Saturday, June 29, 2013

Dwight Howard to the Celtics: a perfect ending to this Hollywood drama


You know the script of the story so far: Superman decides he can’t win a ring and seeks help from the hailed greatness of the Black Mamba to form a championship-worthy team. Once in the fantasy-land of Hollywood, this alliance of Superman and Black Mamba seeks to dethrone King James. At the time of the acquisition, 90 percent of anybody with an opinion picked a 2013 Finals matchup of the Miami Heat vs. Los Angeles Lakers. (And who wouldn’t like to see the Black Mamba match up against King James in an entertaining battle for the ages?)

That’s where the fantasy ends and reality begins. The season begins and coach Mike is fired for another coach Mike, injuries plague the team, and in the season's grand finale…Kobe Bryant fades away with a terrible injury. But not to disappoint the fans, an encore of the Dwight Howard drama is nowhere near from over.

ESPN's Chris Broussard has been monitoring the Dwight Howard situation very closely over the past couple weeks and has reiterated only exactly what everybody already knew: Mike D’Antoni is the major roadblock to his re-signing; the Houston Rockets and Dallas Mavericks are Howard's primary suitors. (Not sure why there’s the obsession with Texas but who knows, maybe he’s hoping some of the San Antonio mojo will rub off on him if he’s in the same state…)
A closer look shows that neither spot is really ideal for the unrestricted free agent who wants to be the main guy in a big market. The Rockets are hovering around the salary cap and do not have the most ideal supporting cast. Kevin McHale is all about the perimeter shooting (Houston tied for first in 3PT field goal attempts last season) which does not favor a low-post presence like Howard. The talent is there, but the style could easily be more of what Dwight experienced in 2013 with the Lakers.

The Dallas Mavericks have the ability to build around Howard because well…Dallas is nearly bare bones themselves. Mark Cuban currently has seven players currently on the payroll for next season: an aging Dirk Nowitzki, Shawn Marion, and Vince Carter lead the way. Four young players who combined to average 6.6 points per game in 2013 pull up the rear. Is that really an attractive option for a guy who (supposedly) wants to win a championship?

If the unrestricted free agent Howard wants to have a shot at a chip (in the near future), play in a big city, and be the big fish, than the Boston Celtics are the perfect team for him to climb on board with. Fresh off of cleaning house by dumping Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, and Doc Rivers, the Celtics appear to be in the midst of the dreaded rebuilding process...but Dwight Howard could make that process over in a matter of weeks.

Rajon Rondo, Avery Bradley, and Jeff Green are a capable, young core. Rondo has proven that he’s a (super?)star and a shutdown perimeter defender. Same things can be said about the defensive game of Bradley, who’s best known for the lock-down defense that he couldn’t play in the 2012 playoffs after falling to injury. Add the best inside defender (Dwight) into that mix and Boston fans might forget KG and Pierce a lot quicker than they originally thought. Not only does Boston have the recipe for Howard to succeed now, but they also have three future first round draft picks to help continue the realistic trend of improving further.

Imagine the reception that this press conference would get...
The fit is so perfect it’s scary.

The potential starting lineup would be as good as almost any other Eastern conference team on paper: Rajon Rondo, Avery Bradley, Jeff Green/Gerald Wallace, Kris Humphries, and Dwight Howard.

That may not be quite on the level of what the Brooklyn Nets or Miami Heat currently are running with, but it’s significantly better than what the Mavericks would have to put together—not to mention they’re in the West. As for the Rockets, they have the talent but I just don’t see the style meshing with what Howard wants. Aside from Boston's current player personnel, those three first round draft picks that they have to work with give them security and hope for the future.

Two major hindrances in a Howard to the Boston Celtics scenario would be the coaching situation (which is, as of now, up in the air) and the salaries that the Celtics took on when they acquired Wallace, Humphries & Co. in the blockbuster trade with the Nets. Coaching could be a problem for Howard because he may very well want the confirmation that the system will at least in part be run through him. At this moment, there is no guarantee there for Howard. 

If it came down to money, Celtics GM Danny Ainge would do anything in his power to get one of the premiere big men in the league. Amnestying any of the players from the Nets would probably be option No. 1, and trading big salaries for just about anything would be option No. 2. Stealing Dwight Howard from the Lakers is an opportunity too good for Ainge to pass up.

