick-trigger coaching change and the D’Antoni hire, Mike Brown may not deserve the blame for the 1-4 start. If he does, interim Bernie Bickerstaff deserves Coach of the Year and a lifetime contract to stay on the job for going 2-0. Instant analysis is instant analysis – unless, as is apparent, management had doubts about Brown long before this week amid a new roster and injured stars.
The D’Antoni hiring is encouraging for the Lakers on several fronts. Phil Jackson would have been respected in that locker room like no one else, but D’Antoni is a pretty close second, probably ahead of Brian Shaw, the current Pacers assistant who was the consensus choice among players to succeed Jackson in summer 2011. D’Antoni can handle life under the heat lamp, will play the entertaining style owner Jerry Buss loves, and has a very good relationship with Kobe Bryant, from their Team USA days, and Steve Nash, from their Phoenix days playing Mach I. The rest of the roster will follow.
D’Antoni also brings the one thing Jackson can’t: potential closure on the sideline. If the new guy does well, he will be around a while. Jackson had already left the Lakers twice, once setting fire to the place on his way out the door by holding Bryant up for humiliation and the other time, about 18 months ago, by being relieved when the season ended in playoff embarrassment. Jackson almost certainly wouldn’t stick around for the next generation, after Bryant and Pau Gasol are gone and Dwight Howard is the unquestionable centerpiece. D’Antoni can walk across that bridge.
It’s just that the hire doesn’t come close to ensuring the Lakers are back on the path of clear Western Conference favorites. They’re still not as young and athletic as the Thunder, still not as cohesive and grounded as the Spurs, and still not as deep as the Clippers. Plus, there is no way to know when Nash will be back after missing five of the seven games with a fractured leg and how much time he will need to get into rhythm once he does return.
The bench is the major concern, but then again, it was from the beginning. Each of the four full-time starters – Bryant, Howard, Gasol, Metta World Peace – is averaging at least 34.7 minutes per. Taking Steve Blake, Nash’s replacement at point guard, out of consideration, three reserves were trusted enough to play at least one-fourth of the games: Antawn Jamison, Jordan Hill and Darius Morris.
Morris got there only because he moved up the depth chart, from third-stringer, at the point thanks to the Nash injury. Jamison is at 34.8 percent from the field and averaging 3.7 rebounds in 16.1 minutes. (Hill in 16 minutes: 5.7 boards.) And Brown got so desperate for help behind Bryant at shooting guard that he turned to World Peace, the starting small forward and not exactly known for his dependable offense, or dependable anything, come to think of it.
Jodie Meeks is making 28.6 percent of his attempts overall and 21.4 percent from behind the arc, cutting his playing time down to 10.6 minutes. Maybe Brown didn’t give Meeks time to break out of the slump. Or maybe, just maybe, the guy signed to be the shooting specialist off the bench needs to produce to get the minutes when the coach is dangling and playing for wins now. If the chance comes now but the baskets don’t, at some point it won’t be Brown’s fault anymore.
The second unit was always a primary concern, and it will continue to be until proven otherwise. There is still time, though, for Nash to heal and Meeks and Jamison to improve. The season can be saved, which was always the case as Lakers fans acted as if the ground was opening beneath them. It is still early, at least for everyone except Brown.
HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS – Admit it, you don’t know what to believe.
You don’t know who to believe.
You should be wary of all the unnamed sources being touted these days as the all-knowing on free agency.
Everyone has their theories about what is going to take place come July 1, the start of the NBA’s free agent frenzy, but no one knows for sure — save for LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh and the other players that are neck-deep in these swirling rumors.
After conversations with multiple sources over the weekend, I woke up this morning convinced that James could be headed just about anywhere and he’s taking at least one other marquee free agent with him and possibly a third, depending on where he lands:
– “It’s Chicago or New Jersey,” one Eastern Conference executive told me Saturday afternoon.
– “New York or Miami, he’s a lock for one of those two,” a Western Conference scout said via text Sunday morning.
– “He’s staying home,” an agent not involved with any of this summer’s big name free agents said late Sunday night. “But don’t be surprised if Dallas gets in the mix. They have something crazy cooked up to try and get in the mix.”
– “The Clippers are the upset pick,” a current said via text (without LOL at the end) just moments ago, “they’ve got a team ready to get it, plus LeBron in LA … sick!”
On July 6, 2004, John Paxson and Jerry Reinsdorf met with Kobe Bryant and his agent at a Newport Beach, Calif., hotel and nearly pulled off the unthinkable.
They nearly persuaded him to try to force a sign-and-trade from the Lakers, with Bryant even telling Bulls management he might take a free-agent visit to Chicago three days later.
They also kept their surreptitious courtship of the game’s best player quiet and out of the media for eight days, which Bryant said impressed him as much as the Bulls’ philosophy.
Paxson’s and Reinsdorf’s pitch centered on the organization’s no-nonsense approach under then-coach Scott Skiles, the city of Chicago, a young talent base and a chance for Bryant to follow in the footsteps of his idol, Michael Jordan.
Fast-forward six years.
Multiple Tweets will circulate before the Bulls’ sit-down with LeBron James concludes later this week in Ohio. And various league executives’ and certified agents’ speculation that James and either Chris Bosh or Joe Johnson are definitely signing with the Bulls will prevent this courtship from remaining private.
But coincidentally, management’s pitch to James will be eerily similar to that for Bryant six years ago. Change Skiles’ name to Tom Thibodeau. Substitute Derrick Rose and Joakim Noah for Ben Gordon and Andres Nocioni.
The city and Jordan’s legacy remains the same.
