Posts Tagged ‘Sixers’

Money Talks, Asik Doesn’t Walk

Omer Asik's "poison pill" contract may have backfired on Houston (Bill Baptist/NBAE)

The “poison pill” in Omer Asik’s contract may have backfired on Houston. (Bill Baptist/NBAE)

HOUSTON — Follow the money. It’s an adage that’s been around as long as Deep Throat whispering to Bob Woodward in a garage.

The Rockets’ efforts to trade discontented center Omer Asik by their self-imposed deadline this week have ended in large part because other teams are leery of the structure of the Turkish 7-footer’s contract and the cash payments due. As a result, even though the official NBA trade deadline is not until Feb. 20, a league source said Asik could wind up staying in Houston for the length of his deal.

Asik signed a three-year, $25 million contract with the Rockets in the summer of 2012, which included a so-called “poison pill” final season salary of $15 million that was put in place to discourage his previous team, the Bulls, from matching the offer. Even though the money can be spread out evenly over the deal and applied to the salary cap at $8.3 million in the 2014-15 season, many of Houston’s would-be trade partners balked at laying out so much cash for a 25-30 minute per game player.

Asik averaged 10.1 points and 11.7 rebounds while starting all 82 games for the Rockets last season. But he has repeatedly asked to be traded ever since the club signed free-agent center Dwight Howard in July. Coach Kevin McHale tried Howard and Asik together as a Twin Towers combination in the starting lineup to open the season, but pulled the plug on the experiment after eight games when there was little chemistry or effectiveness at both ends of the court.

After Asik begged off playing on Nov. 14 at New York and then repeated his trade request, Rockets general manager Daryl Morey stepped up his efforts to make a deal, talking at times to the Sixers, Celtics, Hawks, Bucks, Cavaliers and others. A deal that would have brought Brandon Bass, Courtney Lee and a draft pick to Houston was discussed more than a week ago and rejected by the Rockets.

Evidently, the more that Morey pressed to move Asik, the more other teams expressed their reticence and began to lower their offers.

A hint that no deal was forthcoming may have come from McHale both before and after Wednesday night’s 109-94 win at home over the Bulls. On two different occasions, the head coach made reference to “when Omer gets back.” Asik has been sidelined since Dec. 2 with a severely bruised thigh that eventually caused a fluid build-up around his knee.

The Rockets would like nothing more than for Asik to accept his role as Howard’s backup, giving them a chance to keep a good rim protector on the court at all times. However, that will require a significant attitude adjustment by the 7-footer who has pouted openly and made no secret of his desire to go to a team where he could be a full-time starter.

There is nothing to stop Morey from continuing to peddle Asik around the league. And the market could percolate as the Feb. 20 trade deadline approaches. But it is that clever contract with the $15 million final year payout that landed him with the Rockets that could keep them stuck with him.

Rockets Weigh Final Bids For Asik

Chicago Bulls v Houston Rockets

Wednesday night could have been Omer Asik’s last game as a member of the Houston Rockets.

HOUSTON — Omer Asik spent what figured to be his last night as a Rocket once again in street clothes, looking dapper and rested at the end of the bench. When a 109-94 whipping of the Bulls was complete, he was the first one out of the locker room, hugged a few friends on his way out the door and had nothing to say.

All of the action was taking place behind the closed doors of the front office as auctioneer Daryl Morey weighed the offers for the discontented center ahead of his self-imposed Thursday deadline.

The rumor mill had the Celtics as the frontrunners to land the 7-footer with an offer of Brandon Bass, Courtney Lee and a first-round draft pick, a deal first reported by Yahoo! Sports. The teams were said to be haggling over the draft pick, which would be protected to some degree in the 2014 lottery.

Such a trade would fulfill Morey’s desire to get a backup center, a shooter and a draft pick. However, Steve Bulpett of the Boston Herald wrote that Celtics president Danny Ainge made that offer a week ago, but was turned down at the time by Morey.

