Posts Tagged ‘yao ming’

Taipei Gets A Full Dose of Linsanity


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TAIPEI, Taiwan — It was an afternoon that began with a greeting from Paul George.

Yet the 12,905 squealing, appreciative fans who came early and stayed on their feet often left the impression that John and Ringo were also inside Taipei Arena.

It might not have quite reached the level of The Beatles at Shea Stadium, but Jeremy Lin’s return to his ancestral roots hit all the notes of cultural phenomenon, NBA star and real life dream come true.

They love you, yeah, yeah, yeah.

It was the return of Linsanity, all of the attendant pregame hype and palpable buzz in the air meeting up with a performance that delivered by the main attraction.

From the moment he scored the Rockets’ first basket of the game on a 3-pointer from the top of the key to his exit midway through the fourth quarter of Houston’s 107-98 win over the Pacers, Lin was the focus of virtually all attention and idolatry.

When Lin left the game with 5:52 left to play with 17 points on 6-for-8 shooting, four assists, two rebounds and one monster block, teammate Francisco Garcia encouraged the throng to come to its feet and then he clamped Lin like a little brother in a headlock and patted his approval.

Lin stood in a back hallway smiling and shaking his head at the experience.

“It wasn’t like anything I’m normally accustomed to, going out there before the game for warmups and having everyone yelling,” he said. “Yeah, I was nervous. I haven’t felt that way before a game since probably the first time back to MSG last season.

“Really, it was everything I could have hoped for. (Asssistant coach) Chris Finch said, ‘It was like all your birthdays rolled into one. You got the 3s, the dunk, the block.’ I think he was right. I didn’t know how this was gonna go, but I definitely didn’t think it would go this good.”

Rockets coach Kevin McHale said Lin’s play was simply a continuation of the progress he’s made since the opening of training camp.

“He played very well,” McHale said. “The last week to 10 days he’s been very, very good in our games and our practices. I think he’s really comfortable with who he is. He’s in a good state of mind … Jeremy’s in really a good place. This is the way he’s been playing in practice.”

Nearly half the crowd wore some kind of NBA jersey or T-shirt and the lion’s share of those bore Lin’s name and number from various career incarnations. There were red Lin Rockets jerseys and white Lin Rockets jerseys. There were even a few with Lin’s name on the back of the throwback navy blue pajama-striped jerseys that Lin never wore. There were Lin jerseys from Harvard and his time with Golden State. And, of course, there were Lin’s jerseys from that magical five-week stretch of 2012 when Linsanity was born in York.

They screamed with delight when Lin came out of the tunnel and ran onto the court for pregame warmups nearly an hour before the opening tip and they roared in appreciation when he stepped into the spotlight and shined in front of an audience that included his parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins and thousands of other Taiwanese who claim him as their own.

“I have been an NBA fan for about 10 years,” said Taiwan native Tony Kuo, 25, who studied business at Michigan State. “The truth is the Pistons were always my favorite back, back from the days of their (2004) championship.

“But when Jeremy first came into the league with the Warriors and then he went to New York and did what he did, well, now he is my favorite and the Rockets are my team.

“I followed Jeremy when he was in Harvard and hoped that he would get a chance. But I wasn’t really sure if an Asian player could ever have the experience he did in New York.

“When Yao Ming played, he was famous here. But nothing like Lin. There is no question that Jeremy Lin is the No. 1 sports celebrity in Taiwan today. I can’t even think of anyone close enough to him to be No. 2.”

Kuo’s girlfriend, Ashley Wu, 29, said she never really took to the NBA when she was at Michigan State.

“I guess now I like the Rockets, but I went out and bought this Knicks shirt because the blue is a better color,” she said. “This is a really exciting and fun event and it’s fun to be here to support Lin and him,” she said, pointing at Kuo.

For the most part, it was fast-paced and seemed to be more intensely played for a preseason game with plenty of banging and with regulars getting a lot of minutes.