Dwight Howard has no idea what Kobe is
really thinking about in this picture...
A Rajon Rondo-Dwight Howard duo is in the realm of Tony Parker-Tim Duncan in the early 00s: a capable, young point guard with a championship background paired up with a defensive stopper inside who can score from the post. The Big Fundamental clearly had (and has) a more refined post game than Howard—let’s be very clear there. But when you have a wizard like Rondo running the point, it’s very easy to see him putting Howard in a position to score when he gets the ball. Dwight knows that he would be a primary option and get more than enough touches in Boston. And in terms of acquiring future free agents (LeBron in 2014?) it would an appealing destination. Ainge would have the luxury to build around two guys who don't require the shot volume of superstar guards like Russell Westbrook or Kobe Bryant.

Boston would be the best fit for both Howard and the future of the Celtics franchise. 

The final scene to this dramatic comedy would be hilariously perfect if Howard and his indecisiveness decided to leave the Lakers for the Celtics—especially considering all sources point toward Houston and Dallas. If he decided to become a Celtic, it would be in the same ballpark of Babe Ruth leaving the Red Sox for the Yankees or Ray Allen leaving the Celtics for the Heat. (Somehow Boston sports are always mixed up in some controversial blockbuster trades involving big names.)

No great player has left the Lakers of their own volition. Shaquille O’Neal was forced out; Wilt Chamberlain, Magic Johnson, and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar all retired as Lakers. Kobe Bryant doesn’t look to be moving away anytime soon. Dwight Howard would mark the first time that one of the best players in the league opted to leave the lights of Los Angeles and the Staples Center for greener pastures. Maybe it would begin the Curse of Superman...

Howard landing in Boston would be the perfect ending to the ESPN-sponsored Hollywood special, The Dwight Howard Saga.

Sunday, June 23, 2013

Golden State will soon be better than OKC


After years of agonizing failure, the Golden State Warriors exploded onto the scene as legitimate NBA contenders. In their second playoff appearance since 1995, Golden State made a huge statement behind their young nucleus and coach (which, despite the fact that ESPN gave the Warriors no chance in the first round of the playoffs, I was in the minority who thought the Warriors would pull it off.)

And if Game 1 didn’t become the tragic disaster that it did once Klay Thompson fouled out, Richard Jefferson choked on two free throws, and Manu hit the second of nine three-point attempts to pull off the stunner, it might have been a very different Western conference finals and NBA Finals. As a Warriors fan, I felt knifed by that dagger in Game 1, especially considering Manu finished off the series below 30 percent beyond the arc…

A significant portion of the Warriors fate rides upon this summer (can they re-sign Jack and/or Landry for below market value? If not, can they pick up another solid veteran?) BUT the core that they have to build around is as good as it gets.

If everybody can remain healthy (forever the qualifier with Steph’s ankles), I believe that the Warriors will be better than the Oklahoma City Thunder in the very near future. Before you say that I’m crazy, let me explain why I have so much faith in this young Dubs team.

The Warriors have infamously seen their fair share of injuries, but Russell Westbrook going down with a torn meniscus in the playoffs was a debilitating blow to the Thunder. Kobe Bryant going down (against the Warriors, ironically enough) with an Achilles rupture crippled an already injury-laden Lakers team. Andrew Bynum, well…who knows what his deal is. And Derrick Rose didn’t play a minute in the 2012-13 season.

So if we’re going to pull out the injury card, you could make an argument for the Bobcats winning the title. Not to mention that the Warriors proved that they could win playoff games without their lone All-Star, David Lee. Dwyane Wade also battled knee injuries throughout the post-season and ended up en route to a second consecutive NBA championship. For the sake of argument, let’s assume a healthy NBA and take it from there.  If you want to put an asterisk saying assuming no injuries that’s legitimate…but it’s also legitimate for 29 other NBA teams.

Now that we’ve set the injury qualifier aside, let’s talk about why I predict the Warriors will be better than the Thunder in the next two to three years—maybe even sooner.

Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook vs. Steph Curry, Klay Thompson, and Harrison Barnes is more complicated than the success of a young duo over an up-and-coming trio who have just started to prove themselves.

As LeBron James has shown (over the past two years, in particular), great players need to have more than a one-sided ability to score. In Game 7 of the 2013 NBA Finals, LeBron put on a shooting clinic with five threes and countless jumpers, a far cry from the driving and passing mentality that he showed earlier in the series. Great players have plasticity—that ability to exploit the changing weaknesses of the opponent from game to game. Durant is the best scorer in the game, but if he has an off-night or Russell Westbrick the defense locks him down, he can be taken out of a game because he’s lacks a well-rounded offensive skillset.

Curry has the complete offensive game that you want a guard. He looks to get teammates involved as much as he looks for his own shot, and when you have a guy who can shoot off the dribble or take you off the dribble, it’s nearly unstoppable. At his best, Curry can compete with any scorer in the league—his 54 points at MSG was the mark for most points in a game this season (2012-13). 30 from 30 for 30 is no joke when the Warriors star makes threes look like layups.

And Curry’s supporting cast is better than OKC’s. This mellows the pressure on Steph to score 25 or 30 a game because he has Klay and the Black Falcon. Mark Jackson said it best: he has the best shooting backcourt in NBA history. And in a “make-or-miss” league, when you have great shooters, you always have the opportunity to pull off incredible comebacks.

That lights-out shooting got Golden State into trouble sometimes. They lost games during the year where they built healthy double-digit leads only to gift the game away to opposing teams—none of course, more nationally recognized than Game 1 of the Conference semis where a double-digit fourth quarter lead evaporated in minutes. With experience, those losses will disappear. Learning to win is something that the Oklahoma City Thunder know all about.

Part of their success is the development of rookie standout, Harrison Barnes (aka Black Falcon or Bad News Barnes, take your pick). His ability to get to the rim has been constantly improving, and he looks like the guy who you can go to when your team needs a bucket. His jump-shot improved even within his rookie year, and his monster posterization of Nikola Pekovic exhibited his phenomenal athleticism. What he loses to Westbrook in quickness, he beats him in strength, and if he develops his post-game (something that he went to in the playoffs)…watch out.

His defense has also improved a ton and his versatility on that side of the ball is almost LeBron-esque. Barnes is a perimeter defender by trade, but the Warriors (and their small lineups) morphed him into a post-defender when needed—which he is capable of, at 6’8”. 16 points, 6 rebounds, 86 percent from the line and
only 1.3 TO per game in the playoffs against two great defenses (Spurs and Denver)? This man is a star in the making and the Warriors have him locked up until 2016.

There is no real comparison between the front lines of the Warriors and Thunder. Bogut led the league in rebounds during the first two rounds of the playoffs despite having played few regular season games. David Lee was a nightly 20-10 threat before dropping to injury. Ibaka and Perkins don’t have nearly the offensive potency of the Vanilla Towers. Sure, Iblocka will get you some impressive plays on that side of the ball, but he is to defense what Blake Griffin is to offense: flashy and entertaining, but not as great as he is often made out to be. In 2013, Ibaka and his 7.7 RPG didn’t crack the top-10 in defensive win shares.

Defensively on the front line, it may be closer but considering the Thunder can expect no offense from Perkins (4.2 PPG in 2013), the Warriors bigs are better. (The one problem for Golden State being Bogut's free throw shooting.)

Golden State also has a superior bench. Even though they may lose Landry and/or Jack, Brandon Rush will help boost the starters as will Ezeli, Draymond Green, and possibly the 12th man of the year, Kent Bazemore. This gives the Warriors shooting, defense, veterans, and youth in their second squad. With Kevin Martin a free agent, the best that OKC can expect from the bench is Nick Collison and…Hasheem Thabeet? Meanwhile, if Draymond’s three-point stroke looks anything like it did in the playoffs, you’re looking at a Shane Battier-type who can hit big outside shots and play lockdown defense. For less than $1 million a year through 2015, Bob Myers struck gold with this pick.