The Rockets general manager sent word out around the league on Dec. 6 that he would entertain offers for Asik and choose the package he liked best by Dec. 19, the last date that any players obtained are eligible to be dealt again by the Feb. 20 trade deadline. Since that time, Morey had talked with many clubs, including the Sixers, Cavaliers and Hawks. The Knicks and Trail Blazers were also said to have expressed interest.

Asik has been sidelined for more than two weeks with a thigh injury that eventually caused swelling around his knee.

With Paul Millsap the ideal acquisition for the Rockets to put on their front line next to Dwight Howard, it was interesting to note that Morey began following the Atlanta forward’s official Twitter page — @paulmillsap4 — a short time before the Rockets tipped off against the Bulls on Wednesday night. It is certainly not out of the question that the social media conscious Morey was just having fun dropping a red herring.

If the deal with the Celtics should prove to have legs, it would reunite Howard and Bass, who played together for two seasons in Orlando. At just 6-foot-8, Bass would certainly be an under-sized backup for Howard. He does not have range out to the 3-point line that the Rockets crave, but can knock down mid-range shots to open things for Howard around the basket.

The Celtics could perhaps sweeten their offer by substituting forward Jeff Green for Bass. But Green’s contract, which has two more seasons at $18.4 million due, is not the kind that would normally appeal to Morey, who values keeping salary cap flexibility for his next deal, which is always just around the corner.

Curiously, both before and after the game coach Kevin McHale made references to “when Omer gets back.”

But as the 7-footer headed for the tunnel exit from Toyota Center, there was little reason to think that he’d ever return as a Rocket.

Countdown On Asik Deal Continues

Omer Asik (Bill Baptist/NBAE)

Omer Asik (Bill Baptist/NBAE)

HANG TIME, TEXAS — If all goes according to plan, Omer Asik’s time in limbo should end soon as the Rockets sift through final offers for the disgruntled big man. The team has reportedly set a self-imposed deadline of Thursday.

According to various reports and different sources, the most likely places for the 27-year-old center to wind up in are Boston, Philadelphia, Cleveland or Atlanta, with the Knicks making a late and outside bid to get into the mix.

Asik — who had a breakout year as a starter a year ago averaging 10.1 points and 11.7 rebounds– has wanted out of since the moment that Dwight Howard chose Houston in July and the Rockets have been looking to move him since coach Kevin McHale’s experiment with a Twin Towers type lineup ended on Nov. 13.

General manager Daryl Morey spread the word that he would entertain offers from Dec. 15-19 and make his choice. The reason for that narrow window is that Dec. 15 was the first date that players acquired during the offseason were eligible to be traded. Dec. 19 is the last date that any players obtained by the Rockets would be able to be dealt again at the Feb. 20 trade deadline.

Reports have had the Rockets seeking everything from a pair of first-round draft picks to forward Jeff Green of the Celtics to forward Paul Millsap of the Hawks.

Millsap is believed in many circles to be the Rockets’ No. 1 target, a perfect fit to play next to Howard on the front line. But the Hawks may be reluctant to surrender a high-return player after they just signed Millsap over the summer to a salary cap-friendly two-year deal for $19 million.

Discussions of Asik going to the Cavaliers for Anderson Varejao have supposedly cooled in recent days with Cleveland not warm to the idea of paying Asik’s $15-million salary next season.

The top two suitors could be the Celtics and the Sixers. That could produce a three-way deal.

According to ESPN’s Marc Stein, the Celtics have entered the names of Green and Brandon Bass into discussions. The Sixers’ most likely to be traded are Thaddeus Young, Spencer Hawes and Evan Turner.

While Green is averaging more than 16 points and four rebounds a game for Boston, the 12-14 Celtics, despite leading the Atlantic Division, are in a rebuilding mode. It wouldn’t hurt to unload a contract that still has $18.4 million due through 2016. If Hawes makes his way to Houston, he could come off the bench at center and also be valuable to the Rockets as a “stretch-four” with his ability to shoot from the perimeter.

