Winderman: The fuzzy line of NBA talk, tampering

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Sorry, just not sure how this works anymore, when it comes to what is tampering what is innocent conversation, and, frankly what is NBA protocol and civility.

Perhaps because Kobe Bryant and LeBron James aren’t impending free agents, it’s all simply viewed as innocuous.

So Larry Bird, in his role as Pacers president, talks freely about Kobe being the player he’d want at his side if winning was the priority, but LeBron as the choice if it came to having fun on the court. Oh, and he says LeBron, by far, is the best player in the game today.

Kobe follows up by saying that if he was forming the league’s top duo, his choice for a partner would be LeBron.

Again innocent, candid, innocuous fun.

But what if Bird, whose team could be well-positioned in 2012 free agency, substituted Dwight Howard, a potential impending free agent, when he instead used the names of Kobe and LeBron on that ESPN podcast?

And what if Kobe, who has spoken openly of seeking a roster upgrade, had used Dwight’s name during his interview with ESPN’s Los Angeles radio affiliate, instead of LeBron?

Innocent, candid, innocuous fun then?

Or is this merely how it goes now with every comment parsed as if spoken in some type of code, including James’ reactions to the actions of others?

As a player, there are limitations of league influence on Bryant, similar to those who wanted a review of the plotting of James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh in advance of 2010 free agency.

With an executive, there is more significant oversight.

The point being that there often is an agenda behind the words, particularly as the trading deadline and then free agency approach. Perhaps not in these cases, but certainly in others.

Bryant mentioned how the “pieces would fit” with LeBron, as he very much would like Mitch Kupchak to get pieces to fit.

Bird spoke as a former player in regards to Kobe and LeBron, but also as an executive positioned for a major franchise makeover.

In David Stern’s world, there are understood limitations when it comes to freedom of speech. Just ask Mark Cuban.

These comments clearly didn’t go too far, although some might not say the same about LeBron’s tongue-in-cheek response to the blame game.

On one hand, in this age of social media, there is plenty to be said about hearing directly from the greats, of how the minds of Bird, LeBron and Kobe, and, yes, even Kendrick Perkins work.

On the other hand, perhaps such comparative lip-ature is better reserved for the offseason, when it doesn’t detract from the games, raise eyebrows about ultimate intent.

Ira Winderman writes regularly for NBCSports.com and covers the Heat and the NBA for the South Florida Sun-Sentinel. You can follow him on Twitter at @IraHeatBeat.

Dwight Howard on Hornets’ coach Clifford: “It’s a great feeling when somebody believes in you”

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Dwight Howard‘s game is much better than his reputation among fans.

He’s not the Defensive Player of the Year/All-NBA/MVP candidate level player he was back in Orlando, but Howard is still one of the best rebounders in the game, he’s strong defensively, and he’s an efficient scorer inside. He’s a quality center, if he plays within himself and is used well. His perception as a guy who does not take the game seriously and held back Houston and Atlanta in recent years has validity (he plays better in pick-and-roll than on the move, but wants the ball in the post), but the idea he is trash is flat-out wrong. He’s still good.

Howard wants to change his reputation, rewrite the final chapters of his career, and told Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN that Steve Clifford’s Charlotte Hornets are the place that is going to happen.

“The other places I was, the coaches didn’t really know who I am,” Howard told ESPN. “I think that they had perception of me and ran with it. Cliff knows my game. He knows all the things that I can do. I’m very determined to get back to the top. It’s a great feeling when somebody believes in you. They aren’t just saying it; they believe it. It really just pushed me to the limit in workouts: running, training, everything. I want to do more.

“In Orlando, I was getting 13-15 shots a game. Last season, in Atlanta, it was six shot attempts. It looks like I’m not involved in the game. And if I miss a shot, it sticks out because I am not getting very many of them. But I think it’s all opportunity, the system. I haven’t had a system where I can be who I am since I was in Orlando.”

Howard averaged 8.3 field goal attempts per game in Atlanta, which is about five a game below his peak. Last season 75 percent of Howard’s shots came within three feet of the rim — is is not there to space the floor, however, he can still move fairly well off the roll and is a good passer for a big.

Last season, 28 percent of Howard’s possessions came on post ups, and he averaged a pedestrian 0.84 points per possession on those. On the 21 percent of shots he got on a cut, he averaged a very good 1.36 PPP. When he got the ball back as a roll man (again on the move), it was 1.18 PPP. The challenge long has been Howard is better on the move but doesn’t feel involved unless he gets post touches, and if he doesn’t feel involved and engaged he’s not the same player.

Maybe Clifford can make this all work with some older plays where Howard feels comfortable.

Charlotte, with Howard in the paint and on the boards, should get back to being a top 10 NBA defensive team, not the middle of the pack as they were last season. Clifford is better than that as a coach, and Howard is an upgrade in the paint (on both ends). Charlotte should be a playoff team again in the East.

But it all will come back to Howard. Fair or not. And Wojnarowski is right, this is Howard’s last best chance to write the ending he wants to his career.

Friday afternoon fun: Watch James Harden’s 10 best plays from last season

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James Harden had a historic season in Houston.

Since it’s Friday afternoon and your sports viewing options consist of watching guys about to be cut from NFL rosters try to impress, why not check out Harden’s best plays from last season. It’s worth a couple minutes of your time.

Mavericks sign Jeff Withey to one-year contract

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Jeff Withey‘s ex-fiancée accused him of domestic violence, but he was not charged.

That frees him to continue his basketball career, which he’ll do in Dallas.

Shams Charania of Yahoo Sports:

The Mavericks could use another center, even if they re-sign Nerlens Noel. Salah Mejri is the only other true center, though Dirk Nowitzki will now play the position.

Withey is a good rim protector. Just don’t ask him to do anything away from the basket.

Dallas annually brings excess players to training camp and has them compete for regular-season roster spots. Whether or not his salary is guaranteed, Withey will likely fall into that competition.

Marc Gasol: If Grizzlies don’t share my goal of continued growth, we might have to revisit things

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The Grizzlies’ Grit & Grind era has ended.

Zach Randolph signed with the Kings, and Tony Allen appears likely to leave Memphis, too. The Grizzlies are prioritizing younger/cheaper players like Ben McLemore and Tyreke Evans.

Marc Gasol via Ala Carta, as translated by HoopsHype:

I’m very ambitious and I’ve wanted Memphis to be a great franchise. We’ve grown a lot the last 6-7 years, but we have to keep growing. If this is not lined up, maybe we may have to revisit things.

Gasol has been loyal to Memphis, and his first wish is probably winning there. But Giannis Antetokounmpo put it well: Teams must also do right by their players. Gasol is 32 and doesn’t have much time in his prime left. I see why rebuilding wouldn’t interest him.

But what will he do about it if the Grizzlies don’t prioritize the present? They made their push last summer with a max contract for Chandler Parsons, but because Parsons can’t stay healthy, that deal only inhibits team growth.

Gasol is locked up for two more years before a player option. He doesn’t have much leverage. This is part of the reason LeBron James keeps signing short-term contracts. Gasol doesn’t have the same ability to steer his team in his desired direction

On the potentially bright side, rebuilding teams often don’t have much use for 32-year-olds guaranteed more than $72 million over the following three years. If the fit devolves, Memphis becomes more likely to trade him.