The other thing is the salaries involved. Because Westbrook and Durant are both bona-fide superstars, they are paid as such. Over the next three years, the OKC duo will make upwards of $40 million a year with a salary cap at $58 million. Not much flexibility there. In 2014-15, David Lee, Curry, Barnes, Thompson, Ezeli, and Green are set to be paid less than that duo combined. Bill Simmons even went so far as to rank Steph at No. 3 in the NBA on his trade value series.  

If given those salaries, I would take those seven guys over Westbrook and Durant. With the money that OKC has locked up in their top-four players ($57 million) in 2014-15, and $48 million in 2015-16 for three guys (KD, RW, and Ibaka), they will struggle to support their stars. Unlike Miami, OKC doesn’t have the ability to woo free agents with beautiful beaches. As for the Warriors, the sacrifices in stardom will be made up for chemistry and the complimentary skills that each player brings to the team.

Don't forget the Dubs will soon be able dangle the beauty of San Francisco and a new arena in front of wandering free agents. It was no mistake that a big name like Dwight Howard was linked to the Warriors already, and who knows what the summer of 2014 will bring in the Bay Area.

Both OKC and Golden State have brilliant young coaches and savvy front offices. To Sam Presti’s chagrin, the Warriors will vie for a top seed in the West much sooner than he would have liked. Golden State has two of the best three-point shooters in the league (both who have offensive games more developed than just that aspect), an up-and-coming scorer who can play defense, a post scorer (maybe two), post defenders, and a reasonably deep bench that has a good combination of youth and experience.

It may happen next year or it may take another year or two, but look for the Warriors to surpass OKC in the wild West.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Greatest small forwards of all time


The NBA has both a rich history and promising future at the small forward position. Aside from the two players in the picture above, the NBA today has Kevin Durant, Carmelo Anthony, and Paul George among the promising small forwards of the future. For now, here's a look at the greatest SFs of all time...and yes, LeBron James has already earned a position quite high on this list.

10. Paul Pierce


Points
Rebounds
Assists
Steals
Blocks
FG%
FT%
Titles
MVPs
FMVPs
21.8
6.0
3.9
1.4
0.6
.447
.806
1
0
1
                            
Not known for his athleticism, Paul Pierce has that crafty will to win that was finally was rewarded with a championship-caliber team in 2008. Never short on nailing clutch shots, Shaquille O’Neal paid respect to his rival in 2001, calling the Celtics star “The Truth.” That year he played in all 82 games for the Celtics after being stabbed in the face, neck, and back in less than a month before the season began.

9. Dominique Wilkins


Points
Rebounds
Assists
Steals
Blocks
FG%
FT%
Titles
MVPs
FMVPs
24.8
6.7
2.5
1.3
0.6
.461
.811
0
0
0

The Human Highlight Film was just that. One of the most electrifying players that the NBA has ever seen, Dominique was one of the greatest dunkers who also earned nine All-Star appearances and an NBA scoring title. Wilkins holds the record for most free throws made in a regular season game without missing (23) and is only one of six players in history to average 25 points per game for 10 consecutive years.

8. James Worthy


Points
Rebounds
Assists
Steals
Blocks
FG%
FT%
Titles
MVPs
FMVPs
17.6
5.1
3.0
1.1
0.7
.521
.769
3
0
1

Immortalized in NBA history because of his 36-16-10 performance in Game 7 of the 1988 NBA Finals, Big Game James never shied away from the spotlight. A three-time NBA champion, he also won an NCAA title at UNC. Worthy benefited from playing with some of the great Lakers of all time (Magic Johnson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar) but undoubtedly still managed to prove his worthiness to play alongside some of the all-time greats.

7. Rick Barry


Points
Rebounds
Assists
Steals
Blocks
FG%
FT%
Titles
MVPs
FMVPs
23.2
6.5
5.1
2.0
0.5
.449
.900
1
0
1

Perhaps best known for that granny-style free-throw shooting, Rick Barry is the only player to lead both the NCAA and NBA in scoring for single seasons. Also known as Ricky Balboa because of his tendency to take poorly talented teams farther than they would have otherwise gone, he played nearly his entire NBA career as a member of the Golden State Warriors. In March 1974 vs. the Portland Trailblazers, Barry piled up 64 points in a single game—and 45 points in the second half alone.

