Friday, June 28, 2013

Dwight Howard, Ex-Laker

Nothing has changed.

In January I reported that center Dwight Howard would never sign a long term contract with the L.A. Lakers as long as Mike D'Antoni is coach. With the signing deadline a few days away, the situation is still the same. If the Lakers dump D'Antoni, Dwight will sign. The Lakers haven't budged so Dwight is almost certainly  leaving. It's that simple.

The main problem is that Howard hates D'Antoni's system, which is not friendly to post-up centers like him. It's a run-run format suitable to gazelles, with defense an afterthought. Howard, however, thrives in a slow-down system which emphasizes defense. With D'Antoni in charge, Howard doesn't fit in. He's a fish out of water. But that's not all.  There's also a personal element, which is crucial--which few have mentioned.

According to sources close to several Lakers players, Howard doesn't like D'Antoni and vice versa. Their personalities clashed instantly. D'Antoni is grumpy, bossy and insensitive. Behind his back, many of the players consider him a jerk, someone you can't talk to. You do things his way, and that's it. But Howard, a gentle soul, needs sensitive, kid-gloves handling, particularly from a coach trying to stuff an alien system down his throat. Howard is never going to sign with the Lakers as long as D'Antoni is in charge.

Remember, Howard signed with the Lakers when Mike Brown was coach. Defense-oriented Brown coveted Howard, but alienated the rest of the team and was fired early last season. Enter DAntoni. Enter Dwight's nightmare.

Look at it from Howard's point of view. Why should he stay? The Lakers are going to be a bad team for a while. Coming off Achilles-tendon surgery, iconic star Kobe Bryant is an unknown. For sure, though, he won't be the old Kobe. In addition, age has wrecked Steve Nash. For Pau Gasol, a combination of age, bad knees and D'Antoni's system is lethal. Another negative: the Laker bench just plain stinks. Yet another minus: the top teams in the Western Conference are getting better. Meanwhile the Lakers, with few bargaining chips, can't improve. Why would Howard sign on, long-term, to a sinking ship? Add to that nasty mix, his disdain for D'Antoni plus the aggravation of playing second fiddle to Bryant--a constant thorn in Howard's ego--and you have a Howard exit.

Money isn't a factor. Dallas and Houston, the teams knocking at Howard's door, can offer nearly as much. But there are so many millions involved, Howard seems to be willing to sacrifice five-to-ten million to be in a comfortable situation.

The only thing that could keep Howard from bailing is for the Lakers to fire D'Antoni. That, however, is unlikely. First of all, it would be costly, with the Lakers paying two fired coaches (Brown and D'Antoni) plus the new guy. It would also be a dagger to the Lakers' pride. If D'Antoni is let go, it would be clear Howard called the shot. That would make the Laker management appear weak, and they couldn't handle that.

But if Howard defies the odds and signs with the Lakers, you can be sure D'Antoni is history. The firing wouldn't happen right away, but certainly before the season starts. That's a long shot, though..

 Next week, look for Howard to have a new home.



Monday, June 24, 2013

Why Coach Doc Rivers Is Really Leaving Boston

Boston Celtics' coach Doc Rivers just jumped to the L.A. Clippers, signing three-year, $21 million deal. But why would the Celts, who received a 2015 No.1 draft choice in return, dump a coach who's considered one of the top five in the NBA?

Simple. There's bad blood between Boston point guard Rajon Rondo and Rivers---real bad blood. One of them had to go, and it wasn't going to be Rondo, who's one of the top ten players in the NBA. Sources close to two Boston players report that Rondo, who sustained a season-ending ACL injury on Jan. 25,  went to GM Danny Ainge with a him-or-me ultimatum, basically forcing Rivers out the door.

Around the league, insiders have been buzzing all season about the raging conflict between Rivers and Rondo. More than once, sources say, the two almost came to blows. Apparently Ainge really wanted to keep Rivers and spent a lot of time playing peacemaker. But the relationship between Rivers and Rondo was too damaged to repair.

Rivers and Rondo have been at each other's throats for a while. The problem is that Rondo is a selfish jerk who prefers to do things his own way. A coach's nightmare, he's immature and thoroughly unpredictable. He doesn't always play hard. Against the better teams he'll go all out but will often not show up against lesser competition. To him a coach is an obstacle, not a source of guidance. Rivers was talking but headstrong Rondo wasn't listening. During games, Rivers would diagram plays that Rondo often ignored. The two tried to keep a lid on the turmoil but sometimes it boiled over in public. Court-side fans at the Boston Gardens occasionally witnessed expletive-laced arguments between them. In spite of his rogue point guard, Rivers, a truly skilled leader, has able to guide the Celts to successful seasons.