James Harden led the Rockets with 21 points. George had 19 to top the Pacers and George Hill had 17.

Nevertheless, according to how a script might have been written, Lin practically took the game into his hands in the first quarter and shaped it to fit the hype and his image. By the time the opening period was done, Lin had drilled a pair of 3-pointers, closed out a fast break with a crowd-pleasing dunk and then got a real rise from everyone when he chased down Indiana’s Danny Granger on a breakaway and used a sweeping swat of his arm to send the ball into the first row of seats.

“When I got that shot, just about all I could do was smile,” Lin said. “Not at him, but just the fact that it happened, because I’ve never done anything like that before in a real NBA game. Maybe in practice. So when I got that shot, I all could think was everything was going my way.”

Half a world away from where it was born, Linsanity was back. And, fittingly, at home.

Manila Thrilled, But A Tad Bit Subdued, With Rockets’ 20-Point Win Over Pacers

 

MANILA, Philippines — It was 2 1/2 hours before the historic first NBA tipoff in Southeast Asia when the Rockets’ team bus pulled up to the stage door entrance at Mall of Asia Arena and was greeted by a throng of several hundred Filipino fans.

This was the night that the NBA’s most rabid international following had waited more than six decades to see. The hope of catching a glimpse of the stars toting luggage was enough to create a noisy stir.

“Rockets! Rockets! Rockets!” came the chant from behind the barricade. Then it was followed by “Harden! Harden! Harden!”

James Harden, the All-Star guard, had already entered the tunnel and walked up the ramp when he suddenly made a U-turn and went back outside with his cell phone raised to takes videos of the fans with one hand while pumping a fist into the air with the other.

It was thought to be a prelude to the general craziness that would consume the atmosphere out on the court. But the emotional intensity and anticipated craziness never materialized from the crowd of roughly 20,000 that paid anywhere from $13 to just under $800 face value for tickets. An early evening downpour tied up traffic outside the arena. The game began with large blocks of empty seats.

In the end, it was not exactly the Thrilla in Manila.

The in-game atmosphere  seemed to be more studying, nodding, learning and taking in the proficiency of the NBA teams than mass hysteria. The Filipino fans rarely came out of their seats. A glimpse throughout the building saw few hands full of snacks, drinks and beers as the fans focused on the event.

Omri Casspi led the Rockets with 17 points, Donatas Motiejunas had 16, while Harden and Chandler Parsons scored 15 points each as the Rockets went wire-to-wire for a 116-96 win. Dwight Howard had seven points, three rebounds and five fouls in 21 minutes. Paul George led the Pacers with 13 points.

There were plenty of red Jeremy Lin jerseys in the crowd, but no more than you’d see during a regular season game at Golden State or Portland. Lin came off the bench and generated the most energy from the fans, especially with a pair of strong drives in the fourth quarter. He finished with 14 points.

There were a number of Pacers fans in the crowd, but the loudest buzz for a member of the Indiana contingent came when team president Larry Bird was on the video screen sitting near mid-court.

The Pacers and Rockets were greeted warmly when both teams took the floor for and received a nice ovation when they were introduced. There were appreciative cheers for 3-pointers made by Paul George and C.J. Watson, shots blocked by Roy Hibbert and slick drives through the lane by Harden. The lines at the temporary NBA Stores set up on the mezzanine level were six and eight deep as fans gobbled up replica Pacers and Rockets jerseys. Most customers came through the cash register lines carrying plastic bags crammed full of merchandise.

“The Philippines has a population of 100 million or so, so they’re a very important part of our Southeast Asian strategy,” commissioner David Stern said during a pre-game press conference. “It is the most intense and robust and knowledgeable basketball market. I was going to say outside of the U.S., but it may lead the world. I’m not sure.”

However, the knowledgeable Filipino fans were far more polite than rabid or noisy, sounding more like an All-Star Game crowd, where the sound of the dribbling ball and the voices of Pacers coach Frank Vogel and the Rockets Kevin McHale could be heard echoing throughout the arena.

