Posts Tagged ‘yao ming’

One Last Chance For Oden?






HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS – He was supposed to be one of them: a legendary NBA big man, carrying the torch from one generation to the next.

Instead of just interviewing the likes of David Robinson and Bill Russell, Greg Oden was set to join them in the pantheon of dominant centers. At least that was the plan on Draft night in 2007, when the Portland Trail Blazers selected him with the No. 1 overall pick, one spot ahead of current Oklahoma City Thunder superstar Kevin Durant.

We all know how that scene played out. Numerous knee injuries derailed Oden’s career before he ever got cranked up. While other members of his Draft class flourished and became All-Stars and franchise pillars, leading their teams to the playoffs and capturing gold medals at the World Championships and Olympics, Oden stayed in the shadows.

His name was barely spoken in most basketball circles, unless someone was relaying the cautionary tale of the No. 1 pick who failed to meet expectations.

Oden’s name is on the radar now, though. He’s at the center of interesting recruiting battle between the Dallas Mavericks, San Antonio Spurs and the reigning and back-to-back champion Miami Heat, three teams in need of big man depth. He’s scheduled to meet with the Mavericks today in Las Vegas, with the Sacramento Kings and New Orleans Pelicans also reportedly set for face-to-face meetings with the former Ohio State star.

Since Vegas is the epicenter of the NBA universe the next two weeks (the Las Vegas Summer League is there until July 22 and USA Basketball’s week-long training camp and exhibition schedule begins Monday), it only makes sense that Oden be there to try to least reclaim a scrap of the glory he’s lost the past six years.

If there is a chance his legacy can be resurrected at all, the decision-makers roaming the hallways in Las Vegas will be the ones to help facilitate that process.

Anyone with good sense gave up years ago on the idea of him being what the pundits predicted him to be — a true challenger to Dwight Howard, Yao Ming and Andrew Bynum as the most dominant low-post force in the game. It’s strange now looking at that list of big men and seeing how injuries have marred — and in Yao’s case, ended — their careers.

Oden never reached that level. Much like Durant, the expectations for his career on Draft night were sky-high. The ’07 Draft boasted a strong talent base, and Oden and Durant ranked at the very top. They were believed to posses the kinds of talent that could allow them to rise to the level of being among the very best in the league at their respective positions, something Durant has achieved.

The best he can hope for now is, what? Earning a spot as a role player for a championship-level team like the Heat or Spurs? Maybe Oden’s a bit more ambitious than that and wants a bigger role with the Mavericks, Kings or Pelicans?

That’s better than the alternative, which is having to wonder for the rest of his years what could have been if those fragile knees hadn’t failed him.

We have to forget the fantasy of what Oden might have been and focus on what he can salvage of his career, wherever he lands. And who knows, Oden might just surprise us and be a bigger factor than we think in the right situation.


Rockets’ Morey Lands (D)wight Whale

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HOUSTON — Ahab and Moby Dick. Snoopy and the Red Baron. A Kardashian and a camera.

Talk about your classic chases through history.

Daryl Morey landed his (D)wight whale and finally has reason to throw up his hands and gloat, if not plan ahead for even more elaborate celebrations down the line.

In getting All-Star center Dwight Howard to pick the Rockets in the free-agent lollapalooza, Morey not only won the big prize, but also earned vindication for what was often characterized as a quixotic quest to land the type of player that could put Houston back into the conversation for an NBA championship.

Now in less than eight months, he has pulled James Harden and Howard into the boat and Morey is still sailing on with attempts to trade for wing man Josh Smith.

For a Rockets franchise that has not sipped from a champion’s cup in nearly two decades and has won just a single playoff series since 1997, it is heady stuff, like pulling a vintage Rolls-Royce out of a ditch.

Howard becomes the latest in a line of elite big men to play for the Rockets, the linear descendant of Elvin Hayes, Moses Malone, Ralph Sampson, Hakeem Olajuwon and Yao Ming. It was, in part, the urging of Olajuwon that nudged Howard toward his decision. But more than anything it was the maneuvering of the roster and the salary cap by Morey that convinced Howard that this was the place that he could establish himself as not only a highly-paid All-Star, but a true winner.

Howard forced his way out of Orlando because he didn’t believe Magic management was committed to doing all that it took after he led the team to The Finals in 2009. He turned his back on the Lakers after one miserable, tumultuous, underachieving season, probably because of the age of his key teammates — Kobe Bryant (34), Steve Nash (39), Pau Gasol (32) and Metta World Peace (33). He couldn’t risk what the Warriors would have to give up in a trade to get him and going home to play in Atlanta was never a real option.

What Morey has done — and is still working to supplement — is to put Howard back in the middle of a young roster where he can be the sun in the center of the solar system, yet feed off the 23-year-old Harden, who positively erupted as an elite level scorer last season.

This is a Rockets team that won 45 games last season by playing a pedal-to-the-medal offensive style and will continue to try to score in transition. But Howard gives them an interior force at both ends of the court and they will shift toward those strengths.

There is already talk of Howard resuming his offseason workout regimen with the Hall of Famer Olajuwon, the Houston icon and deliverer of the only two championships in franchise history. But the truth is that Howard’s game and his style and his physical skills are nothing akin to Hakeem the Dream’s. The key partner — and possibly one difference-maker in the decision — is coach Kevin McHale, a Hall of Fame member himself, who is generally regarded as one of the best big men in the history of the game and possessed unparalleled footwork in the low post.

