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In This Week’s Morning Tip
Top 15 Rankings: Thunder rise, Raptors slip
Which team has been this season’s most disappointing squad?
Q&A with Houston Rockets center Dwight Howard
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I am a man in love with words.
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Given a chance to do something memorable or say or write something memorable, I will always choose the latter. (Perhaps it’s because God, in the Supreme Being’s infinite wisdom/sense of whimsy, looked upon me at birth and said, ‘he shall have no athletic abilities whatsoever.’)
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Finding the right word to perfectly describe a situation or setting is very important to me. It delights me that there is a word that is used in one setting, and one setting alone, and it perfectly describes its situation.
The word is “rubbernecking.”
The Association: Cleveland Cavaliers Jerseys
Take an all-access look at the defending Eastern Conference champion Cavaliers as they make their playoff push.
It refers to the traffic jam that occurs on the other side of a road or highway, opposite the side on which an accident has occurred. It is not used in any other context, because it is not applicable to any other context. (You usually only hear it on the radio on the all-news station during the local traffic report, as in “accident on I-495 West; rubbernecking delays on 495 East back to the American Legion Bridge.”)
But why do people rubberneck?
What is it about seeing an accident on the other side of the road that compels us — all of us — to slow down and take a good, long look at what happened? We are fascinated, and horrified; ohmigod, look at that car. He’s still in the car! Ohmigod. Is there an ambulance coming? Jeez, that’s awful. We are repulsed by what we see; we can’t get enough of it. We slow down, like the firefighters in”Roxanne,” and take a good … long … look.
Yet, in a different context, I understand the concept of rubbernecking.
Because, what LeBron James says fascinates me.
And what LeBron James says horrifies me.
I can’t turn away.
Fascinates, because James is the living embodiment of what every player dreams about becoming: the employee who answers to no one in the company. His world is the confluence of so many factors which never seemed possible: no player could ever make so much money off the floor that he literally doesn’t need the (max) paycheck from his team (among his many investments: Blaze Pizza, which James said last week started with two stores, tripled sales last year and doubled the number of restaurants around the country).
No African-American athlete in a team sport has ever been given the autonomy to put his imprint on an entire organization, on the floor and off, and never be blamed/fired/traded after any failures. (Michael Jordan desperately wanted the Chicago Bulls to trade for Walter Davis. Jerry Krause never did so. That was, Krause thought, part of the job — to say no.)
Horrifies, because James is not a boxer, or a tennis player, rightly concerned only with himself and his well being. In those sports, the individual is ascendant. If Serena Williams doesn’t like what her hitting coach is doing with her serve, she would be expected to change the coach — she’s the one out there by herself trying to win and make money. Same with Tiger Woods, who’s gone through any number of coaches over the years. It’s his swing.
But James plays a team sport. Chemistry in a locker room does not exist in a vacuum, nor is it guaranteed to remain once acquired. It is in constant flux, always vulnerable to outside influence or internal discord. Every day in an NBA locker room is a question: why should I sacrifice for you? Or for him?
The Cavaliers, as we have seen much of this season, are still not sure about the answer.
This is not all James’ fault. But he does not appear that he’s leading his team toward solving the riddle. He leads by deed, by practice. His words are another matter.
James told Bleacher Report’s Howard Beck last month, in a story published last week, about his desire, before his career is over, to play with his close friends Carmelo Anthony, Dwyane Wade and Chris Paul. James said he would like to play with them for “at least one, maybe one or two seasons … I would actually take a pay cut to do that,” as he put it. “It would be pretty cool. I’ve definitely had thoughts about it.”
GameTime: Jason Lloyd
Jason Lloyd of the Akron Beacon Journal joins the GameTime crew to discuss the current state of LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers Jerseys.
I don’t think James was saying he would leave Cleveland in June for, say, Miami or Los Angeles. But I don’t think he was saying something off the cuff. He has thought about this, and he wants it to happen — or at least as much of it as possible. Maybe not Wade, but Anthony and/or Paul, for example.
Here’s the problem, if you’re currently getting dressed in the same locker room with James is this morning.
James is 30, not 20. He’s already in his 13th NBA season, with another two-plus years of playoff wear and tear on his body — not to mention the strain of his three Olympic team appearances. He’s not going to play another decade. If he truly wants to play with ‘Melo, D-Wade, etc., it’s not some far-off, next decade notion. It’s something that would have to happen sooner rather than later. And keeping him in Cleveland would require GM David Griffin to take apart the Cavs’ current core of Kyrie Irving, Kevin Love and/or Tristan Thompson.
Seriously: how do Irving and Love digest an on-the-record comment from James that he’d not only love to play with his equally high-profile friends, but that he’s thought about it a lot? The whole preamble to what James said was significant detail on how James and Wade had tried to convince Anthony to sign a short contract in 2007 that would have made him, like them, a free agent in 2010 — and free to come to Miami. (Instead, Anthony signed a five-year deal with the Denver Nuggets.)
James is his own nation-state. Nobody in Cleveland has the juice to publicly chastise him for much of anything, other than coach Tyronn Lue saying maybe he shouldn’t yuk it up with Wade at halftime of a game the Cavs are trailing by 21.
