It’s midnight, let the Dwight Howard madness begin

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Like a Disney fairy tale, when the clock struck midnight Dwight Howard has gotten what he always wanted, what he has earned the right to by playing out his contract:

He is a free agent. As of this moment.

For the next 48 hours — starting with the Rockets just after the official start of free agency at midnight as Sunday flipped to Monday and running for a couple days — six teams will come to Los Angeles and get their chance to make a pitch to Howard. All of them will offer him a max contract (the Lakers can offer more with his Bird rights) but this will swing more on other factors, not the dollars.

Anyone who tells you right now they know what Howard is going to do is selling something — nobody knows. Not even Howard. You can handicap the field, but the fact is he has wanted this moment, he has wanted teams to come recruit him, and he’s going to listen. He is going to savor this. And we know from experience Howard is not the most decisive guy ever, so this thing could go just about any direction.

Here are the teams walking in the door, in my perceived order of their chances.

• Houston Rockets. Howard’s leaky entourage is saying he is making a decision based on basketball reasons, and if that is the case Houston may well win this thing. The Rockets are a good team already with James Harden as the playmaker and good role players around him such as Chandler Parsons, Jeremy Lin and Omer Asik. Add a healthy Dwight Howard to this roster and they are instant contenders. We can debate if they beat Oklahoma City or San Antonio, let alone the Heat or the best of the East, but they are in the conversation.

In addition, the Rockets have strong ties to the Chinese market (from the Yao Ming era and now with Lin), a lot of their games are still shown there, which would be good for Howard’s branding. Hakeem Olajuwon will be part of the group making a pitch to Howard.

The question is the offense — the Rockets will say they will feature him. And they will, to an extent. But this will still also be Harden’s team. For the Rockets to be truly effective Howard will have to run the pick-and-roll with Harden — last season Howard scored 1.29 points per possession and shot 79.6 percent as the roll man, he scored 0.74 points per possession on 44.5 percent shooting in the post. Whichever team lands Howard needs to use him more this way and keep him moving, not just posting up.

• Los Angeles Lakers. I can think of 30 million reasons the Lakers are not out of this discussion. Howard is a guy just coming off back surgery that impacted his play last season, and the Lakers can offer five years and $117 million (thanks to larger raises) than other teams can offer ($87 million). Yes, Howard is going to get a contract after this one and teams in Texas can sell the sales tax angle, but $30 million is a lot of scratch. It matters.

We all know the Lakers season went sideways fast last year and that nobody really enjoyed the experience. What the Lakers have to sell is three things. First, that last season was a one-off — injuries and a coaching change threw the chemistry off, but this team can be the team that went 28-12 in the middle of the season again and can challenge in the West. Kobe Bryant and Steve Nash will be part of the pitch to Howard and his relationship with Kobe is not as strained as some think. Plus, with Kobe out for the start of the season and slowed by his Achilles injury, Howard has the chance to take charge and make this his team, even if Mike D’Antoni is the coach.

Second, the Lakers will remind Howard that come the summer of 2014 only he and Steve Nash (for one more year) would be on the books — they plan to rebuild this roster around him. He is the future of the Lakers, and he can follow in the footsteps of Mikan, Wilt, Kareem, and Shaq and win titles in Los Angeles. Third, the Lakers will sell Los Angeles — if he wants an opportunity to grow his brand through movies, television and advertising opportunities, L.A. is better than any other city on his list.

(If the Lakers do not get Howard, don’t bet on a sign-and-trade to help another team out. It could happen, but the Lakers would want picks and expiring contracts to help them rebuild, they are not taking Asik back from Houston.)

• Dallas Mavericks. Mark Cuban has built an organization that guys want to come play for and that is part of the pitch. They also have shown they know how to build a title team. Howard would play for a season or two with Dirk Nowitzki but soon the Mavericks have the room to completely reshape the roster and build around Howard. Much like he enjoyed in Orlando, he would be the main face of the franchise soon.

• Atlanta Hawks. Come home, come on home to Atlanta… except that Howard has never shown a desire to return and play in his native city. What they can sell is a max offer and the chance for him to be the face of a roster rebuilt around him — Al Horford and he would make the best front line in the NBA, and that size could challenge the Heat. The Hawks are a long shot but they are in the room.

• Golden State Warriors. There were questions for a while if they would even get in the room, but once in they have a hard sell. The basketball argument is that him in the post with Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson raining threes, they are contenders. The hard part is they can only make this work as a sign-and-trade, one that would have the Lakers taking back Andrew Bogut and some other pieces (Thompson?). As I noted above, the Lakers are more likely to just go with what they have and bank cap space for a 2014 roster reboot if Howard walks, they are not going to go for an in-division trade (same goes for the Clippers rumors). But the Warriors will get to make their pitch.

So when will we know? There is a buzz that Howard wants to make his decision early, not mull it over for a week. That said, this is Howard, so who knows? Anytime between July 3 and July 10 he could make his call. Your guess on when is as good as mine.