Now, of course, the burden is clearly and squarely on the back of Howard to produce. If he thought the pressure of playing in the Hollywood spotlight of the Lakers was great, now he must live up to his four-year, $88-million price tag. He said he would choose the team that gave him his best chance to win championships and now that bill comes due with interest. See: LeBron James, summer of 2010.

It was all of these ingredients that Morey mixed into a stew that he was willing to let simmer for as long as it would take to get a plate this full. Constantly swapping draft picks and contracts and assets for six years, he went all in with a hand that for the longest time it seemed only he believed in.

After two years of a soap opera/clown show that traveled from coast to coast, Howard should be hungry as well as driven.

As recently as a year ago, Howard sent word out that he was not the least bit interested in helping the Rockets rebuild from the ground up. But that never even made Morey stop for a second to blink, and it was before the GM pulled a rabbit and Harden out of his hat four days prior to the season opener last October. Even when Howard went to L.A. and was presumed to have found his place among the pantheon of Lakers center, Morey pushed on. Now he has turned the equivalent of a pocketful of beans – Kyle Lowry, Kevin Martin and Jeremy Lamb — into Howard and Harden, two members of the 2013 Western Conference All-Star team. It could turn out to be the greatest tandem trade of all time. Thank you, Sam Presti.

This is a once-proud franchise that had fallen into disrepair and disrespect following the retirement of Olajuwon, the dark ages of the Steve Francis Era, the crumbling of Yao’s feet and ankles and the wilting of Tracy McGrady’s spine. They had already changed coaches three times in 10 years. It was on that treadmill of mediocrity that one guy chased his plan, his hope, his goal.

Daryl Morey finally landed his (D)wight whale and now the real fun begins.

Frantic Free-Agent Pursuit Of Howard Proves Talent Rules Over All



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HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS – Let the current Dwight Howard derby playing out in Los Angeles serve as Exhibit A for the defense. It’s talent over everything else where NBA free agency is concerned.

The same things that Howard has been bashed for the past year and half — his inability to make up his mind, a less than Dwight-like performance after back surgery, an emotional vulnerability while serving as a musclebound pinata for the pundits, etc. — are the same things that inspired the Houston Rockets, Dallas Mavericks, Golden State Warriors, Atlanta Hawks and Los Angeles Lakers to ignore the rest of the free-agent field or what it will cost them in luxury-tax penalties (in the Lakers’ case) for an all-out pursuit of Howard’s services this summer.

Howard, 27, is far from washed up and is in the midst of his physical prime. And despite opinions to the contrary (sorry, Shaquille O’Neal, but you and plenty of others are wrong on this one), Howard is still the best big man in basketball. And Howard with a chip on his shoulder, with his talent, is a player all of these teams would love to build around.

The man Shaq suggested was ready to dethrone Howard as the top big man in basketball, Andrew Bynum, didn’t play a single second in Philadelphia this season and is low on the priority list for most teams.

Al Jefferson, the only other potential All-Star-caliber center in this free-agent class, is being pursued by the Charlotte Bobcats. But not with the fervor of these teams that are chasing Howard.

Can you envision Hakeem Olajuwon, Clyde Drexler, Yao Ming (via Skype), Jerry West or any of the other stars who have volunteered to help their respective teams chase Howard in free agency doing the same for Bynum or Jefferson?

That’s not to say Howard hasn’t had his issues. And he’ll have to work to rebuild his brand with fans wherever he goes. But his stock is sky-high with the folks whose professional livelihood depends on them getting this right.

Howard changes the dynamic in places like Houston, Dallas, Golden State and Atlanta. Those teams instantly move into a championship-level tax bracket with Howard as the centerpiece of their franchises. (The Lakers tried it already and barely made the playoffs.)

“Don’t let all of that chatter from the season fool you,” an Eastern Conference executive said. “Dwight was going to be the game-changer in this free-agent class no matter what. He could have sat and rested that back through All-Star weekend and he’d still command this kind of attention in free agency. There is no one else in his class as a big man when he’s right.”

Rockets Make Their Pitch To Howard

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From NBA.com staff reports

No matter what team Dwight Howard chooses on July 10th (as reports indicate that is when he’ll reveal his pick), the Houston Rockets have to know they did all they could on July 1 to put their best foot forward.

The Rockets began their presentation to Howard last night/this morning (depending on your time zone), which started with a meeting at 9:01 p.m. PT. According to reports, the Rockets’ contingent traveled to the Beverly Wilshire Hotel in a Mercedes luxury van where they met with Howard to begin making a formal pitch to him.

Houston also brought in several key decision-makers to the process (we understand now why the needed a van!), including owner Leslie Alexander, coach Kevin McHale, president Tad Brown, GM Daryl Morey, vice president and athletic trainer Keith Jones and executive vice president Gersson Rosas.

Jonathan Feigen of the Houston Chronicle has details on the meeting, which included video messages from ex-Rockets Dikembe Mutombo and Yao Ming and Hall of Famers Hakeem Olajuwon and Clyde Drexler being face-to-face with Howard in the meeting as well:

They prepared information about the marketing potential that comes with playing for the Rockets, still wildly popular in China with its enormous and avid fan base. They were ready to present information about living and playing in Houston, about their new basketball facilities and the camaraderie and chemistry they believe they have with their players, past and present.

There were books and an Ipad with much of the information presented to be left with Howard and his representatives, along with video testimonials from, among others, Yao Ming and Dikembe Mutombo.

But the Rockets hoped their greatest advantage would be their potential to become contenders by adding Howard in the middle.

Howard has repeatedly insisted his primary objective in free agency is to find the team with the best championship potential. Considering themselves to be in the strongest position in that measure, the Rockets sought to make their case they also would be positioned to make improvements even after signing a second player to a max contract.