The Starters: Cavs Need Enforcer?
Is LeBron talking about Kendrick Perkins or does he mean something else?
Of course Irving and Love knew the pluses and minuses of what being in the LeBron fishbowl would be. Both never seriously considered free agency when the opportunity was available. Irving took a five-year, $90 million max extension in 2014, the first domino that led to James’ return. Love re-signed in Cleveland last summer for $110 million.
Some point out that James actually said all this Feb. 8, just before NBA All-Star 2016, when he was about to play with ‘Melo and D-Wade on the Eastern Conference All-Star team, and may have had the dream scenario on his mind. (Devil’s Advocate here: one could argue that’s even worse, as the Cavs were in the midst of one of their better stretches in late January and February, just after firing David Blatt, winning 10 of 12 games. Why would he pick that time to talk about playing with other guys?)
And: James is entitled to dream — “fantasy basketball,” as someone who knows him well said Sunday — without it being taken literally. I’d love to date Halle Berry, except for one small detail. Well, she’s not small; she’s 5-foot-4. And we’ve been married for almost 17 years. (Hi, honey! Love you!)
And, yes, James’ every utterance is parsed within an inch of its life by an insatiable media that overanalyzes everything he says and does (the words “click bait” are muttered in the Cavs’ organization when discussing local and national stories written about James). Surely, his comment that he’d quit the game if he’d been on a team that blew a 13-point lead in the last minute of a game (as Northern Iowa did in the NCAA Tournament) played long and loud in the Hawkeye State. And that is not fair.
Nor is the speculation that James was sending some kind of secret message last week by unfollowing the Cavs’ official Twitter account and other Twitter accounts. (The explanation from his camp was he was getting ready for the playoffs by eliminating potential online distractions; as he also unfollowed Sports Illustrated’s Lee Jenkins, to whom he gave his first-person account of returning to Cleveland in 2014. He has become a confidante, so this certainly seems like a reasonable explanation.) But that’s also the reality of someone who lives a large chunk of his life on social media.
The bigger issue is not what James said, but that he once again has complete impunity to do so.
Dan Gilbert tried tough talk, in hilarious Comic Sans fashion, in 2010. Four years later, he begged the man he called “our former hero” in that missive to come home, mistakes having been made (the passive voice seemingly always the voice in which public figures acknowledge their errors; not “I screwed up,” but “screw-ups occurred”). And Gilbert has been pretty quiet since.
The Starters: Biggest Threat To Cavs In East?
Brent Barry joins The Starters to discuss which of the Heat, Raptors or Pacers has the best shot at knocking off Cleveland.
And there is no one in the locker room remotely capable of saying or doing anything that he would feel compelled to heed. Understand this: there are maybe four or five people on earth that could do so, which is part of the challenge of putting a team around James. His knowledge of the game is unassailable; his physical gifts still formidable. There really aren’t that many other people who can tell him much about basketball. Alpha males don’t have antennae for non-alphas.
That is Griffin’s fault.
The Cavs thought tabbing Lue as Blatt’s replacement would at least put a person in charge that James would respect, and hold accountable, and he does. But it’s still a heavy lift for a young coach who’s just finding his own voice and does have to coach the rest of the team as well.
This is the problem in Cleveland: James is still well worth all the drama. When he is feeling good and fully engaged, as he was at the Garden Saturday against the Knicks in a triple-double performance, he is still one of the two or three best players on earth. He is still capable of putting a team on his (aching) back and will it to The Finals. He can still bring that championship to the ‘Land.
But the clock is always, always ticking in LeBron’s world, with his next big thing always right around the corner.
We will all be rubbernecking.
TOP O’ THE WORLD, MA!
(previous rank in brackets; last week’s record in parenthesis)
1) Golden State  (4-0): They’re 66-7. They’re going to break the Bulls’ record. I never really thought that was possible. But it is. And they will.
Sixers vs. Warriors
Klay Thompson goes off for 40 points as the Warriors beat the 76ers 117-105.
2) San Antonio  (2-2): You thought The Great Resting would stop just because the Spurs beat the Warriors a week ago?
3) Cleveland  (3-1): There’s no chance this could have ended well, for either party.
4) Oklahoma City  (3-0): Defensive Rating during seven-game win streak: 101.8 points per 100 possessions, No. 6 in the league; 100.1 points per game allowed, No. 5 in the league.
5) L.A. Clippers  (2-1): Blake Griffin should return from his four-game suspension next Sunday and the team has gone 28-14 in his absence this season. Yes, they still have Chris Paul, DeAndre Jordan and J.J. Redick, but that record is remarkable. Props to CP3 for showing amazing leadership this season.
6) Toronto  (1-2): Raptors can finally reach the 50-win plateau for the first time in franchise history with a win tonight over the Thunder (7:30 ET, NBA League Pass).
Raptors vs. Pelicans
All five Raptors starters score in double figures as they defeat the Pelicans 115-91.
7) Boston  (3-0): Still says here that the Celtics may wind up being the team that finally beats Golden State at Oracle.