As if to prove that they have the attitude to match regular American fans, the crowd finally rose to its collective feet and let out a roar for giveaway promotions — NBA 2K posters and t-shirts — during a couple of second-quarter timeouts.

The controlled enthusiasm and overall politeness was in keeping with experiences by the two teams during the four days they’d spent in Manila. When George, Hibbert and George Hill of the Pacers and Parsons, Lin and other Rockets went out in public, the Filipino fans were excited and crowded round to get a look and snap photos, but also kept a respectful distance. There was none of the fear-for-your-life frenzy that marked the Rockets’ first visit to China with Yao Ming in 2004. Of course, the din should come Sunday when the teams make the hop across the South China Sea and Lin plays his first game in Taipei.

In Philippines, Passion For NBA Runs Deep

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MANILA, Philippines — It could have been the high-pitched busload of school kids that shrieked its giddy joy and approval as they passed by on the traffic circle while All-Stars Dwight Howard, James Harden and the rest of the Rockets were lining up for a team photo in front of the giant-sized steel globe outside the Mall of Asia.

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Fans mob Paul George during his visit to a local basketball court in Pasay City in Manila.

It could have been the pulsing throng of photographers and well-wishers that swarmed and followed Hall of Fame legend Larry Bird’s every step, even two decades past his retirement, now just trying to find his way to a team bus in his current role as Pacers president of basketball operations.

But to truly get to the depth of the passion Filipinos possess for the NBA, one needed to look no further than the jubilant crowd inside the Cuneto Astrodome. The cozy gym in the Pasay City section of Manila, which regularly hosts neighborhood rec league play, was interrupted during an afternoon “drop-in” visit by George Hill, Paul George and Jalen Rose.

A young bespectacled fellow was standing almost slack-jawed at courtside.

“Oh man, I’ve been following George Hill since his days at IUPUI,” said 24-year-old Lorenzo Hortaleza. “The San Antonio Spurs have been my favorite team since 1999 and I was excited when they drafted him a few years ago. I was disappointed at first when they traded him to Indiana, but now it gives me a reason to be a fan of the Pacers, too.

That half a world away somebody actually had taken notice of a player from Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis would be generally regarded as surprise. That is, anywhere but in the basketball-mad nation of the Philippines where the game is as much a staple as lumpia and pancit.

Love of basketball woven into everyday life

When the Rockets traveled less than a decade ago to Beijing and Shanghai to play a pair of preseason games against the Kings, it was mostly an acknowledgement and celebratory homecoming for 7-foot-6 center Yao Ming. As the same time, the league was making a foothold in the China market, where the first live broadcast of an NBA game had been the 1994 Finals between Houston and New York.

However, long before it became fashionable to pull on NBA shirts, jackets and assorted merchandise in China and the rest of Asia, the NBA had an established passionate following in the Philippines that frankly outstrips the rest of the world — even as commissioner David Stern continues to plant the NBA’s marketing flag in every far corner of the planet.

This year’s Global Games are part of the largest schedule of international games with 12 teams playing 10 games in 10 cities in seven countries. The league is playing games for the first time in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, Bilboa, Spain and Manchester, England. But here in Manila, the wait has been the longest and the interest runs deeper than the Marianas Trench.

The raw numbers don’t lie. NBA.com gets more page views and the league’s social media presence on Facebook and Twitter has more “likes” and “follows” from the Philippines than any country outside the United States. The Facebook page of the two-time defending champion Heat has more “likes” from Manila than from Miami, in part due to the Filipino roots of coach Erik Spoelstra.

2013 Global Games - Philippines

Jeremy Lin (center) talks with reporters before the Rockets’ practice at the Mall of Asia Arena in Manila.

But the level of interest in the game is about far more than just one favorite son. The sport that was reportedly introduced by American missionaries more than a century ago has been an integral part of the sports fabric of the Philippines since the 1930s.