The youngest team in the NBA last season, the Rockets were prepared to argue they would keep their young core untouched and would have the salary-cap exceptions and first-round picks in coming seasons. The youth was expected to be a point of emphasis. James Harden will be 24 next season, Chandler Parsons 25.

Harden and Parsons, their best player and team captain, respectively, have become friends with Howard and were part of the presentation.

Hall of Famers Clyde Drexler and Hakeem Olajuwon traveled from around the world for the meeting. Drexler flew in from Taiwan, arriving after a 13-hour flight Sunday afternoon. Olajuwon traveled from Jordan for the meeting. (His appearance at the NBA draft in Brooklyn on Thursday was added to his itinerary after the Rockets let the NBA know they were flying him in.)

Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo!Sports says the Rockets are in the lead now for Howard’s services after last night’s meeting focused on the championship-level team Howard would be a part of should he come to Houston:

The Houston Rockets’ dinner presentation to free-agent center Dwight Howard at the Hotel Bel-Air centered on the franchise’s championship history and an infrastructure designed to give Howard a chance at multiple titles, sources with knowledge of the meeting told Yahoo! Sports.

Houston has emerged as the frontrunner to sign the Los Angeles Lakers center, league sources said, and those close to Howard confirmed late Sunday that the Rockets did nothing to dampen Howard’s enthusiasm for the possibilities of playing for Houston.

“Hakeem didn’t say much, but what did he say was very impactful,” one source in the room told Yahoo! Sports. Olajuwon talked about the Rockets as a destination for championships and drew upon his own personal relationship with Howard, sources said.

Rockets stars James Harden and Chandler Parsons pitched Howard about how they wanted him as a teammate, how the chemistry of the locker room would welcome him. Without bringing up the Los Angeles Lakers, the Rockets could sell two things that the Lakers likely can’t: a chance for a close connection with the franchise’s star players; and an immediate chance to be a championship contender.

“His main focus was winning and we will give him the best opportunity to do that,” Parsons told Yahoo! Sports’ Marc Spears.

Howard was flanked with his agent, Dan Fegan, and Happy Walters, the CEO of Relativity Media and an agent in the company. What those close to Howard had been saying privately for months was clearly apparent through the probing that Howard did himself with Rockets officials: Winning was his most important priority in the process, and most of the evening was spent discussing how the Rockets had a history of constructing themselves around iconic centers in pursuit of championships.

McHale made it clear to Howard that he planned to build his system around him, and that, ultimately, he would hold Howard accountable every day in the franchise’s pursuit of a title. The Rockets had long believed that McHale, a Hall of Fame power forward, would be an immense asset in the recruitment of Howard. Howard had never had a head coach that could identify with him so well, who could literally look him in the eyes.

Agents talking to the Rockets about potential additions to the roster say they’re searching for shooters and complementary players to surround Howard. “They’re progressing on everything with Dwight in mind,” one prominent agent said Sunday night. “They seem very confident.”

After the meeting, things were pretty positive on the Rockets side as Morey tweeted out the following:

All that said, the Lakers weren’t about to be trumped by a Western Conference rival at the stroke of midnight, either.

According to ESPNLosAngeles.com, Lakers GM Mitch Kupchak met with Howard before the Rockets’ wooing of him began just after 12:01 a.m. ET:

The Los Angeles Lakers were assured they would get the last word when it came to Dwight Howard’s free agency pitch process. Turns out they got the first word as well.

Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak met briefly with Howard face-to-face shortly after 12:01 a.m. ET Monday night when NBA free agency officially opened up, a league source told ESPNLosAngeles.com.

The details of the meeting between Howard ans Kupchak are unknown, but according to Alex Kennedy of HoopsWorld.com, it was a brief chat:

And there’s this as well from Kennedy:

The Hawks and Warriors are up next to make their pitches to Howard today, and the Mavs and Lakers close things out on Tuesday. Who knows where Howard will end up, of course, but here’s one important nugget (courtesy of Feigen) to keep in mind as this Howard-a-palooza rolls along:

With the lack of a state income tax in Texas, Howard would net more over four years with the Rockets or Mavericks than in the first four years of a contract with the Lakers.

Kobe Could Add to Career-Ending List

Basketball is a game of split-second decisions and lightning fast moves, giant leaps and great falls.

As Kobe Bryant himself said in a post on Facebook, it was a move he has made “millions of times.”

With a torn Achilles tendon, the question is whether the 34-year-old All-Star will become the latest to join a list of NBA players who have had their careers ended by horrific injury?

MAURICE STOKES — He was the 1956 Rookie of the Year with the Rochester Royals, averaging 16.5 rebounds and pulled down 38 rebounds in a single game. A three-time NBA All-Star as the franchise moved to Cincinnati. On March 12, 1958 at Minneapolis, in the last game of the regular season, Stokes drove to the basket, drew contact, fell to the floor, struck his head and lost consciousness. He returned to the game and three days later scored 12 points with 15 rebounds in a playoff game at Detroit. On a flight following that game, he suffered a seizure, fell into a coma and was left permanently paralyzed. He was diagnosed with post-traumatic encephalopathy, a brain injury that damaged his motor-control center. Stokes died 12 years later at age 36. He was enshrined in the Hall of Fame in 2004.