8) Miami  (2-1): Josh Richardson numbers, post-All-Star break: 19 games, 27.3 minutes per game, 11 ppg, 55.8 percent shooting, 61.4 percent on 3-pointers, True Shooting Percentage in March of .689.
9) Atlanta  (3-1): Dennis Schroder present and accounted for, sir!
10) Charlotte  (3-1): One and a half games out of third in the Eastern Conference, a game behind third-place Atlanta in the loss column. Charlotte has not had a top-four team in the East since the first iteration of the Hornets’ franchise, then in New Orleans, finished fourth in 2002.
Hornets vs. Bucks
Nicolas Batum scores 25 points along with eight rebounds and seven assists to lead the Hornets past the Bucks, 115-91.
11) Memphis  (1-2): Grizzlies current offense: give the ball to Lance Stephenson. Clear a side. Watch. They could do a lot worse.
12) Indiana  (3-1): Per the NBA, the Pacers’ win over Philadelphia last Monday at Bankers’ Life Fieldhouse assured Indiana of a 27th straight season with a winning record at home, the longest current streak in the league.
13) Detroit  (3-1): Getting Tobias Harris from the Magic for Brandon Jennings on the short list for Sneaky Good Trade of the Year.
14) Portland  (2-1): Losing Meyers Leonard for the season is a blow to the Blazers’ upset chances in the first round.
15) Utah [NR] (2-1): Favorable schedule for the Jazz in its fight with Houston and Dallas for the final playoff spots in the west: Utah plays six of its last nine games at home and doesn’t go east of Denver in any of its last three road games.
Jazz vs. Timberwolves
Derrick Favors scores 19 points and Gordon Hayward adds 18 as the Jazz defeat the Timberwolves, 93-84.
Dropped out: Dallas 
TEAM OF THE WEEK
Brooklyn (2-1): Back-to-back impressive wins over Cleveland and Indiana, plus a five-point loss to one of the league’s hottest teams, the Hornets. The Nets’ young guys (Sean Kilpatrick, Shane Larkin, etc.) are making the most of their chance under interim coach Tony Brown — who’s not doing a bad job making a case for himself, either.
TEAM OF THE WEAK
Dallas (0-3): Mavs’ defense in March: 112.8 points per game, 3-10 record, currently out of the playoff race in the Western Conference.
NOBODY ASKED ME, BUT …
Who’s been the most disappointing team in the league this season?
This is not an objective question, “disappointing” having many different starting points (though it’s hard to imagine real disappointment in Philly or Brooklyn, two teams hip-deep into rebuilding). Every team not in the playoffs or in the playoff chase is obviously not happy. Even teams that are currently in can believe they should be in a better position.
But the question isn’t unfair. Expectations are a real thing, and how a team deals with them is an important part of assessing whether the players, coaches or management in place on a given team has been up to the challenge.
You can take the talk radio approach and say everyone should be fired and/or traded. That’s not the suggestion here. One season’s disappointment can fuel a resurgence the following year.
Witness how the Raptors have rebounded from getting swept in the first round last year, or how OKC has returned to form after injuries to Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook kept the Thunder out of the 2015 playoffs.
There are a few teams who have underachieved this year.
Many people thought the Milwaukee Bucks were ready to take the next step — including us at NBA TV, who did a Real Training Camp with them in Wisconsin before the start of the season. Milwaukee had come on strong the second half of last season and gave the Bulls a real fight in the first round of the playoffs. The Bucks were long and a defensive menace of a team, with Giannis Antetokounmpo leading the way. They added one of the top free agents on the market last summer in center Greg Monroe.
The Association: Milwaukee Bucks
Vince Cellini has the story of a Milwaukee Bucks team trying to fight through a slow start to prove that last season was no fluke.
But the Bucks haven’t sustained their momentum. They’ve fallen off a cliff defensively, dropping from second in Defensive Rating last season (99.3 points per 100 possessions) to 19th this season (105.6). The offense has improved some with Monroe and the return of a healthy Jabari Parker, along with Antetokounmpo taking over for the injured Michael Carter-Williams at the point. But Milwaukee is not going to make the playoffs in an improved (but hardly formidable) Eastern Conference.
At least the Bucks have time on their side: Antetokounmpo, Parker, Khris Middleton, Carter-Williams, rookie guard Rashad Vaughn and reserve big Johnny O’Bryant are all under 25. Maybe we were all just a year or two early in announcing the Bucks’ arrival.
Houston is also a prime candidate. The Rockets laid the blame for their poor start at coach Kevin McHale’s feet, but Houston has been the same .500-ish group after firing McHale on Nov. 18 that it was before. Coaching isn’t the problem. McHale and interim coach J.B. Bickerstaff know what they’re doing, and this is basically the same team that made the run to the Western Conference finals last year.
But even though James Harden has established career bests in points, rebounds and assists this season, the Rockets have regressed. Harden Vines have again become all the rage, showing his inattention to defense. Power forward has been a mess all season, with Terrence Jones injured and ineffective in 2015-16 and Houston willing to move Donatas Motiejunas to Detroit in a since-rescinded trade. Josh Smith Jerseys walked away in the summer to the Clippers, but his return in a January trade hasn’t re-awakened his stellar play from last season.