Sources around the league have indicated the Rockets would be willing to include point guard Jeremy Lin in any trade. But the fact that he is due virtually the same $15 million pay as Asik next season is a heavy burden for any one team to absorb. That would probably mean a three-team deal to make it happen.

However, if the Rockets were able to move both Asik and Lin and take back only expiring contracts and draft choices, it is possible they could have enough salary cap space to offer another max-level contract to a free agent next summer.

It’s Never Too Early To Make A Move


VIDEO: Jameer Nelson talks about sharing the backcourt with Victor Oladipo

The season isn’t even a month old, but there are some places where things are clearly not working and it’s already time for a change. Here are a handful of names that could or should be on the move:

Omer Asik, Rockets — At this point, he should have a moving van at the front door and his luggage packed. It’s only a matter of time before last year’s flavor of the season gets his wish and a ticket out of Houston. Despite his workmanlike double-double consistency in 2012-13, there’s no faulting the Rockets for leaping at the chance to upgrade to Dwight Howard. The twin towers experiment didn’t work. Asik is unlikely to be happy playing just the spare minutes available as a backup and it only makes sense to get the kind of piece missing — rugged, bruising big man or stretch 4 — that can be a more comfortable fit at both ends of the floor. It also wouldn’t hurt to unload that $15 million due next season to Asik. There are any number of places that Asik could help right away. New York and New Orleans immediately come to mind. GM Daryl Morey is in no rush and will pull the trigger when he’s ready on the right deal.

Jameer Nelson, Magic — The handwriting has been on the wall since the Magic made Victor Oladipo the No. 2 pick in the 2013 draft and promptly announced going into summer league play that he would get a run at point guard. That message might as well have been spray-painted in Day-Glo orange on Saturday night when coach Jacque Vaughn removed the veteran Nelson from a winnable game against Dallas and let the rookie run the offense all the way to the end of a 108-100 loss. Oladipo, as uncomfortable as he may often look at the point, is the future of the franchise along with all of the other young parts. In a season when the Magic don’t really expect to win many games, it only makes sense to move Nelson and make the full-time commitment to the rookie. The fact that the $8 million on Nelson’s contract next season is a team option will only make him easier to move for another future asset.

Danny Granger, Pacers — The fact that Granger has not yet come back from a calf injury more than three weeks into the season hasn’t stopped the Pacers from running out to their league-best 10-1 record, which matches the Spurs. In fact, it could mean that coach Frank Vogel will have to disrupt the humming of a well-oiled machine when he eventually has to find the minutes and shots that Granger will surely want when he’s back in the lineup. Can he really afford to give up a single possession by MVP candidate Paul George? Lance Stephenson has fit quite well into the starting lineup. The Pacers pushed the Heat to Game 7 of the Eastern Conference finals without Granger last spring. By moving his desirable expiring contract they could add another valuable piece to the bench.

Thaddeus Young, 76ers — The long, versatile forward does not shoot well from behind the 3-point line, but does so many other things that make him desirable and valuable on the court. Considering the fact that the Sixers are still several years away under GM Sam Hinkie’s total reconstruction program, it doesn’t make sense to keep Young around for another $19 million over the next two seasons. Hinkie would probably like to get rid of Evan Turner first, but Young is the player that other clubs are most interested in and could bring in return the kind of asset that Philly wants and needs for the future.

Anybody But DeMarcus Cousins, Ben McLemore, Kings — It might be time to set up the folding tables and the hand drawn price tags in the parking lot at Sleep Train Arena and hold a flea market to clean out the locker room. As Scott Howard-Cooper pointed out, the Kings have already benched Marcus Thornton, John Salmons and Patrick Patterson and are ready to make a full-time commitment to the future by sweeping the locker room clean. Cousins may have his own baggage, but he is putting up solid numbers of 21.5 points and 9.9 rebounds per game. Despite all of the optimism that the “saved in Sacramento” Kings brought into this season under new coach Michael Malone, losing seven of their first nine games delivered a heavy dose of reality.