BILLY CUNNINGHAM – The Kangaroo Kid was a four-time All-Star, three-time All-NBA first teamer and 1967 champion with the 76ers. He was also the ABA MVP with the Carolina Cougars in 1973. On Dec. 5, 1975 in a game against the Knicks in Philadelphia, he was driving down the left side of the lane with Butch Beard challenging. Halfway down, Cunningham pulled up short, his knee locked, and he fell to the floor in a heap, having torn the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee. In 11 pro seasons, Cunningham averaged 21.2 points and 10.4 rebounds. He was 32. He was enshrined in the Hall of Fame in 1986.

CHARLES BARKLEY – The 11-time All-Star and 1993 MVP was averaging 14.5 points and 10.5 rebounds in his 16th NBA season as a member of the Rockets and had long seemed indestructible as a he carved out a career as one of the great power forwards of the game despite standing only 6-foot-6. Barkley was in Philadelphia, the city where his NBA career began, positioning himself for a rebound barely eight minutes into the first quarter on Dec. 8, 1999 when he collapsed to the floor, rupturing the quadriceps tendon in his left knee. Typical Sir Charles, as he was being carried off the floor, said: “Just what America needs, one more unemployed black man.” Refusing to let the injury become the last image of his career, Barkley returned on April 19, 2000 in Houston for a game against Vancouver long enough to grab a signature offensive rebound and score a put-back basket, then walked off the court. He was 35. He was enshrined in the Hall of Fame in 2006.

ISIAH THOMAS – Perhaps the greatest little man ever to play in the NBA, he was a 12-time All-Star and led the Pistons to back-to-back championships in 1989 and 1990 and was the MVP of The Finals in 1990. Thomas averaged 19.2 points and 9.3 assists in his 13-year career. Already bothered by an assortment of injuries including a strained arch, broken rib and hyperextended knee, he tore his right Achilles tendon with 1:37 left in the third quarter on April 19, 1994 in a home game against the Magic. “I felt like I got shot with a cannon,” he said. “When I did it, I thought it was my Achilles. I had no control of my foot. I don’t know exactly what happened.” The career-ending injury also kept Thomas off Team USA for the 1994 World Championship. He was 11 days shy of turning 33. He was enshrined in the Hall of Fame in 2000.

DIKEMBE MUTOMBO – The eight-time All-Star, four-time Defensive Player of the Year, two-time rebounding champ and second-leading shot blocker in NBA history played 18 seasons with six different teams. The great rim protector who made his finger-wag at opponents following a blocked shot his signature, was playing with the Rockets when he collided with the Blazers’ Greg Oden in the second quarter of Game 2 of a first-round playoff series at Portland on April 30, 2009 and fell to the floor. Mutombo had ruptured the quadriceps tendon in his left knee. “It is over for me for my career,” he said that day. He was 42.

YAO MING — The 7-foot-6 center from Shanghai was the No. 1 pick in the 2002 draft by the Rockets and an eight-time NBA All-Star. He’d been plagued by an assortment of foot and ankle injuries and it was originally believed to be just a strained tendon in his left leg when Yao had to leave the court just six minutes into a game at Washington on Nov. 10, 2010. An MRI later revealed a stress fracture in his ankle. “You hope this is the last surgery for him,” teammate Shane Battier said. “Good lord. That guy’s seen more hospital beds than Florence Nightingale.” But Yao never played another NBA game and announced his retirement in July 2011 at age 30.

JAY WILLIAMS – The 6-foot-2 point guard led Duke to the NCAA championship in 2001, national college player of the year in 2002 and was the No. 2 overall pick in the NBA draft by the Bulls. He averaged 9.5 points and 4.7 assists as a rookie in Chicago. On the night of June 19, 2003, Williams crashed his motorcycle into a streetlight on Chicago’s North Side. He was not wearing a helmet, was not licensed to drive a motorcycle in Illinois, and was also violating the terms of his Bulls contract by riding a motorcycle. Williams’ injuries included a severed main nerve in his left leg, fractured pelvis and three torn ligaments in his knee including the ACL. He required physical therapy to regain use of his leg and never played another game in the NBA. He was 21.

SHAQUILLE O’NEAL — At 7-foot-1, 325-pounds-plus, the 15-time All-Star, four-time champion, three-time Finals MVP and two-time scoring champ appeared undentable and unbreakable during his 19-year NBA career. Playing for his sixth team, O’Neal was bothered by foot problems throughout the 2010-11 season in Boston. He returned to the lineup on April 3, 2011, but played just six minutes before limping down the court on a Celtics possession in the first minute of the second quarter. “The doctor thought it was very minor. Scary more than anything,” Celtics coach Doc Rivers said. “But we’ll see.” Shaq returned to play just 12 minutes in two games in the second round of the playoffs against Miami and announced his retirement on Twitter in June. He was 39.

Rockets’ Playoff Return A First Step

 

HOUSTON — Maybe it was fitting that James Harden’s shot kicked off the rim, took a bounce and received an unintentional assist from Jermaine O’Neal that carried the Rockets into the playoffs.

It was Harden himself who practically fell out of the sky right into the laps of the Rockets just four days before the start of the season that began the return to respectability and relevance.

“I didn’t know who was on the team. I didn’t know what was going on,” Harden said. “I was still kind of shocked. Weeks went by and a month went by. We kind of gained confidence in one another that we can go out and compete with anybody in this league. It’s been that way through this whole entire season and now we’re in the playoffs.”

The Rockets are back in the postseason for the first time in four years, having spent the past three springs with their noses pressed up against the window pane, tantalizingly close and yet locked out of the fun. For three straight years — with win totals of 42, 43 and 34 (in lockout-shortened 2012) — they had been the last team to miss out on the playoffs. Or took the best record into the draft lottery. Any way that you said it, the result was simply frustrating.