James Harden’s Mixtape
Check out James Harden’s sick NBA Mixtape and tune in to Saturday’s Primetime ABC game as the Rockets take on the Chicago Bulls at 8:30ET!
Michael Beasley, fresh off a stint in China, has already become one of the team’s best and most important players.
The Rockets have slipped some this season at their bread and butter, 3-pointers. They were 14th in 3-point percentage in 2014-15 (34.8 percent), but rank 22nd (34.4 percent) this season. That’s not a catastrophic fall there. Where Houston has gone over a cliff this season is defense.
Last year, the Rockets were sixth in the league in Defensive Rating, allowing 100.5 points per 100 possessions. They were tops in the NBA in defending 3-pointers last season, allowing just 32.2 percent. Their opponent’s Effective Field Goal Percentage, which factors in the impact of threes on overall shooting, ranked 24th in the league (.486).
We just haven’t found any consistency, and that’s the struggle we’ve been having. It’s the same team. We didn’t have a really good start, and it kind of carried throughout the entire year.
– James Harden, on his Houston Rockets’ struggles
All those numbers are worse this year. Much worse.
Today, Houston is 22nd in both Defensive Rating (106.1 points per 100) and defending 3-pointers, with their opponents’ percentage up to 36.3 percent. Their opponents’ Effective Field Goal percentage is up to 52.8 — almost a 180 from last year — as Houston has gone to eighth worst in that department this season.
It’s all left the Rockets in a dogfight with Utah and Dallas for the last playoff spot in the Western Conference.
“We have some really good games, and then we just let up a few,” Harden said Tuesday.
GameTime: Western Conference Playoff Race
The GameTime crew discusses the Western Conference playoff race as the season winds down.
“That’s kind of been our model all year,” he continued. “We just haven’t found any consistency, and that’s the struggle we’ve been having. It’s the same team. We didn’t have a really good start, and it kind of carried throughout the entire year. And a lot of injuries and things like that kind of nagged around. Like I said, it’s been tough. These last 10 or so games, we’ve been better. Just trying to figure it out and get as many wins as we can.”
Yet the Washington Wizards Jerseys is in even worse shape than the Rockets. The Wizards are 2.5 games behind eighth-place Detroit in the East with nine games to play, making them an increasingly long shot playoff team (even though they have the tiebreaker over the Pistons).
This was not supposed to happen. Washington was looking to build on last season, make another extended playoff run, and wait for Kevin Durant to sign on the dotted line. The Wizards gambled, bringing in a bunch of veterans on short deals to preserve cap room for Durant and to eventually extend Bradley Beal. But the gamble, so far, has backfired.
Washington has had its share of injuries, but the failures this season to become a pace-and-space offense — which directly led to a collapse of a defense that had been one of the league’s best the last few years — are much more to blame.
The Wizards have had a half-dozen inexplicable losses for a team looking to build on a second straight semifinals appearance. Among them: a sweep by the Nuggets this season, a loss to the Bucks just before the All-Star break and home losses to the Lakers, Knicks and Timberwolves, the last in double overtime on Friday after Washington blew a seven-point lead with 2:23 to play. (The Wizards were not helped by an unusual number of missed calls down the stretch.)
Timberwolves vs. Wizards
Karl-Anthony Towns scores 27 points and grabs 10 rebounds as the Timberwolves defeat the Wizards 132-129 in double overtime.
“We have too many hangovers,” Wizards coach Randy Wittman said Friday. “We win four in a row, you lose five in a row. Then we come right back and win five in a row. Now, what’s this (loss) going to be? We play Atlanta back-to-back; they’re a good team. They played hard, and they were better than us that night. We were better than them the night before. Now, you’ve got to end that.
“You’ve got to win six out of seven, then you’ve got to make it seven out of eight. And we’ve had a tough time all year when you’ve got a (winning) string going, and you lose a tough game, or you lose, and it just carries over. And it carried over (Friday).”
After seeing Paul Pierce and Otto Porter maul the Raptors in the first round last year, and almost pull off an upset of the Hawks in the semifinals with Wall missing three games (broken hand), the Wizards believed they needed to go small and shoot 3-pointers this season.
They benched Nene Jerseys, who had teamed with Marcin Gortat the previous two years to make Washington almost impregnable in the paint, in favor of Jared Dudley, who was just coming off of back surgery. (It’s hardly all Dudley’s fault, but even when healthy, he’s a very undersized four.)
I think at the start of the season we didn’t talk about team defense. We were worried about playing up-tempo and not focusing on that.
– Washington Wizards Jerseys star John Wall
Porter has been good, but not the player he was in the playoffs last year, when he averaged 10 points and 8.0 rebounds in 33 minutes, and shot 37.5 percent on 3-pointers. But all of that pales to Washington’s defensive regression.
Last season, the Wizards were fifth in the league in Defensive Rating (100 points per 100 possessions). This season, they’re 15th (103.9). Last season, the Wizards were ninth in points allowed (97.8). This season, they’re 21st (104.4). Last season, they were tied for 14th in opponent 3-point percentage (.349); this season, they’re 27th (.369).