VIDEO:
Danny Granger speaks on Nov. 13 about progress with injury

Money Can’t Buy Happiness (Or Wins)


VIDEO: A. Sherrod Blakely discusses Boston’s solid start to the season

HANG TIME SOUTHWEST – Fast starts by teams expected to struggle combined with awkwardly slow starts by teams expected to excel have turned the NBA standings upside-down.

Several of the league’s gold-plated outfits like the Nets, Knicks and Lakers are looking up at .500, while intentionally low-budget operations like the Suns and Sixers sit at or darn near the top of their respective divisions, at least here in the opening two weeks.

It’s all the more interesting when looking at this stage of the collective bargaining agreement. Ratified in December 2011, the CBA ushered in a new era of increased luxury tax penalties and the so-called repeater tax, deterrents designed to curb overspending and promote a level financial playing field across market sizes.

This is the third season under the new rules, but the first with the harsher luxury tax penalties in play — graduated tax hikes as opposed to the old dollar-for-dollar rate. We’ve seen numerous teams adjust how they spend to construct rosters that fall below the league’s luxury tax threshold ($71.7 million this season), to, one, avoid paying a tax and, two, to prevent the clock from starting on (or adding to) the repeater tax, which hammers a franchise with a hefty fine for crossing the luxury tax threshold in any four out of five seasons.

So this season we’re at something of a CBA crossroads. There are a handful of teams that have stripped their rosters to bare-bones salary levels (Sixers, Suns, Jazz) to clear out cap space for summer free-agent spending (and OK, maybe even better their chances for a high 2014 Draft pick). There are a few teams that are well into the luxury tax and are essentially locked there until large contracts expire (Lakers, Bulls, sort of the Knicks). And then there is the Brooklyn Nets, the one team that continues to pile on the payroll. Everybody else has pretty well adjusted and falls between the salary cap ($58.7 million) and the luxury tax threshold.

The Nets’ payroll is a stunning $102.2 million. It will ring up a tax bill around $85 million, a league record and larger than the total payroll of all but likely two teams — its own and its Big Apple neighbor, the Knicks ($87.9 million). The Suns’ payroll ranks 29th in the 30-team league at about $53 million, and the Sixers are last at about $40 million, actually well below the league’s minimum cap figure that was instituted in the CBA.

But as is often the case, it’s not always the highest rollers who finish first.

With that, let’s look at how the NBA conference standings (through Wednesday’s games) stack up — payroll vs. actual winning percentage (all team salaries are courtesy of ShamSports.com):

Rank East team payroll rank East team win pct. (through Nov. 13) West team payroll rank West team win pct. (through Nov. 13)
No. 1 Brooklyn Indiana L.A. Lakers San Antonio
No. 2 New York Miami L.A. Clippers Portland
No. 3 Miami Philadelphia Oklahoma City Oklahoma City
No. 4 Boston Atlanta Memphis L.A. Clippers
No. 5 Washington Charlotte Golden State Minnesota
No. 6 Toronto Chicago Denver Phoenix
No. 7 Toronto Toronto Dallas Golden State
No. 8 Indiana Boston Minnesota Dallas
No. 9 Detroit Orlando New Orleans Houston
No. 10 Cleveland New York Houston Denver
No. 11 Charlotte Cleveland Portland L.A. Lakers
No. 12 Orlando Detroit San Antonio Memphis
No. 13 Milwaukee Milwaukee Sacramento New Orleans
No. 14 Atlanta Brooklyn Utah Sacramento
No. 15 Philadelphia Washington Phoenix Utah

Never Too Soon For Snap Judgments


VIDEO: Sixers begin season with strong start

 

So what if we’ll have to skip the clocks ahead again before we even finish the long grind of the regular season? Does it really matter that it will take more than seven months for somebody to hoist the Larry O’Brien Trophy? It’s never too soon to leap to conclusions about what we know — or think we know — one week into the 2013-14 regular season.