While team owner Leslie Alexander has been steadfast to “dive” for a chance at the bonanza offered by the draft lottery, general manager Daryl Morey has been more frantic than a one-armed juggler of chain saws to make and remake the roster again and again and again. It was that constant turmoil that led to exasperation by former coach Rick Adelman and an eventual parting of the ways. It has been an ongoing process that still puts constant new challenges into the path of coach Kevin McHale in his second season.

Even now, the Rockets are a laboratory project still in development. Houston is the NBA’s youngest team with an average age of 24.9 years and opened the season as the most inexperienced NBA team in the shot-clock era, based on minutes played.

The Rockets are the sixth-youngest team in history to reach the playoffs. The Thunder teams of 2010 and 2011, led by Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, are the youngest ever. Next in line are the Trail Blazers of 2009, led by Brandon Roy and LaMarcus Aldridge, the Bulls of 2006 with Luol Deng and Ben Gordon and the Hawks of 2008, led by Joe Johnson and Al Horford.

Despite Harden’s rapid rise to the league’s elite level, his first appearance in the All-Star Game and rank among the league’s top five scorers along with the likes of Carmelo Anthony, Durant, Kobe Bryant and LeBron James, the Rockets are still greener than most young sprouts of spring. Harden has been to the playoffs the past three seasons and went to The Finals last year with OKC, but is still only 23. Point guard Jeremy Lin is 24. Center Omer Asik is 26, but his is only his third year in the league and the first that he’s played starter’s minutes.

Though a 13-6 record over the past six weeks has made the return to the playoffs seem inevitable, it was not made official until Utah lost to the Thunder shortly after the Rockets beat Phoenix on Tuesday night.

“I actually didn’t think I would be excited,” Lin said. “I was like, ‘Oh yeah, we’re going for the six seed.’ Now that it’s really here, I’m actually really excited because no one really gave us a chance going into the season that we’d be in the playoffs.”

The Rockets have been a franchise stuck in a rut, mired in mediocrity since the glory days of their back-to-back championships in 1994 and 1995. While this is now their 18th winning record since the 1992-93 season — only the Spurs and Lakers have more at 19 — they have had precious little playoff success. In fact, the Rockets have won only a single playoff series — vs. Portland in 2009 — since 1997 when some of the names on the backs of the jerseys read: Olajuwon, Drexler and Barkley.

There was always hope and unfulfilled promise during the eras of Steve Francis, then Yao Ming and Tracy McGrady. But never the kind of results that were expected.

So when the wheeler-dealer Morey was able to land Harden on the eve of this season, it was the first step in his long held plan to put a franchise-type player on the court to build around and then supplement with the likes of Lin, Asik and Chandler Parsons.

In the process, the Rockets have turned into a fast-paced, 3-point shooting, prolific offensive club that most often produces the most entertaining games of any given night on NBA LeaguePass.

This will all lead into a summer of trying to land another big-name free agent, another All-Star caliber player, who can vault the Rockets back onto the level of title contenders.

But first things first and that was Harden’s shot that bounced high off the rim, O’Neal’s unofficial assist by goaltending and finally the Rockets taking an initial step back into the playoff conversation.

Griner Wouldn’t Be Longest Draft Reach

HANG TIME, Texas – Never underestimate Mark Cuban’s knack for attracting attention. And who could blame him if the idea was to draw it away from his underperforming team that is ironically keeping a team of barbers on hold at the same time they’re about to cut off their string of consecutive playoff appearances at 12 years?

Should the Mavericks draft Brittney Griner?

Let cranky Geno Auriemma be outraged and throw bricks. Let former greats of the women’s game Nancy Lieberman and Ann Meyers Drysdale offer their words encouragement to the Baylor star. Let Griner give even the most outrageous hope and dreams to any little girl who has ever dribbled a basketball.

Let’s face it. The Mavs selecting Griner wouldn’t be the first unusual pick in the history of the NBA draft. And before you snicker, remember that somebody took Pervis Ellison, Greg Oden, Kwame Brown and Michael Olowokandi No. 1. Here’s a reminder of a few others off-beat choices down through the years:

JIM BROWN (Syracuse Nationals, 1957 ) – The Nats didn’t have to reach outside the city limits to take a flyer on the guy who would become perhaps the greatest player in NFL history. Brown played four college sports — football, basketball, lacrosse and track — at Syracuse. He even averaged 15 points a game for the basketball team in his sophomore year. But even though there was little doubt that Brown was bound for a career on the gridiron, the Nats made him a ninth-round pick.

Other notables in draft: “Hot Rod” Hundley (No. 1 overall by Cincinnati, traded to Minneapolis); Sam Jones (No. 8 by Boston).

FRANK HOWARD (Philadelphia Warriors, 1958) – It wasn’t just his physical stature at 6-foot-8, 275 pounds that caught the attention of the Warriors in the third round. He could really play and was an All-American in basketball at Ohio State. But baseball was Howard’s first love and he signed with the Dodgers and had a 15-year career in the majors, hitting 382 home runs with 1,119 RBIs.

Other notables in the draft: Elgin Baylor (No. 1 overall by Minneapolis); Hal Greer (No. 13 by Syracuse).

BUBBA SMITH (Baltimore Bullets, 1967) — Long before he became known for playing the role of Moses Hightower in the Police Academy movies and starring in Miller Lite commercials, the 6-foot-7 Smith was an All-American defensive end at Michigan State. His height attracted the attention of the Bullets in the 11th round of the NBA draft, but Smith was the No. 1 overall pick of the NFL Colts and a champion in Super Bowl V.