“The only reason I know a little about that is because I have a neighbor who’s Filipino and he’s often asked me to sign things for him to send back here to friends and relatives,” said Pacers forward David West. “Even then, it’s one thing to think that somebody has a group that follows the NBA. It’s entirely different to hear the numbers about the support we get from the Philippines. It’s staggering. It’s humbling. It gives these games that we’re going to be playing here a little bit more weight, even tough it’s preseason. These people have waited a long, long time to see something like this, to have us here. It’s important that we honor their commitment to us.”

The league has been sending emissaries here since 1975 when Knicks legend Walt Frazier headed up a team of NBA players. Eight members of the 1979 Washington Bullets championship team visited, Shaquille O’Neal led a dunking delegation in 1997 and in 2011 it was an All-Star collection that included Kobe Bryant, Chris Paul, Derrick Rose, Kevin Durant and Harden.

Even though Thursday’s game (7:30 AM ET, NBA TV) does not count in the regular-season standings, it is a significant step of progress and recognition for what has long been the league’s hotbed of international interest.

“This means everything to us,” said Glenn Agranzamendez, 35, who plays regularly in the games at the Cuneta Astrodome. “This is a country that loves sports. We love boxing, Manny Pacquiao. But basketball is by far the most popular sport, the favorite of the country. You should have seen what it was like here when we had the Asian Championship in Manila this summer.”

The Philippines posted a 7-2 record overall, lost to Iran in the finals and qualified for a spot in the FIBA World Championship in 2014.

“It was craziness,” Agranzamendez said. “It was like bedlam everywhere. This place is crazy about basketball.”

It is a place where basketball goals — regulation size or makeshift backboards — can be found around almost every corner. It’s also where, as Rafe Bartholomew noted in his book, Pacific Rims: Beerman Ballin’ in Flip-Flops and the Philippines’ Unlikely Love Affair With Basketball, your average street game can find amazing moves made often in bare feet or sandals by a population where the average height is 5-foot-5.

There is a devoted following of the Philippine Basketball Association (PBA), which plays assorted competitions virtually year-round.

Manila is a city where basketball is ubiquitous. The dozens of players ranging from four years old to their forties who took part in shooting games with Hill, George and Rose on Tuesday wore an assortment of jerseys that represented the Rockets, Nuggets, Nets, Lakers, Bulls and even one throwback Sonics number.

Fans more than just star-watchers

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Hundreds of fans turn out for a local basketball clinic as part of 2013 Global Games in Manilla, Philippines.

When a group of Rockets players went cruising through the Mall of Asia on a sightseeing expedition Monday night, they were recognized and followed immediately. Of course, it probably didn’t help that Donatas Motiejunas wore a Rockets practice shirt.

“Yeah, he kind of gave us away,” said Jeremy Lin, who had tried to go incognito with a ball cap pulled down over his face. “We gave him a little grief about that.”

It is a far cry from 1988 when Rockets coach Kevin McHale was a member of the Celtics team that played in the first preseason international game, the McDonald’s Cup, held in Spain.

“Yeah, we did the first global trip and I don’t think anybody at that time ever envisioned coming one day over to the Philippines or going to Taiwan and how huge the NBA would become globally,” McHale said. “I think it’s great for the game. I think our guys get exposed to a whole new culture. It’s something that a lot of guys, if they didn’t take a trip here with the Houston Rockets or Indiana Pacers, in their whole lives would never get to this part of the world. I think it’s good. I’m amazed at where the NBA has grown from the fall of 1980 when I entered the league as a rookie.

“When we were in Spain, whatever year that was, I was real surprised that there were fans there that had Celtics jerseys and the kind of knowledge they had about us. They weren’t just wearing the shirts. They were fan-fans.