“We lost a lot of games we should have won, just being terrible defensively all year,” Wall said. “That’s the reason why we’ve lost basketball games, because you couldn’t guard one on one, just stopping teams from rebounding the ball and stuff. I think at the start of the season we didn’t talk about team defense. We were worried about playing up-tempo and not focusing on that. And then when we got focused on that, we was a good defensive team again.”
The Wizards have turned up their D of late and boast a 102.2 Defensive Rating so far in March. But it might be too late. To be fair, two weeks remain in the season. Maybe the Wizards can catch fire, get right and sneak in. But, right now, it’s hard to think of a team that expected more coming into the season and has accomplished less.
How on earth did they wind up in this predicament?
“I wish I knew, Beal said Friday. “I wish I knew. I wish I knew.”
… AND NOBODY ASKED YOU, EITHER
Eureka! From Matt Brubaker:
I know it is only one game, but the Spurs’ defense of Stephen Curry looked an awful lot like Oscar Robertson’s comments on how to defend Curry. Do you think the Big O’s strategy was proven right by Pop and crew? Or was it a case of a superior effort given by the fresher team against a Warriors squad on the back end of a grinding stretch of games over the past week and a half? Either way let’s all hope we find out over the course of seven playoff games.
Inside Access: Warriors vs. Spurs
In a highly anticipated meeting of the two top teams in the NBA, the Spurs evened the series out at one game apiece with the Warriors.
It’s hard to take too much from any one game in a season, Matt. The Spurs had a good night defensively, but the Warriors had one of their worst shooting nights this season. As the scientists like to say, correlation does not imply causation. That’s not to say the Spurs can’t beat Golden State four times in a playoff series, only that there’s no magic bullet to beat a team that’s 66-7. It will take some combination of adjustments, luck with injuries and good fortune — that is, someone in blue and gold that hasn’t missed many open shots all season will have to do so at critical moments in May or June.
Minnesota Nice. Very, very nice. From Assi Peles:
I’ve been watching Timberwolves games this season and Karl-Anthony Towns has been a monster.
He’s winning the ROY award by a landslide an, IMHO, he is the best player on his team (Andrew Wiggins included).
Could you comment on who he reminds you of most? Is he a young KG, or a young(er) Anthony Davis Jerseys?
All things considered (injuries) is it fair to say he has a higher ceiling than AD? Or that he is already better??
Kia Awards: Karl-Anthony Towns
Karl-Anthony Towns is a nominee for the Kia Western Conference Rookie of the Month.
To answer your last questions first: no and no. But Towns does resemble Davis. I’d say their ceilings are equally high; both demonstrated early they can get after it at the defensive end, both at the rim and in space (watch Towns’ work here Friday night against Bradley Beal). Scouts knew Towns could shoot it in high school, though he didn’t get to display that much at Kentucky. While he wasn’t prolific from the perimeter before going to Lexington, Davis has expanded his range rapidly since turning pro.
But, he can’t stress this enough, he loves my work. From Barry Benjamin:
I get it, the MVP watch is a very rough measure of an overall body of work. It’s entirely subjective. It’s DA’s own personal opinion, to which you are eminently entitled — it’s your column!
But: Durant and Westbrook at No. 3 and No. 4? Shouldn’t winning count for something in the MVP analysis? Your column dropped Sunday night/Monday morning on March 14. From the All-Star break to your column dropping, OKC played 12 games. They lost eight of them. Eight! They’re record since the All-Star break was 4-8! That’s ‘tuurrrible’ as one of your colleagues might say. And OKC still gets not one, but two MVP candidates? Come on, DA!
I just read somewhere about how great Damian Lillard is — oh yeah, it was right above your MVP analysis, in that same column! Chris Paul’s Clippers squad drops off big time when he’s off the floor! Kyle Lowry is bulldogging the Raptors to the No. 2 spot in the East! And you go with two (not one, but two!) guys whose team dropped eight of 12? You’re better than that DA!
What could I possibly be thinking, putting the two guys most responsible for a team being 51-22 and winners of seven straight (including vs. San Antonio on Saturday night) on my MVP Watch list? Of course I should have Lillard, of the 38-36 Blazers, ahead of Durant and Westbrook, or players on other teams whose records are worse than OKC’s. Because one bad stretch during an otherwise very strong season is what should determine MVP status. I guess.
Send your questions, comments, criticisms and shoes for all those tiny feet to firstname.lastname@example.org. If your e-mail is sufficiently funny, thought-provoking, well-written or snarky, we just might publish it!
(last week’s averages in parentheses)
1) Stephen Curry (26.3 ppg, 4.5 rpg, 8 apg, .473 FG, .857 FT): Fascinating reporting by Ethan Strauss on how Under Armour got Curry in its stable (with a major assist from the unlikely Kent Bazemore), while Nike stood by and did next to nothing to keep him.
2) Kawhi Leonard (23.5 ppg, 7 rpg, .514 FG, .778 FT): Missed last two games with a right quad contusion.
3) Kevin Durant (24.7 ppg, 8.3 rpg, 5.3 apg, .560 FG, .769 FT): KD’s decision to wear his new KD Elite 8 PEs with built-in knee-high compression socks was not met with universal love.