Other notables in the draft: Earl Monroe (No. 2 overall by Baltimore); Walt Frazier (No. 5 by New York).

BOB BEAMON (Phoenix Suns, 1969) – Who could blame the Suns for taking a flying leap? After all, they were coming off a 16-66 record in their expansion season in the league and Beamon had just shattered the world long jump record by more than a foot at the Mexico City Olympics. Beamon had grown up playing street ball in New York, but was strictly a track and field athlete in college at Texas-El Paso. The Suns picked him in the 15th round of the draft, but he went back to school and graduated with a sociology degree from Adelphi University.

DENISE LONG (San Francisco Warriors, 1969) — The 18 year old out of Union-Whitten High in Iowa was the first woman ever drafted in the NBA, taken in the 13th round. She had averaged 69.6 points and had a single game high of 111 points in her senior year. NBA commissioner Walter Kennedy voided the pick, calling it a publicity stunt by Warriors owner Franklin Mieuli and also noted that high school players weren’t eligible at the time. Mieuli brought Long and other female players in to play before Warriors home games.

Other notables in the draft: Lew Alcindor (No. 1 overall by Milwaukee); JoJo White (No. 9 by Boston); Mack Calvin (187th by L.A. Lakers).

DAVE WINFIELD (Atlanta Hawks, 1973) – It wasn’t just the Hawks who were trying to get their talons on one of the greatest all-around college athletes ever with their fifth-round pick. He was also drafted by the Utah Stars of the ABA and the Minnesota Vikings of the NFL, but went to baseball when the San Diego Padres chose him as a pitcher. In college at Minnesota, Bill Musselman once called him the best rebounder he ever coached. But Winfield did quite well in baseball, a 12-time All-Star with 465 career homers.

Other notables in the draft: Doug Collins (No. 1 overall by Philadelphia); Kermit Washington (No. 5 by L.A. Lakers).

BRUCE JENNER (Kansas City Kings, 1977) — Before face lifts and the Kardashians, there was a time when Jenner was known as the “world’s greatest athlete” after taking the gold medal in the decathlon at the 1976 Olympics in Montreal and the Kings made him a seventh-round draft pick. He never played in college and the closest Jenner ever got to basketball stardom was when he sank a shot during the singing of YMCA in the 1980 movie Can’t Stop the Music, which starred the Village People.

LUSIA HARRIS (New Orleans Jazz, 1977) – Here’s the real forerunner to Griner. A 6-foot-3 pioneer of the women’s game who led Delta State to three consecutive national titles, Harris was the second female ever drafted by an NBA team when the Jazz made her a seventh-round pick. Just imagine the show if she had been given a chance to team up with Pete Maravich in the backcourt. Harris showed little interest in her selection and declined a tryout invitation from the Jazz. It was later revealed that she was pregnant at the time.

Other notables in the draft: Bernard King (No. 7 overall by New York Nets); Jack Sikma (No. 8 by Seattle).

TONY GWYNN (San Diego Clippers, 1981) — After he set the San Diego State assist records for a game, season and career, he was hardly a reach for the Clippers in the 10th round of the draft. Gwynn said that dribbling strengthened his wrists and helped with bat speed and his on-court quickness made him a better base-runner. It all added up to a Hall of Fame baseball career with 3,141 hits and eight N.L. batting titles.

YASUTAKA OKAYAMA (Golden State Warriors, 1981) — Tallest player ever drafted by an NBA team? Not Yao Ming or Gheorge Muresan or Manute Bol. Try Okayama, who was 7-foot-8. He earned a second degree black belt in judo in his native Japan and began playing basketball at age 18 at Osaka University of Commerce. Okayama attended the University of Portland (Ore.), but did not play there. He was a member of the Japanese national team from 1979 to 1986. He never signed with the Warriors or attended a camp.

Other notables in the draft: Mark Aguirre (No. 1 overall by Dallas); Isiah Thomas (No. 2 by Detroit).

CARL LEWIS (Chicago Bulls, 1984) — It might have been the year when Michael Jordan earned his first gold medal, but Lewis was definitely the biggest star of the L.A. Olympics, tying Jesse Owens’ record of four track and field gold medals. Though he never played basketball in high school or college, a West Coast scout recommended drafting Lewis in the 10th round because he was “the best athlete available.” That same year the Dallas Cowboys drafted him in the 12th round as a wide receiver. Lewis stayed with sprinting and the long jump to become arguably the greatest track and field athlete ever.

Other notables in the draft: Hakeem Olajuwon (No. 1 overall by Houston); Michael Jordan (No. 3 by Chicago); Charles Barkley (No. 5 by Philadelphia); John Stockton (No. 16 by Utah).

Defense Grew Rockets’ 22-Game Streak

 

HOUSTON — As far as seismic shifts in the landscape go, there was no tremor, no low rumble of an earthquake’s warning and it never hit with the fiery blast of a volcanic eruption.

When the Rockets went 49 days — seven full weeks — without a single loss in 2008, it grew quietly for the longest time like an oak tree’s roots growing up through the cracks in a sidewalk until one day it was busting apart the concrete.

The 22-game win streak, second-longest in NBA history, is the outlier in the record book, the one that nobody, even themselves, saw coming, and many, even in hindsight, can still not comprehend.

Before the defending champion Heat, led by the three-headed juggernaut of LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, joined the club, only three teams in history had won 20 in a row. The 1971-72 Lakers with their record of 33 consecutive wins and a star-studded roster of Jerry West, Wilt Chamberlain and Gail Goodrich went on to win the NBA title. The 1970-71 Bucks, led by Hall of Famers Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Oscar Robertson, ran off 20 straight on their way to win it all.