Heat – Nobody this side of Miley Cyrus gets more scrutiny, criticism and hyperventilating overreaction than the two-time defending champs. LeBron James and Dwayne Wade already have to talk over the alarm bells, trying to put out the fires of two losses in their first three games. They still have the best player in the game, still have a more than capable No. 2 man if he stays healthy and still will be the team to beat when the playoffs begin in April. That won’t stop the sky from falling on nearly a weekly basis. But you still want to pick them for next June.

Clippers – So much for the closing down of Lob City by the new mayor Doc Rivers. Chris Paul and Blake Griffin are still running free and easy with the top-rated offense in the league (119.5), but we’re going to have to see more out of DeAndre Jordan and that unicorn defense before we consider the Clips to be true playoff contenders in the West.

Derrick Rose — The Bulls’ star will be right behind the Heat with the Chicken Little crowd that will fret and worry and complain with every missed shot and turnover. He’ll have the most scrutinized repaired leg in the league until Kobe Bryant returns. The good news is that Rose hasn’t shown any ill effects from the knee surgery and it’s only a matter of time until he regains the stroke and the confidence that make him an MVP candidate and Chicago a threat to push Miami and Indiana in the playoffs.

Advantage Howard – The 2-2 Lakers might be saying they’re having fun without the 6-foot-11 distraction, but Dwight Howard is healthy and living up to all expectations in Houston as both an inside force (15 rebounds per game) and solid veteran presence in the Rockets locker room. No longer suffering from back and shoulder problems, Howard is playing joyfully and stress-free for the first time in three seasons. He’s been accepting of instruction from coach Kevin McHale, willing to move out to guard power forwards as part of the twin towers tandem experiment with Omer Asik, and has the Rockets on track to their stated goal of getting home-court advantage in the West playoffs, at the very least.

Lakers – If they were in a swimming pool, the Lakers would be wearing an orange life jacket and just trying to bob their heads above the water line. It’s a two-part season that’s B.K. and A.K. — Before Kobe and After Kobe – and things just don’t look good for the long haul with Steve Nash struggling badly and a bench that provides as much real support as a, well, bench.

Sixers – Other than LeBron and Wade declaring that they were taking the season off to visit an ashram to find inner peace, could there have been a more shocking start to the season than a 3-0 start in always sunny Philadelphia? Michael Carter-Williams, Eastern Conference Player of the Week, is the real deal. But the Warriors proved Monday that the Sixers will eventually settle down to their real level in the Andrew Wiggins Derby, especially after GM Sam Hinkie possibly parlays the quick starts by Evan Turner, Spencer Hawes and maybe Thaddeus Young into deals for more draft picks.

Thunder – OK, everybody kicks five bucks into the pot and the winner is the person who picks the exact time — day, hour, minute and seconds — when some knucklehead rips Russell Westbrook for being the kind of bad/selfish teammate that will never help Kevin Durant win a championship. The truth is, since GM Sam Presti’s benevolent giveaway of James Harden to Houston, Westbrook is Durant’s only chance of getting back to The Finals. No more Memphis getting past half a Thunder team. No more avoiding the toughest challenge in the West, Spurs. Yes, Durant is OKC’s best player. But Westbrook, healthy and with a chip on his shoulder, is the hard edge on the court.

Wizards – How many times can we wait on the revamped Wizards to have that bust-out season that propels them back into the playoff picture in the East? John Wall is fine, Trevor Ariza is averaging a double-double, they have a healthy center in Marcin Gortat and yet Washington is still 0-3 with a defense that is simply dreadful. Coach Randy Wittman still leads the race for first coach fired.

Warriors – They’re like the magician that has your eyes glued to his pretty assistant in the skimpy outfit that is their high octane, high scoring offense, while coach Mark Jackson’s team really wants to pull rabbits out of their hats with a defense that will get in your face and get after it. Andre Iguodala couldn’t have been a better fit if he’d been sewn into the lineup by a British tailor.

Love Is All You Need – Well, it would certainly help to have Ricky Rubio, Nikola Pekovic and the rest of the star-crossed Timberwolves remain ambulatory through the 82-game schedule. But if there were a Comeback Player of the Year Award for the first week of the season, it would have to go to Kevin Love, who’s been nothing short of a beast scoring and rebounding. This is why it was never rash to envision the Timberwolves Western Conference playoffs the past two seasons. If Love stays healthy, they make it even in a crowded race.