Stlll, the coach's exit was no surprise to insiders.The Celtics had been quietly shopping Rivers this past season. Many teams would have loved to have him but there was a  problem--his salary, the highest in the league. Hardly anybody wanted to pay it. The Clippers weren't considered a candidate because their owner Donald Sterling is notoriously cheap and would balk at paying Rivers $7 million a year. But the No.1 Clipper, indispensable point guard Chris Paul, becomes a free agent at the end of the month. To keep him, to get him to sign an extended contract, Sterling would have to sign a coach he liked. Sterling just fired a coach, Vinny Del Negro, Paul didn't like. Paul wanted Rivers. Case closed.

So now, sporting a coach with championship pedigree, the Clippers, who were first-round casualties in the recent playoffs, are on the rise. With some roster tweaks they just might make the Western conference finals next season. The Celtics? They're headed in the opposite direction.

They're in rebuilding mode but they've got to do it with a featherweight foundation. Their first-rate coach is gone. Two of their three stars, Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce, are ancient and likely to be traded for building blocks. Rondo is toxic. Boston needs some big-time players but many don't want to play with him. The Celts have to find a new coach who's not only high-quality but who's approved by Rondo and won't be putty in his hands.

Good luck with that.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

LeBron Raging At Underperforming Heat

LeBron James is steaming at the Heat. 

Don't buy that cool, calm, determined act he's putting on for the media. Behind the scenes, according to two sources close to a Heat player, LeBron, since Miami was crushed by the San Antonio Spurs Tuesday night, has been on the warpath. Report the sources, he's angry, surly and bursting at the seams, on the verge of  ripping the locker room apart. What's happening is that he's boiling mad at his teammates for their lazy effort in the NBA Finals, which Miami trails 1-2. In the entire series, Miami has played only one exemplary quarter, that final one of the second game--their lone win.

A raging LeBron is apparently a frightening creature, one that's not easy to deal with. He's the team leader, the guiding force. But he has created an unpleasant atmosphere, a locker room dripping with tension. The players are on edge, not sure how to deal with him.Quite possibly, his fuming may be doing more harm than good.

Everybody, says the sources, is scared of LeBron. The person who really fears him most, they say, is coach Eric Spoelstra, who knows his job is based on the superstar's approval. If LeBron doesn't want Spoelstra in charge, the coach is history. LeBron is the lion and Spoelstra is the lamb. If the Heat lose this series, guess who may be collateral damage.

People close to the team know part of the problem is that LeBron is mad at himself. During the season, he got caught up in chasing the Lakers' record, 33-game winning streak The Heat's streak, which reached 27 games, took its toll on the team. The players are burned out. Pursuing the streak, they were giving the kind of effort normally reserved for playoff games. Now, in the playoffs, when it really counts, many of the older players are running on empty.

What LeBron wants his teammates to do now is funnel all their energy into winning three games. That title would mean that Miami reached the NBA Finals three times in a row and won twice. That's respectable.
If they lose this series, the person who'll take the heat is LeBron. What he's done so far, his status as the best player on the planet, won't matter. He'll be the star who could only lead his team to one win in three NBA Finals. That's a huge stain on his legacy.

Clearly, this is the swan song for the Heat's Big Three. Never a great interior presence in the first place, Chris Bosh has peaked. To stay competitive, Miami needs someone more ferocious on the inside. Also,.Dwyane Wade has faded dramatically, a victim of age and injury. He's the one who was most damaged by the ill-fated streak chase. Without those two in top form, Miami won't be a championship contender any longer.

Miami, now, may have just a fifty-fifty shot at winning the championship, but they should beat the Spurs tonight, evening the series. For one thing, Miami usually follows a crushing defeat with a win. Also, Miami hasn't lost two in a row since January. In addition, and maybe most important, Spurs' point guard Tony Parker has a sore hamstring, which should limit his mobility. If he's not in top shape--his speed is one of his assets--the Spurs' chances of winning dip drastically.

Miami is capable of playing lights-out defense. But with so many aged players, they can't do it that often. The reserve of skills is there. Miami just has to tap into it.

Miami has to find a way around the Spurs' game plan, which has worked well so far. Defensively, San Antonio is ganging up on LeBron, limiting him to outside shots, which he's only made sparingly, daring the other Heat players to step up, which they haven't. That's how the Spurs beat Memphis, neutralizing star Zach Randolph, which essentially crippled the Grizzlies.