In fact, of the top eight win streaks ever in the NBA before the Heat, five of those teams won championships. Only the Rockets did not get out of the first round of the playoffs.

“Our names will be mentioned with Hall of Fame people,” said point guard Rafer Alston. “We have something to tell our kids.”

Shane Battier, now with Miami, has called the Rockets’ streak “organic,” part of a process that evolved over time.

It wasn’t often flashy or pretty, but it was effective, like seeing a boa constrictor slowly squeeze the life out of its prey.

The Rockets were led by Tracy McGrady’s bundle of offensive skills, but they survived the loss of Yao Ming and they won and won with a growing confidence and surging defense. During the 22-game streak, they held 19 of their opponents under 100 points and 13 under 90. They won 14 games by double figures, an average margin of 12.36, and had only three games decided by fewer than six points. They won 15 games at home and seven on the road.

The Rockets even won the last 10 without their All-Star center Yao, whose season was ended by a stress fracture in his left foot on Feb. 26.

“Every time a team gets a chance to come close, the streak comes up,” said forward Luis Scola, now with the Suns. “It was a great stretch. It was a good team. If we lose any of those games it wouldn’t change that fact. But maybe that team wouldn’t be as remembered.

“You know we were playing well. It was a fun team to play with. The momentum that we had going. We were playing very well. We were beating teams just because we were good…That month and a half was great. I remember it was a lot of fun.”

The Rockets were 15-17 on Jan. 2 and 24-20 when they beat Golden State 111-107 on a night when Yao was dominant with 39 points and 19 rebounds. They were fighting for their playoffs lives, sitting precariously as the seventh seed in the Western Conference. Two nights later, they went on the road to win at Indiana 106-103 and ran off seven straight wins where they never gave up 90 points.

“What we’re developing is a great team like the Pistons,” said McGrady. “A great defensive team going out there and playing together and not relying on one or two people to score the rock.”

No. 8 was their narrowest escape, needing Steve Novak to come off the bench to hit a 3-pointer — his only field goal of the game — with two seconds left to rescue an 89-87 win over the Kings.

The streak continued through trades. On the afternoon of No. 10, they sent Bonzi Wells to New Orleans and Kirk Snyder to Minnesota, yet didn’t miss a beat in thumping Miami. They attracted real notice around the league when they whipped the No. 1-seeded Hornets in New Orleans.

When the Rockets took the floor on Feb. 26, the word was out that Yao was lost for the season and the fears inside Toyota Center were palpable. But with 41-year-old Dikembe Mutombo blocking shots, waving his finger and filling the middle, the streak rolled on.

“You could probably check this, but I’m thinking all the way to the 17th or 18th game of the winning streak we still were in the eighth spot or the ninth spot or something like that,” Scola said. “It was a really tough year for the West. The playoffs were in jeopardy.” (more…)

The First 50 Years With Sir Charles

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When you walked into Charles Barkley’s little slice of the locker room, you might as well have stepped into a whole different world. It was a world where heads were shaved, complimentary tickets distributed, insults hurled, jokes told, social commentary delivered, reporters sent away sated and one of the best basketball players on the planet had to prepare himself for the next game. All of it seemed to occur in the space of five minutes.

“There will never be another player like me,” Barkley once said. “I’m the Ninth Wonder of the World.”

You know? He was right.

Here is Barkley, 13 years after lacing up his sneakers in an NBA game for the final time, more popular than ever as a television personality, opinionator and, well, just plain liver of life.

If Michael Jordan’s 50th birthday on Sunday felt like a royal occasion with seemingly everyone in the basketball world taking time to genuflect in the throne room, then Barkley’s, coming just three days later, has all the trappings of the morning after a keg party. In other words, a lot more fun.

The Chuckster’s persona — and at times, even his person — has almost grown large enough to be one of those floats in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade and that’s actually the perfect image, full of hot air, constantly changing course with the wind and barely tethered to earthbound reality.

He says so many things, and it is our job to figure out which ones he really means. For in these ongoing best days of his life, it seems that everybody still wants to know the real Charles Barkley. Trouble is, the answer has always been a lot more complicated than the question.

During his playing days, was Barkley the obnoxious, overbearing sort who once charged toward the stands to spit on a boorish fan and wound up hitting an 8-year-old by accident? Or the sincerely apologetic type who responded by buying season tickets for the little girl and her family?

Was he the nit-picking critic that found fault in every single thing done wrong by his teammates? Or the selfless, ideal team players who charmed the socks off everybody in the locker room and at the same time lifted them to heights?

Is Barkley the fun-loving fellow who likes to joke and cajole his way through encounters with the media? Or the guy who would always tackle the tough issues of race and child-rearing with his whip of a tongue?

Remember the stir he created with a simple phrase: “I’m not a role model.”

How out of touch is that view today in an era of Tiger Woods, Marion Jones, Alex Rodriguez, Lance Armstrong and Oscar Pistorius?

His was the first voice you normally heard upon entering the locker room and usually the last you heard on the way out. And truth be told, for all the the times his teammates would roll their eyes at some of the things he said, that role of spokesman/court jester was one they needed him to fill almost as much as the slot as one of the greatest power forwards of all time.

“I know a lot of people say a lot of things about Charles Barkley,” his former Rockets coach Rudy Tomjanovich once said. “But I’ve never seen a guy who loves this league more than he does. He follows the game. He loves the game so much.”