Nets – While losing two of their first three was seen as a sign of the apocalypse in Miami, that trendy, high-priced collection of talent in Brooklyn might be the real candidate for being oversold as championship contenders, a win over the Heat notwithstanding. It still remains to be seen if Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce can continue to produce like their old selves as they become older selves. In the end, it will all come down to whether Deron Williams can get himself back among the elite level of point guards. So far, the shot just isn’t falling.

Knicks – Like the buzz over Gangnam Style and Zero Dark Thirty, Carmelo Anthony and his friends are just so last year. In fact, since their blazing start out of the gate in 2012-13, the Knicks have been positively mediocre and there is no indication that things will change soon. They were laughably “all-in” for a championship run last season, came up way short and now the brightest news is Melo saying he’d like to retire as a Knick. Perfect. Looks like a lot of them already have.

Anthony Davis – The No. 1 pick from the 2012 draft has positively exploded with his growth in the league, almost doubling his scoring from 13.5 to 23.7 ppg, bumping rebounds up from 8.2 to 12.3 and blocks from 1.8 to 4.0. This the Davis who had everyone drooling over his potential at Kentucky and makes the Pelicans a fun stop when flipping channels on League Pass. Now, if only coach Monty Williams could find a way to put some zip into an offense that is only mediocre because they play at such a horridly slow pace in an up-tempo league.

Pacers — Let the Nets spend all the money, the Knicks suck up all the oxygen with talk of Melo’s free agent destination and the Bulls ride the frenzy around every peak and valley in Rose’s return. Meanwhile in the heartland, Paul George keeps getting better, Lance Stephenson keeps learning about consistency, coach Frank Vogel keeps cranking up the intensity on the league’s best defense and the Pacers happily keep playing in the shadows as the real top threat to Miami in the East.

 


VIDEO: The Beat crew talks about Westbrook’s swift return

Only Time Will Get Rose To Full Bloom

VIDEO: Derrick Rose talks about his long road back to the Bulls

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HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS — Can we finally get all those people who climbed on Derrick Rose’s back to play last spring to admit they were wrong, wrong, wrong?

This was the guy who was supposed to risk his MVP career on a surgically repaired left knee to go out and lift the Bulls up, up, up and over the Heat?

This guy who, six months later, has made 15 of his 52 shots (28.8 percent), turned the ball over 17 times, dealt just 13 assists and grabbed only 11 rebounds in three games? This guy who couldn’t keep up with rookie Michael Carter-Williams’ drives to the hoop?

The Bulls are now 1-2 after falling to the indomitable Sixers and, as noted by Nick Friedell of ESPNChicago, the All-Star is taking responsibility:

“If it was up to me, I would blame tonight on me,” Rose said after shooting 4-for-14 with eight turnovers in Philly. “Turnovers, missed shots, missed communication on defense — I just can’t wait to get in my groove. But I can’t hang my head; I know I’ve worked too hard for that, so it’s going to come.”

That’s just the point. The old Rose is going to come, eventually. Now some of those who were so foolishly prodding him to get back on the floor late last season when he did not yet have full confidence in his knee are complaining that Rose could have gotten the “rust knocked off” six months ago, and now would be in full bloom again.

It simply doesn’t work that way. Those who sit at home and watch on TV or even those who plunk down big money for the expensive seats have little understanding what it takes to overcome a major injury/surgery. Then, an Adrian Peterson pulls off a virtually unprecedented feat in the NFL last season and the bar is suddenly raised for everyone.

“Amnesia,” Rose said of his mindset, noting that the season is just three games old. “I have games like this. [I'm] coming off a big surgery or whatever, but all I can do is get the most out of every practice, every shootaround, every shooting session, and go out there and play, but it’s going to come to me.”