“Hey, I got in the league in the fall of 1980 and in my first time to play in The Finals (1981) it was taped delayed and my parents couldn’t even watch it how. So I’m thinking, ‘How in the hell could those people in Spain watch it and know who we are?’

“One thing that surprised me was the amount of Celtics jerseys and stuff that followed us around. Look, maybe at the time there were really only 500 Celtic fans in all of Spain and it just so happened they all came out at once to see us. I don’t know. But I’ll tell you, to see this stuff now, to see the reception we’re getting halfway around the world in the Philippines, wow, it makes you shake your head. Somebody’s doing something right.”

Since the days of Yao as the symbolic tall bridge across the Pacific to a burgeoning Asian market, the NBA has held more than 125 international events in 27 different countries and 67 cities. The league has 125,000 retail locations in 100 countries and a commercial presence on every continent except Antarctica.

Now, decades after the average Filipino sports fan engaged in the classic Magic Johnson vs. Larry Bird rivalry and debate, the NBA has finally come to Manila for the most practical of business reasons — the shiny Mall of Asia Arena that opened in 2012. All around the world, the Global Games are tipping off in far-flung cities with NBA-caliber arenas, complete with luxury suites. Ticket prices for the Rockets and Pacers run as high as $700 for the best seats, a price that is well beyond the means of most of the citizens. Yet, the game will be sold out.

It is quite one thing for a bus load of school kids to recognize stars such as Howard, Harden and Lin. But stand outside the team bus as the players disembark for practice and listen to one nearby arena worker who has nudged a companion.

“Look, that’s Patrick Beverley,” he said.

The NBA passion here truly runs deep.

Summer Dreaming: Executive Of The Year

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HANG TIME, Texas — Never mind that the weather map says it’ s hurricane season. This is the time of year when there are nothing but blue skies over every NBA franchise from Miami to Portland to Los Angeles to Toronto.

Draft picks have been chosen and brought into camp. Free agents have been signed and trotted out for the TV cameras. Trades have been made to fill holes in the lineups. It’s a time for championship planning among the elite class and fantasizing about moving up by the wannabes.

But the truth is that, despite so much spin doctoring that comes out of all the front offices, there are a handful of team presidents and general managers that made the most of the offseason. That’s why we don’t have to wait till next April — or even the season openers — to know who’ll be taking bows for their work. They’re our summer dreaming picks for Executive of the Year:

Daryl Morey, Rockets — Unless Dwight Howard wakes up one morning and declares it was all a mistake — that he really loved having Kobe Bryant as a playmate, that he thoroughly enjoyed Mike D’Antoni’s offense and that he never, ever meant to leave those clever recruiting banners in L.A. — this is as sure a thing as Usain Bolt outrunning a lead-boot-wearing Charles Barkley. If Howard stays healthy, he and fellow All-Star James Harden will team up to make the Rockets instant challengers for one of the top four seeds in the Western Conference and could even be a dark horse contender to advance all the way to The Finals. But before they even chalk up one “W” in the standings, Morey has put a headlock on the award simply by making the Rockets franchise relevant again for the first time in years. After drifting on a sea of anonymity and mediocrity since the star-crossed Tracy McGrady-Yao Ming pairing came undone, the Rockets are back in the spotlight. A year ago, they were on national TV once. Now they have 10 appearances on ESPN, nine on TNT, one on ABC and even made it into the Christmas lineup with a date at San Antonio.