4) Russell Westbrook (21.7 ppg, 8.3 rpg, 10.7 apg, .451 FG, .900 FT): A list of guys in the last 20 years that bring it every night like he does: Dennis Rodman, Allen Iverson, Alonzo Mourning. There are others, but that’s good company.
5) LeBron James (29 ppg, 8.5 rpg, 8.5 apg, .564 FG, .742 FT): All right-thinking people are praying for a Cavs-Heat semifinal playoff series, with LeBron going against his old squad — who will hopefully have a healthy Chris Bosh able to give Miami quality minutes off the bench.
I’M FEELIN’ …
1) If you know the man at all, you know Craig Sager will keep fighting, and never, ever give up. See you in the playoffs, my dude.
The Starters: #SagerStrong
The Starters show their support for Craig Sager, who continues to fight a battle with cancer.
2) There is nothing intelligent that can be said about the terror attack in Brussels that has killed more than 30 people, with hundreds injured. We can only be glad that many survived, including Hall of Famer Dikembe Mutombo, who was in the airport when the bombs went off.
3) I did not know that the Rockets had brought Clifford Ray in to help coach Dwight Howard. Good for them. He is a proud and talented man who has won a championship, and has only wanted to help make big men better players. Glad someone has given him a chance.
4) I crossed paths with Fran Dunphy for a brief period in the 1980s, when he was on the bench at American University and I was an undergrad there who helped out in the athletic department. But I’ve admired him for many, many years as he moved on to bigger and better things, ending up at Temple, where he’s coached the Owls with distinction for many years. And so I’m not surprised at all that he not only took a brutal loss in the NCAA Tournament last week with grace, and allowed an 11-year-old boy to ask him a question after that brutal loss in the postgame news conference. He not only took the question, but answered it in a beautiful way that made the boy feel good. That is what “Sir Francis” has always done, because he did the same for me and other kids at AU so many years ago.
NOT FEELIN’ …
1) A state can do whatever it wants if it believes such actions reflect the will of its citizens. So, the North Carolina General Assembly is free to call a special session to pass legislation that essentially reverses an anti-discrimination ordinance passed last month by the Charlotte City Council.
But private businesses — and, the last time I checked, the NBA is a private business — have the right to take actions reflecting the will of their employees, too. I can’t and don’t speak for the NBA, but it’s hard to believe the league would want to do business in a state whose legislators can pass a bill allowing businesses to discriminate against gay men and women, using the flimsy pretext that a man could potentially use a woman’s bathroom for predatory purposes by claiming to be transgender. Next year’s All-Star Game is in Charlotte. It does not have to remain in Charlotte. And it should not remain in Charlotte if this remains the position of the General Assembly. The NBA has 27 other cities (I am assuming it wouldn’t return immediately to Toronto, where this year’s game was, or go to L.A., where the 2018 game has been awarded) in which it can have its showcase event.
This league celebrated when Jason Collins came out. It has been there for people like Rick Welts, the Warriors’ CEO and the highest-ranking openly gay executive in team sports. It has chosen a side, consistently, over the years — the side of inclusion and acceptance. By allowing the All-Star Game to remain in Charlotte in the face of this legislation, it will be on the opposite side. And that would be wrong. The league put out a statement Thursday saying it is “dedicated to creating an inclusive environment for all who attend our games and events” and that it is “deeply concerned that this discriminatory law runs counter to our guiding principles of equality and mutual respect and do not yet know what impact it will have on our ability to successfully host the 2017 All-Star Game in Charlotte.”
It is right to give North Carolina time to assess whether it really wants this law to remain on the books. But the league needs to make its position clear: if the law stays, the NBA will not be in Charlotte next year. Period.
2) The Bulls don’t just look tired and bad, and nothing like a contender at present. They look like a team that’s already not heeding their coach, after less than a year. And that is scary stuff if you’re the management that hand-picked Fred Hoiberg to replace Tom Thibodeau.
GameTime: Bulls’ Woes
The GameTime crew discuss what is wrong with the Bulls as they chase a playoff spot.
3) Bad news on Anthony Davis Jerseys’ knee, but it could have been worse, one supposes. At least he won’t have to have his shoulder cut on as well.
4) RIP, Ken Howard — aka, The White Shadow”, one of the most memorable shows of my adolescence. It was so rare in those days for there to be a TV show not only with people of color, but people of color in authority over their white counterparts. That Ken Reeves, the former NBA player turned high school basketball coach portrayed by Howard, has to comply and work with Principal Jim Reeves (played by Ed Bernard) — and, later, Principal Sybil Buchanan (Joan Pringle) — was a power structure not seen on TV in the ’70s.
BY THE NUMBERS
$102,800,000 — Maximum price of construction costs to be borne by the city of Minneapolis as part of the projected $129 million renovation of Target Center, scheduled to begin in May with a targeted completion date in the fall of 2017. The substantial remodeling will include a new main lobby of the building (including a five-story glass wall), enhanced club and dining options and a new scoreboard that will be installed this summer.
10,684 — Announced attendance at Pepsi Center for last Wednesday’s game between the Denver Nuggets and Philadelphia 76ers, though substantially fewer people actually showed up after a March blizzard brought more than 19 inches of snow to the Denver area. The weather was so bad referee Rodney Mott couldn’t get in, leaving officials Derek Richardson and Sean Corbin to ref the game. At least those who braved the conditions and came out got to see this at the end.