It is certainly admirable, and perhaps expected from what we know of his personality, that 35-year-old Kobe Bryant vows to push the limits of credulity and his body in getting back into the Lakers lineup sooner than most anyone thought possible. However, Kobe is Kobe and only time will tell if can live up to his own always high expectations.

Rose’s struggles now only prove that he made the right decision back then.

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.

Iverson: The Uncomfortable Answer

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HANG TIME, Texas – He stood there at mid-court cradling the Most Valuable Player trophy and the transformation was complete.

Not quite a caterpillar turning into a butterfly, because Allen Iverson never would be described as something so light and delicate. But just as dramatic and, maybe, just as natural.

It was as jarring a sight that night at the 2001 NBA All-Star Game in Washington, D.C., perhaps, as seeing Mike Tyson in a set of tights with the Bolshoi Ballet or having the chiseled visage of Richard Nixon join the great ones high up on Mt. Rushmore.

Yet this was the way it had to be if his game, his league, his sport was to have continued hope to grow and flourish. For 14 seasons, people said Iverson was the changing face of the league — and that was not always meant in a good way.

But tattoos are only skin deep. Hairstyles change and grow, just like people.

The recent news that Iverson planned to announce his official retirement brought back a sudden rush of so many memories of the will-o’-the-wisp guard who broke ankles, broke protocol and broke the mold of what a little man could do.

He was Rookie of the Year (1997), MVP (2001), a four-time scoring champion, three-time steals leader, three-time All-NBA First Team member and twice was given the top prize at the All-Star Game. The first time, the award came for his performance in the nation’s capital when Iverson showed that behind the hip-hop persona of a modern player was an old-fashioned pro who simply lived and loved to compete.

The player whose reputation would a year later become eternally stamped by a rant about “Practice!?” was the ultimate gamer who brought the Eastern Conference from 21 points down in the fourth quarter of an exhibition game because, well, if you’re gonna play, you might as well try to win.

Iverson’s style was always far less an artistic display and much more a competitive exercise, as if there was something to prove. And there was. The guy who had been called “Me-Myself-and-Iverson” spent much of his career, as he’s spent most of his troubled life, listening to people doubt not only his motives, but what’s inside his heart.

He came into the league wearing tattoos and cornrows and bandanas and traveling with his posse. He put himself into the center of a storm with his caught-on-national-TV microphones slur about sexual preference to a heckling fan in Indiana.

Iverson was as far removed image-wise as one could get and still live on the same planet as two of the three players who preceded him in winning his first All-Star MVP trophy — the quietly purposeful Tim Duncan and the regal Michael Jordan.

He was the foam on the front of the new wave.

“I’m one of them,” Iverson said, “but I’m also me.”

For just over a decade that’s who the demanding, discriminating Philadelphia fans got to see: the fearless competitor, the tough nut that wouldn’t crack, the lump of coal that used the intense pressure to transform himself into a diamond.

A few months later, Iverson would willfully, sometimes it seemed singlehandedly, drag the Sixers to the NBA Finals and earn his due respect from the public at large. However, it was that game amid other All-Stars when he demonstrated to the masses what, behind the perception, was his reality.

In those flashing, brilliant final minutes when Iverson was everywhere on the floor, making steals, setting up fast breaks, scoring on twisting, jack-knifing drives, he could have been a player from any era, no different from Bob Cousy, Bob Pettit, Julius Erving, Willis Reed, Walt Frazier and the other greats who had been introduced to the crowd at halftime.

He looked and acted different, this new kid, like new kids always have. They make us uncomfortable, force us to look at things from a different perspective. But what it was about that day was showing that many things never change on the inside, no matter how they’re packaged. Competitors compete.

Sometimes the torch is passed and sometimes it is a wild spark that burns down the forest to make room for new growth.

He was never going to be Jordan, Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, Wilt Chamberlain or Bill Russell. You were asking too much to replace that. They laid the foundation, established the game in the consciousness of a worldwide audience. They made it possible for the next generation to follow in their footsteps even if it meant never wearing their shoes.

The question, of course, is always: What comes next?

Allen Iverson was always The Answer, even when we didn’t know it yet.