6. Scottie Pippen


Points
Rebounds
Assists
Steals
Blocks
FG%
FT%
Titles
MVPs
FMVPs
16.1
6.4
5.2
2.0
0.8
.473
.704
6
0
0

A difficult player to rate because of his role as a No. 2 for the duration of his career, there is definitely a place among the greatest SFs of all time for Scottie Pippen. An All-Defensive First Team player for eight consecutive years, he is in the discussion for greatest on-ball defenders in NBA history. Scottie Pippen also appeared in the playoffs for 16 consecutive years.

5. Elgin Baylor


Points
Rebounds
Assists
Steals
Blocks
FG%
FT%
Titles
MVPs
FMVPs
27.4
13.5
4.3
N/A
N/A
.431
.780
0
0
0

An 11-time All-Star, Elgin Baylor was a lifetime player for the Lakers organization, playing both in Minneapolis and in Los Angeles. A victim of his era (namely the rival Boston Celtics), Baylor was a horrendous 0-for-8 in his NBA Finals appearances. (Ironically, the Lakers won the year after he retired.) Nonetheless, he is often in the discussion as one of the great players of all time because of his incredible individual prowess on the court. A superb all-around threat, he holds the Finals record for most points scored in a game (1962 Finals) and put up 71 in a regular season game vs. the Knicks in 1960.

4. John Havlicek


Points
Rebounds
Assists
Steals
Blocks
FG%
FT%
Titles
MVPs
FMVPs
20.8
6.3
4.8
1.2
0.3
.439
.815
8
0
1

A member of the Boston Celtics during the Bill Russell era, Havlicek’s championship numbers beat everybody but Russell in our “greatest of all time” series for the NBA. Although he only managed to pull off one Finals MVP, it is important to recognize that the award was not given out until 1969. A 13-time All-Star and five-time NBA All-Defensive First Team player, Bill Simmons ranked the Celtic great at No. 13 GOAT in The Book of Basketball: The NBA According to the Sports Guy.

3. Julius Erving


Points
Rebounds
Assists
Steals
Blocks
FG%
FT%
Titles
MVPs
FMVPs
22.0
6.7
3.9
1.8
1.5
.507
.777
1
1
0

Known primarily for his incredible athleticism, Julius Erving made dunking an art. But unlike some of the better recent dunkers (Vince Carter, Jason Richardson, etc.) Dr. J was also one of the great overall players that the game has ever seen. He is a top-five scorer of all time (on the NBA/ABA list) and has three ABA MVPs to add onto his NBA MVP. Magic Johnson said of the Doctor: “Julius Erving did more to popularize basketball than anybody else who’s ever played the game.”

2. LeBron James


Points
Rebounds
Assists
Steals
Blocks
FG%
FT%
Titles
MVPs
FMVPs
27.6
7.3
6.9
1.7
0.8
.490
.747
1
4
1

Only Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Michael Jordan, and Bill Russell have more regular season MVP awards than LeBron James. He has had some of the most incredible playoff performances of all time including Game 5 of the Eastern conference finals vs. the Pistons in 2007. All he did was score 29 of the Cavs final 30 points in a double-OT victory. And in the 2012-13 regular season he also became the first player to rattle off 30 points on 60+ percent shooting for six consecutive games.

1. Larry Bird


Points
Rebounds
Assists
Steals
Blocks
FG%
FT%
Titles
MVPs
FMVPs
24.3
10.0
6.3
1.7
0.8
.496
.886
3
3
2


A repeat champion and MVP, Larry Bird is routinely mentioned alongside the top of the greatest NBA players of all time. Arguably the best pure shooter in history, Bird is a member of the elite 50-40-90 club (50 percent from the field, 40 percent from three, and 90 percent from the line in the same season). Bird’s biggest contribution to the game of basketball is often overshadowed by the more recent greatness of Michael Jordan. Alongside Laker great, Magic Johnson, the Hick from French Lick brought the game back to relevancy in the United States. 

Without Bird (and Magic), Michael Jordan and the NBA as we know it would not be here.


View the rest of our "greatest of all time" series including the greatest point guards, shooting guards, power forwards, centers, and overall players of all time.