Mudiay’s Game Winner
With four seconds to go in regulation, Emmanuel Mudiay connects on a game-winning half-court prayer to seal the win for Denver over Philadelphia.
38 — Regular season victories for the NBA D-League’s Sioux Falls Skyforce, the Heat’s affiliate, tying the D-League record for wins in a single season. With one win in either of its last two games, Sioux Falls, currently 38-10, will break the record of 38-12 set in the 2011-12 season by the L.A. D-Fenders. The Skyforce plays at home Tuesday against Iowa.
Q&A: DWIGHT HOWARD
Joy has been replaced by job.
That one-letter switch is pithy, to be sure, but nonetheless an accurate representation of the change in Dwight Howard’s demeanor these days. Long gone — perhaps, simply, now withheld from public view — is the goofy, gangly kid who did a devastating impression of his then-coach, Stan Van Gundy, and reveled in the attention that came with being the game’s best big man.
He wowed with his cape-clad dunks in the 2008 Dunk Contest, having loved the “Superman” moniker he gave himself. He has since been injured and blamed and shunned, the target of constant prodding from another great center who started his NBA career in Orlando, Shaquille O’Neal. He blew up the Magic when he grew tired of Van Gundy’s demanding style, and even after Orlando fired SVG, Howard pushed to be moved — first to the Lakers, where he spent a miserable year with Kobe Bryant, and then to Houston as a free agent, where the idea was that Howard would grow old playing next to James Harden.
Howard Muscles Into Dunk
Dwight Howard uses his strength to power into the lane for a two-handed dunk over his defender.
But that decision has seemingly curdled as well.
The same team that got to the Western Conference finals less than a year ago has fallen apart, now fighting just to get into the playoffs. Houston fired coach Kevin McHale after 11 games, but the Rockets are no better without him, and the subpar season has led to friction and speculation — friction between Howard and the organization, which explored trade options for him before the deadline in February, and speculation that Howard will bolt this summer in free agency, having had his fill of watching Harden’s dominance of the ball (he told USA Today’s Sam Amick in an extended interview last week that he has “no hate in his heart” for Harden).
At 30, Howard is still averaging a double-double this season, but his recurring back problems look to have slowed his offensive game significantly. His search for his lost joy continues.
Me: From the 30,000-foot view of someone who hasn’t been with your team all season: why are you here, scrambling just to make the playoffs, after having such a great season last year?
Dwight Howard: I don’t think we’ve played our best basketball all season long. We’ve had our highs and our lows, and we haven’t been as consistent as we need to. And that’s why we’re in the position we’re in.
Howard Rejects The Shot
Dwight Howard goes up and punishes the shot attempt by Jerami Grant.
Me: The numbers in March have been better defensively. What has changed or improved?
DH: Well, I just think our communication is one thing. And the trust, especially on the defensive end. You have to be able to trust your teammates. Because sometimes you may be reluctant to go if you don’t think your teammate is going to be behind you. It’s just small things that we have to fix, and I think we’ve done a better job of that.
Me: You said something in the USA Today interview that was interesting about shots. When you get a lot of shots, you have put up numbers this season.
DH: Well, I didn’t actually say that; it was Sam (Amick). I don’t really pay attention to that. I just know that I have to do whatever it takes for my team to win. I think James has done a good job of scoring, you bring in Michael Beasley, who’s done a good job of scoring. I have to really focus on helping our team defense. All of us have to do a better job on defense, and the offense will be easier. But we have to focus in on the defensive side of things: how can we help each other? Because there’s going to be mental breakdowns, there’s going to be times when people get beat on backdoors and guards get beat coming down the lane. And we have to be the protectors. I think we’ve gotten a lot better at it. And I think by the time the playoffs come around, we’ll have everything down pat.
Me: What is most encouraging about the way you’re playing, and what concerns you the most?
Do all of the things that can show our value on the floor. Just play hard and everything else will come from that.
– Rockets’ Dwight Howard on big men in today’s NBA
DH: Well, I think our defense has been pretty good. Our communication has been a lot better. Just like with any relationship, the biggest thing is communication and trust. It may take a while, but I think our communication and trust has gotten a lot better. The thing that I think can concern our team is just being consistent. We haven’t been able to be consistent all year, and I think the more consistent we become as a team, the better we’ll be, and you’ll see more wins than losses.
Me: How surprising is that? This is basically the same team from last year that went on that run.
Howard Sends It Back
Dwight Howard goes up for the massive rejection on Rudy Gobert.
DH: It is. But this is a totally different season, and I think teams are playing us a little differently than they did last season. And they’re really attacking us. We have to understand that. We have to know that every team watched us play and make that run to get to the Western Conference finals. They’re going to come out and try to destroy us, and we have to be ready for that.
Me: Let me amend what I said before: you’re right. You didn’t talk about shots. But you did say that because of the way the game is played today, big men don’t seem to be as valued as in years past.