Billy King, Nets — It’s like walking into a casino with a sack full of money, walking straight to the roulette table and plopping it all down on red. Or black. Either way, it’s a 50-50 gamble and you live with the results. King certainly has the cushion and the endorsement of Russian billionaire owner Mikhail Prokorhov and the understanding that paying the luxury tax bill of nearly $100 million is no problem. Still, it takes considerable nerve for King to bet it all on the hope that a 37-year-old Kevin Garnett, 35-year-old Paul Pierce, 35-year-old Jason Terry and a rookie head coach in Jason Kidd can take down the two-time defending champs from Miami along with the rest of what has become a strengthened Eastern Conference lineup. Deron Williams and Joe Johnson were enough to make Brooklyn a postseason sports destination for the first time since the Dodgers left town, but now it’s the old Celtics who’ll be expected to show them how to win a series or more. To get Andrei Kirilenko to walk away from a guaranteed $10 million to sign a cut-rate deal was probably the second-best move of the entire NBA offseason, trailing only Dwight Howard’s move to Houston. Kirilenko adds a tough defender and a slashing finisher to a lineup that hopes to have Brook Lopez improving on his first ever All-Star season. If he’s accomplished one big thing already, King has jumped the Nets over the Knicks as the headlining team in New York, which is signficant.

Chris Grant, Cavaliers — Things have changed considerably since that first summer on the job as GM when LeBron James took his talents to South Beach and the temptation might have been to turn out the lights and simply declare the NBA party in Cleveland over. Grant has steadily reassembled the franchise one piece at time to a point where people are whispering that it’s not out of the question to think James could return next summer when he becomes a free agent. Before that, the Cavs figure to have a resurgent seasons between their splendid young point guard Kyrie Irving and all the other pieces that Grant has put around him. Anthony Bennett may have been a bit of a surprise on draft night, but should fill a need on the front line and free agent signee Jarrett Jack will be both a firecracker lift off the bench. Of course, the big bonanza would be if free agent Andrew Bynum can overcome the knee injuries that left him notable only for sitting on bench modeling outrageous hairstyles last season in Philly. A return to the form that once made him an All-Star with the Lakers makes Grant a genius and, even if Bynum falls short, the Cavs have not made a long crippling financial commitment to the gamble. And don’t forget to give Grant credit for not listening to the suggestions that he should have traded Anderson Varejao. The Cavs will likely make a playoff push in the Eastern Conference and, depending on how bright the future looks next spring, could turn the head of a familiar figure to come home.

Joe Dumars, Pistons — Let’s face it. The Hall of Fame guard-turned-GM has taken his fair share of abuse through recent seasons for allowing the once-proud franchise to drift way out of the playoff picture and even have trouble drawing crowds to The Palace. Was it a curse for making Darko Mlicic the No. 2 pick in the 2003 draft, ahead of Carmelo Anthony, Chris Bosh and Dwayne Wade? Then there was that disastrous free agent splurge on Ben Gordon and Charlie Villanueva in 2009. But lately Dumars has been making a comeback, drafting a pair of big men in Greg Monroe and Andre Drummond who have the potential to anchor the Pistons front line for years to come. He made his biggest play in signing free agent Josh Smith, hoping that the stat-line filler can step into the role of No. 1 option and even team leader. Then Dumars traded for Brandon Jennings with hope that he can be both reined in and unleashed and brought home former Finals MVP Chauncey Billups to show him how. Mo Cheeks gets his third shot as a head coach and it’s all a mix that could put the Pistons back in the playoffs.

Dell Demps, Pelicans — The easier path for Demps would have been to keep Nerlens Noel when the big man fell into his lap at the No. 6 pick and keep on selling a theme of acquiring young assets and building for the future. But with a new team name, new franchise colors and a new owner (Tom Benson) writing the checks, it was a time for a new and bolder direction. The young and oh-so-slender Noel was deemed too much duplication on the front line with 2012 No. 1 pick Anthony Davis and was trade to Philly for 23-year-old guard Jrue Holiday, who puts the only All-Star credentials in the New Orleans lineup. Demps then kept dealing to bring more firepower into the lineup with former rookie of the year Tyreke Evans. Of course, that immediately brought talk of a crowded backcourt with Eric Gordon still on hand, but Demps and coach Monty Williams are betting that a three-man rotation cannot only thrive, but put some punch into what was a thoroughly mediocre offense last season. Assuming Davis takes another big step forward in his second season, the Pelicans could contend for one of the final playoff spots in the West.

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

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.