“To get to where we did (with Bryant) was good for us as an organization,” Paxson told the Tribune in July 2004. “It reinforces to me and to Scott Skiles that things we’re trying to accomplish are meaningful. I think we’re headed in the right direction as far as our philosophy.”
What also make sense, is the flurry of backup plans that are now being floated for several teams (most notably the Knicks). If you’re not going to get your hands on James or Wade, and there are at least a half-dozen teams that will leave this derby without either one of them, you better have someone else in mind:
THE KNICKS ALREADY HAVE A PLAN B: JOE JOHNSON AND AMAR’E STOUDEMIRE
Marc Berman of the New York Post: Johnson, who struggled during two rounds of the playoffs, has long been a D’Antoni favorite and the thinking is a Johnson/James pairing is just as much a home run as James/Chris Bosh. The Knicks may have gotten vibes Bosh is likelier to consider Miami.
If the Knicks strike out with both James and Bosh, D’Antoni also is excited about linking Johnson and Stoudemire with cap room to offer them two maximum contracts. Both are former Suns who played for him in Phoenix.
If Johnson leaves Atlanta, it’s been speculated for months Johnson would want to reunite with D’Antoni. Factor in Tellem, who is close to Walsh and the agent of Danilo Gallinari.
Johnson-Stoudemire always has seemed a likelier pairing than either James-Bosh. But they may need to work out sign-and-trades with Atlanta and Phoenix, respectively.
During February’s All-Star weekend in Dallas, Johnson told The Post, “[Mike and I] have got a great relationship. He gave me a chance to shine and become the player I am today. I love him, so I would visit.”
The status of Stoudemire is more perplexing. He played for D’Antoni, but rumblings are he grumbled behind the coach’s back about the Suns’ defensive shortcomings. Stoudemire spent part of his childhood growing up in upstate Newburgh and has a definite affection for New York, according to a source. However, a source said the extra year Phoenix can provide is huge in Stoudemire’s thinking.
NOT SO FAST MY FRIENDS
Not everyone is willing to concede Johnson’s departure from Atlanta.
“I haven’t talked to him about that, but I think he’ll stay,” Horford said Monday in Singapore, where he’s part of a group of NBA players and coaches conducting a basketball clinic. “The team’s number one priority is trying to get Joe back with us.”
Johnson, a four-time All-Star who averaged 21.3 points a game last season, had a poor performance in the Hawks’ second round playoff loss to the Orlando Magic. Atlanta fired head coach Mike Woodson after the season and hired assistant Larry Drew earlier this month to replace him.
Horford said bad relations among players undermined the team’s play and led to the playoff debacle, where the Magic beat the Hawks by an average of 25.3 points in the most lopsided four-game sweep in NBA history.
Orlando later lost to the Boston Celtics, who were defeated by the two-time defending champion Los Angeles Lakers.
“It was players maybe not getting along with other players, and I think that showed on the court,” Horford said. “We weren’t playing together, we weren’t doing things as a team. I really felt like the chemistry kind of disappeared. I don’t think everyone was committed to the right things and to winning.”
Sure, the Hawks had their issues during the playoffs, but they did win 53 games, advance to the conference semifinals for the second straight season and they retain a nucleus capable of competing with the best teams in the Eastern Conference, provided Johnson sticks around.
LEBRON’S LOYALTY TESTED?
We realize it’s sinister to feel this way, but we’re just as interested to see where these free agents land as we are to see where they do not end up.
Can you imagine the shock to the system that will come in New York and Cleveland if James does indeed to sign elsewhere? Knicks fans are supposed to be satisfied with someone other than James after spending the last two years dreaming day and night about what he’d look like in a Knicks uniform?
And those fans in Cleveland, ugh, they’ll have a LeBron hangover for years to come if he bolts. It won’t take long for the locals to turn their venom on the hometown kid and the team that extracts him from the area.
It’s a mad, mad NBA world when the Chicago Bulls become the celebrated star of draft night for dumping the salary of Kirk Hinrich, one of their better players.
LeBron James would only add to the madness if he rewards fawning overtures from underachievers by punishing the Cavaliers for going all out to bring a championship to town.
Leaving is James’ right through free agency. That doesn’t make it any less unseemly if he decides to go elsewhere on the basis that another team has more roster flexibility and a younger talent pool to build a title contender.
Gee, wonder how that happened? How did the Cavs get so far over the cap, so handcuffed in comparison to Chicago, Miami, the Knicks and the Nets?
A mystery it is, but only if he conveniently forgets they tried to win a title in the three years James gave them when he signed his contract extension.
James kept ownership on high alert by shortening his term of employment last time around. Good business, it was. At least for him. For the Cavs, it was a dangerous game of Russian Roulette in which the contracts of Mo Williams and Antawn Jamison became extra bullets in the chamber.
After the first playoff crash against Boston a few years back, James cried out for more help. The Cavs couldn’t chance that again. So they signed Shaquille O’Neal a season too late. They took on Jamison’s contract, then watched him and Williams slip out of view in the postseason.
(Of course, James did, too, in Game 5. If he’s who he says he is, he doesn’t leave like that. End of story)
Meanwhile, the Bulls have only occasionally been worth the price of admission since Michael Jordan’s retirement. That’s 12 years ago now. There’s a reason they were in position to draft Derrick Rose and Joakim Noah.
This season they won 41 games and finished 20 games behind the Cavs. They fired their coach and hired a rookie in Tom Thibodeau from Boston. And now, they’re the sexy option, the one given a serious chance to catch James’ eye when the free agent equivalent of “The Bachelor” begins Thursday?
As exciting a time as this is for so many, and even a mediocre free agent class adds some spice to the summer, it’s going to end ugly for twice as many other teams and their fans.
That’s what happens when the smoke signals continue to rise like this, day after agonizing day.