Who else but Barkley could sit there on the TNT set week after week on Thursday nights and be so outrageous? And who else but Barkley would constantly take the wildly popular show to new heights by allowing himself to be the constant butt of jokes.

There was the time Kenny Smith played the role of a bouncer controlling the velvet rope outside the “Champions Club” and kept taunting the ringless Barkley about the partiers inside.

“Hey Chuck, Zan Tabak’s in here,” Smith said laughing. “Look it’s Jack Haley, Chuck. Jack Haley!”

And, of course, there was Barkley paying his “I’ll kiss your ass” bet to Smith when the rookie Yao Ming hit the 20-point mark in a game.

Smith showed up the next week with a donkey in the studio, but only Barkley would have unthinkingly believed he had to actually pucker up to the back end of the four-legged ass.

He could have an MVP season and carry the Suns to the 1993 NBA Finals, grab a career-best 33 boards in single game (more than the entire opposing team) and, at an honest 6-foot-4 1/2, toil away to be the shortest player ever to lead the league in rebounding.

Mostly, Barkley could be himself.

Once, when pondering such a milestone birthday, he said: “I just want to be living the day after I turn 50.”

In that case, check in tomorrow when The Chuckster will still be living turribly large.

Olajuwon Honored At Legends Brunch

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HOUSTON
– It was Michael Jordan‘s birthday Sunday – in case you’re the one who hadn’t heard that by now – but it is Hakeem Olajuwon‘s “year.”

Olajuwon, the Hall of Fame center who spent nearly his entire career in the host city for the 2013 All-Star Weekend and led the Rockets to two NBA championships, was honored at the National Basketball Retired Players Association Legends Brunch as its “Legend of the Year.” He didn’t blow out any candles, but he did hear the applause and feel the appreciation of more than 1,000 attendees of the burgeoning event, sponsored by the retired players association now for 14 years.

Oh, and Olajuwon not only was selected No. 1, two spots ahead of Jordan, in the 1984 Draft. He beat him to 50 as well, hitting that milestone on Jan. 21.

The 6-foot-10 native of Lagos, Nigeria, who set standards for grace and footwork among the NBA’s great big men, Olajuwon famously transferred some soccer skills to hardwood when he picked up a basketball at age 15. In an acceptance speech that lasted more than 17 minutes – so much for “The Dream’s” image as a man of few words – he talked of his development under respected coaches such as Guy Lewis at the University of Houston and Bill Fitch and Rudy Tomjanovich with the Rockets.

But he also paid tribute to Ganiyu Otenigbagbe, who essentially discovered and molded his game in secondary skill. “I did not know the rules of basketball,” Olajuwon said Sunday, “but he gave me his job description: ‘Stay in the paint!’ “

The Legends Brunch traditionally honors former NBA players and coaches who worked in, hail from or shared some other connection with the All-Star city each year. The others honored for 2013:

Ambassador of the Year: Yao Ming. Yao’s foundation and his partnership with NBA China has enabled him to “build a bridge” between his homeland and the U.S. The 7-6 native of Shanghai, whose eight-season career was interrupted and cut short by foot and leg injuries, was introduced by current Rockets guard Jeremy Lin.

Humanitarian of the Year: Dikembe Mutombo. The shot intimidator and blocker who spent the last five of his 18 NBA seasons in Houston is renowned for his charitable works, particularly in his native Republic of the Congo. Mutombo credited Olajuwon, who preceded him to the NBA by eight years, with being the “key of our continent.” “You’ve become The Dream for winning championships,” Mutombo said, addressing his friend from the stage, “but you’re a dream for so many African players.”

Hometown Hero Award: Robert Horry. Horry, known as “Big Shot Bob,” was part of the Rockets’ title-winning teams in 1994 and 1995, then won five more rings with the Lakers and the Spurs. In an ironic twist, the former teammate who was supposed to introduce Horry – Sam Cassell, known for his motormouth tendencies on and off the court – needed an assist from TNT announcer and emcee Ernie Johnson because Cassell lost his voice somewhere during All-Star festivities.

Houston Rockets Lifetime Achievement Award: Tomjanovich. A five-time All-Star as a rockets player and coach of the two championship teams, Rudy T joked that when he was drafted in 1971, the NBA ranked fourth in popularity in Houston behind football, baseball and “bull-riding.” “Now the city is hosting its third All-Star Game,” he said.

Pioneer Award: Calvin Murphy. The flamboyant 5-foot-9 Hall of Famer took the stage after a video montage of career highlights was shown on screens in the ballroom, then said, “Boy, I was good.” The point guard from Niagara turned longtime Rockets broadcaster noted the difference in prestige that came with former NBA players no longer being referred to as “Old Timers” but rather “Legends.”

Lifetime Achievement Award: Clyde Drexler. Drexler, a 2004 Hall of Fame enshrinee and member of the 1992 U.S. Olympic “Dream Team,” grew up in Houston and gained initial fame teamed with Olajuwon in college on the “Phi Slamma Jamma” University of Houston team in the early 1980s. He returned to the city and to Olajuwon via trade in for the 1995 title run.

Drexler was the guy whose rookie season of 1983-84 in Portland was so promising – he had 10 All-Star appearances in his future – that the Trail Blazers opted to draft Kentucky center Sam Bowie at No. 2 behind Olajuwon, passing on you know who. That means Drexler, for the record, turned 50 last June 22.

A large number of familiar NBA names – from other Hall of Famers to role players – attended the brunch, including 2000 Sixth Man award winner Rodney Rogers. Rogers, 41, required the use of a wheelchair and ventilator after being paralyzed in an all-terrain vehicle accident in December 2012.