The Heat entered this trio of San Antonio games knowing they needed just one victory, feeling they could win the last two in Miami. Well, tonight's the night. This is one of the most important games of LeBron's career. If the Heat lose, they're in a 1-3 hole, just about guaranteeing a Spurs' championship. If the Heat don't win this title, many of these players will be gone next season. Can angry LeBron cool off long enough to be a capable leader and spur his team to victory?

I think so. So do the odds-makers, who have made the Heat a one-point favorite. But if the Heat lose tonight. I feel sorry for LeBron's teammates. If you think he's mad and unpleasant now, imagine what he'll be like after such a crucial loss.

Thursday, June 6, 2013

NBA Finals--Reluctant Edge To The Heat

Miami Heat vs. San Antonio Spurs. What happens in the NBA Finals, which begin tonight in Miami? Handicapping this one means plowing through a maze of  X factors. Too many things can go either way. After weighing them all,  I pick the Heat, but with no great enthusiasm. A Spurs win wouldn't surprise me.

In gambling circles, Miami, which has home-court advantage, is a solid favorite in the series. In tonight's game, the Heat is a five-point favorite. During the season, Miami was perceived as a super team that would waltz through the playoffs. In the Finals, though, they have just a slight edge over the Spurs.

After being extended  to seven games by the Indiana Pacers in the Eastern Finals,, Miami looks quite mortal. A defense-oriented team with a so-so offense, Indy should have been duck soup for the Heat. But Miami's soft interior, weighed down by sub-par Chris Bosh performances, nearly spelled its doom. The Spurs, anchored by ageless Tim Duncan and speedy point-guard Tony Parker, is a tougher, better-balanced team, presenting a much more formidable challenge to Miami.

The Heat has to be worn out after that grueling Pacers series. Meanwhile, the Spurs have been relaxing for nine days since they polished off the Memphis Grizzlies. The rest should benefit banged-up Manu Ginobili and ancient center Tim Duncan. But so many times in this situation, rest equals rust. So for the Spurs, the extended vacation may not be a plus.

One way to look at the Finals is as a brains vs, brawn contest--the smarts of Spurs coach Gregg Popovich against the muscle and skills of Miami small forward LeBron James, the consensus  best player in the game. In the battle of smarts, the Heat's headman Erik Spoelstra is no match for Popovich. During a game Popovich can quickly manipulate players and set up schemes to the Spurs advantage. He's famous for exploiting a team's weaknesses and taking away their offensive strengths. But Popovich will have his hands full controlling James, who has the power and savvy to mount a team on his shoulders and rumble to victory.

How the Spurs fare will be partly a function of how well James is defended by small forward Kawhi Leonard. Though Leonard will have help, the lion's share of this critical assignment will fall on him. If he's ineffective or constantly limited by foul trouble, James will run wild.

Don't look to history for help in handicapping this series. They played each other twice this season, with the. Heat winning both times. Neither team, though, was at full strength during these games. The Spurs did face James once in the Finals, back in 2007, but that was when he was with Cleveland and his jump shot and his post game were a shadow of what they are now. The Spurs swept the Cavaliers then. Don't expect the Spurs to sweep the James team this time.

What about the benches?. The Heat can get a boost from Chris Anderson and Ray Allen, but the Spurs can bring in Ginobili, a starter-quality backup who scores well enough to change a game. Advantage, Spurs.

Who has the better defense? That's a tough call. In the Heat-Pacers series. Miami was dominated on the boards most of the time but, in that seventh game romp, ruled the offensive boards, rattled the Pacers into a flood of turnovers and cruised to victory. It was the kind of masterful defense the Heat played in 2011 and 2012. If they play that way consistently in this series, the Spurs won't have a chance.

On the other hand, look at what the Spurs did in their playoff series. They beat teams with radically different styles--the Warriors, known for their long-range bombing, and the Grizzlies, terrors of the interior. What Popovich did to the Grizzlies was particularly impressive. With double teams, he defused Memphis powerhouse Zach Randolph. Without Zach's scoring, the Grizzlies were wimps..

A major X factor in the NBA Finals is Dwyane Wade's bum knee, which limits his explosiveness and has dropped him, on the quality scale, a notch or two. You never know which Wade you're going to get. But you do know what you're going to get from the Spurs' Parker and Duncan--skilled, ferocious play.

Will high-class play by the Spurs stars be enough? Probably not. That's because LeBron will, no doubt, be in superman-mode. What happens if the Heat loses? That will mean that LeBron went to the Finals three times in a row and lost twice. That would kill him. In his head, he's measuring  himself against Kobe Bryant and Michael Jordon. In this situation, those two giants would never lose two out of three. Lebron won't let that happen either.