DH: I think if you watch a team like Golden State, they shoot more threes than just doing postups and stuff like that. I think everybody is kind of taking that same style of play on offense, where they have one big on the floor. They call it ‘small ball’ now. It’s not just me, but I look at all the guys around the league — DeAndre [Jordan], you’ve got Andre Drummond, you’ve got those guys that are in the paint. It’s small ball now, so everybody’s forcing us out to play guys like Draymond Green, all those stretch fours. So it’s a different style of play. When I first came into the league, it wasn’t as much. Now, it’s like every team is doing it. It’s a pretty good strategy, but it’s just something the game has evolved into.
Me: Do you think it devalues big men?
I don’t take any of the stuff he says to heart. I understand that he has to do a job, and his job is to motivate me. And at the same time, he has to be one of my hardest critics, because he played the same position.
– Dwight Howard, on his relationship with Shaquille O’Neal
DH: I just think we’ve got to do more to show our value. So instead of focusing on the things, instead of letting things frustrate us, we’ve got to do all the little things — block shots, rebound, deflect balls, go for steals. Do all of the things that can show our value on the floor. Just play hard and everything else will come from that.
Me: But every guy wants to touch the ball, no matter what position they play.
DH: That is true. Like I said, our job has to be, let’s focus on the things that we can control. That’s our energy, our effort and rebounding. That’s something that nobody can take away from us.
Me: You have changed agents, and you’re now with Perry Rogers, Shaq’s agent.
DH: Yes, sir.
DH: Well, I just felt like he has an opportunity to just focus on me. Any other agent, they have a lot of different clients and stuff like that. I felt like he was able to just focus on me. I think he’s a really good guy.
Me: Did you know him at all before?
DH: Not at all.
GameTime: Dwight Howard Discussion
Isiah Thomas and Brian Shaw discuss Dwight Howard’s play as of late.
Me: So Shaq introduced the two of you?
DH: He did, actually. So I had a great conversation with Shaq, not just about having an agent, but basketball and life and all that stuff. And he introduced me to Perry.
Just like with any relationship, the biggest thing is communication and trust.
– Dwight Howard
Me: Would you say your relationship with Shaq has improved over the last few years?
DH: I don’t think that we’ve had a bad relationship. We’ve sat down and talked about different things, and why he’s done what he’s done. He’s like, ‘I just want to push you.’ Kareem [Abdul-Jabbar] and Wilt [Chamberlain], he said, did it to him, all of the centers he watched growing up, they tried to find ways to motivate them. That’s what he feels like he has to do with me. I don’t take any of the stuff he says to heart. I understand that he has to do a job, and his job is to motivate me. And at the same time, he has to be one of my hardest critics, because he played the same position. I’m never going to be upset about that. I don’t think a fan would really understand, because they’re just watching. But I totally understand.
Me: The stickum stuff. I know you said you used that for years, right?
DH: Yes, sir.
Me: So what do you do now?
Howard Ball Drama
Dwight Howard rubbed his hands on the ball before a free throw. After some confusion, the ball was thrown out of the game.
DH: Nothing. I just go play. I never knew that it was anything illegal, because I’ve been using it. I’ve never hid it from anybody. It’s been in plain sight. From the first time I used it, I’ve used the powder. It basically does the same thing as the powder. I just didn’t want the powder all over my hands when I’m playing. So I didn’t know there was an issue. If there was, I apologize for people thinking that it was. But that’s not my focus. I just can’t get a deal with Elmer’s Glue now.
Me: There have been big guys like Kevin Willis that had small hands. Is your hand size at all an issue with why you used it?
DH: Well, I just know that putting a lot of lotion on and all that stuff, it affects how the basketball feels. So I used to use the powder. I’ve used the rosin stuff. I also used the stuff called Power Grip. That’s on the floor, all this stuff is at every arena, at every scorer’s table. Just try to find ways to not let the ball just slip. And it’s not like I’m playing football where I needed to catch touchdowns or anything like that. If anything, I probably have to stop using it, because it does mess up my free throws. I just think it was blown out of proportion.
TWEET OF THE WEEK
— Lakers guard Nick Young (@NickSwagyPYoung), Wednesday, 1:10 p.m., reacting to a Twitter critic who said “you ain’t never gonna see @NickSwagyPYoung pass the ball.”
THEY SAID IT
“There are some teams, it’s going to be hard for him. The Warriors, for example, where you have to be up and double-team some players and rotate and sometimes (have the big men) be on smaller players. There are some other teams that are maybe a little slower and he’s going to be huge.”
— Manu Ginobili, on the potential impact of 7-foot-3 rookie center Boban Marjanovic on the Spurs’ playoff chances this year.
“We give out name cards to keep track. ‘Hi, my name is …'”
— Grizzlies’ Coach Dave Joerger, on the incredible run of injuries his team has suffered this season and the resulting signing and playing of players that don’t know one another — or the coaches, for that matter.
“I got my rest last season and earlier this year. I’m good.”
— Kevin Durant, to local reporters in Oklahoma City, on whether he needed to sit out a game or two down the stretch of the regular season in order to be fresh for the playoffs.
Longtime NBA reporter and columnist David Aldridge is an analyst for TNT. You can e-mail him here and follow him on Twitter.
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