Cleveland GM David Griffin: “I hope everybody says we have no chance”

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The Golden State Warriors are heavy favorites to win the NBA title. According to bovda.lv, bet $100 on the Warriors to win the title and you get $41.7 dollars. Bet $100 on the Cavaliers and you get $200. And that number is likely to get worse for Warriors fans.

The Cavaliers are okay with that. They like being the underdogs. Look at what GM David Griffin said in a televised interview after they eliminated the Celtics in Game 5, via Cleveland.com.

“I hope everybody says we have no chance,” General Manager David Griffin said during a TV interview following the Cavaliers’ 135-102 win Thursday night against the Boston Celtics, clinching a third straight NBA Finals appearance.

“Obviously the team we’re playing is as good as you can possibly put together, it’s going to be an unbelievable battle for us, but I think [the Cavs] love battling together. The greater the odds, the better we seem to play together. We really do rally around each other in that sense.”

There is some truth to that.

There’s also a difference between that truth and slowing Stephen Curry and Kevin Durant. How the Cavaliers are going to do that will be the interesting part of these playoffs.

Detroit’s Van Gundy honored for cooperation with media, fans

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AUBURN HILLS, Mich. (AP) — Stan Van Gundy of the Detroit Pistons has won the Rudy Tomjanovich Award, which honors an NBA coach for his cooperation with media and fans, as well as excellence on the court.

The Professional Basketball Writers Association announced the winner Friday. Van Gundy was one of five finalists for the award. The others were Steve Clifford of the Charlotte Hornets, Mike D’Antoni of the Houston Rockets, David Fizdale of the Memphis Grizzlies and Brad Stevens of the Boston Celtics.

Dwane Casey of the Toronto Raptors won the award last season.

No surprise: It’s Cavs-Warriors in the NBA Finals, again

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OAKLAND (AP) — Here they go again.

For the third straight year, it’s Cleveland and Golden State in the NBA Finals. The 2016 champions versus the 2015 champions . The first “threematch” – rematch of a rematch – in league history. It’s the matchup most expected, the matchup most predicted, and probably the matchup the Cavaliers and Warriors wanted as well.

Let the hype, and the waiting, begin: Game 1 isn’t until June 1.

“I’ve been very blessed the last few years to be a part of this league and play on the big stage,” said Cleveland star LeBron James, who has now reached the Finals for the eighth time – including each of the last seven years. “But we’re going to enjoy this for a couple more days before we have to lock in on that juggernaut out west.”

The Cavaliers and Warriors split their two meetings this season, both winning at home. Cleveland won by one on Christmas Day, Golden State prevailed by 35 on Jan. 16.

Golden State led the league with 67 wins this season and is a staggering 27-1 in its last 28 games – including a perfect 12-0 in the Western Conference playoffs, the first time a team has gone this deep into an NBA postseason without losing. Cleveland, which seemed sleepy at times in the regular season, went 12-1 in the Eastern Conference playoffs that ended with a win over Boston on Thursday night.

“Playing in this league, you can’t take anything for granted,” Warriors guard Stephen Curry said. “Thirty teams suit up every year trying to get to this point, and only two teams do. So you have to appreciate it. … We need to understand the privilege that we have and the opportunity that we have to play in the Finals again, to have the opportunity to win a championship.”

Already, the back-and-forth is underway.

Cleveland coach Tyronn Lue was quoted earlier this week saying he thought Boston’s offense was “harder to defend” than Golden State’s. Countered Golden State acting coach Mike Brown, when asked about it Thursday: “That’s his opinion. It’s cute.”

And there will be reminders of the Halloween party that James threw for the Cavaliers last fall, with “3-1 Lead” – a nod to what the Warriors lost in last year’s Finals – prominently displayed on the drum set.

Much more of that sort of that will likely follow over the next week, filling time before Golden State plays host to Game 1. But there’s also a clear respect level between the clubs as well.

“The best team in our league the last three years,” James said of the Warriors. “And they’ve added an unbelievable player in Kevin Durant this year. So it makes it even more difficult. They’re going to challenge us a lot, offensively, defensively, mentally, physically. We have to be ready for the challenge.”

For James, the Finals are an annual rite.

For Durant, this trip ends a five-year wait.

Durant’s only other time in the Finals was 2012 when he was with Oklahoma City. The Thunder lost to Miami in five games, a series that made James a champion for the first time.

At the very moment where the clock ran out in that series, the person James was embracing was Durant – telling the then-Thunder star, his offseason workout partner at the time, how proud of him he was.

“Hopefully,” James said that night, “I don’t continue to have to run into him.”

They’ll collide again, starting next week.

Durant’s decision to leave the Thunder for Golden State as a free agent last summer meant the Warriors went from mere overwhelming favorites to win the West again to super-duper-overwhelming favorites to win the West again. They got a big scare in late February when Durant had a left knee injury, but he’s back and the Warriors have rolled since.

“It’s a little different, definitely. I can’t lie,” Durant said, when comparing the 2012 Finals trip to this one. “I went when I was 23 years old, and it felt like the Western Conference Finals was almost like the championship. Just getting to that point, you know how hard it is and how much work you put in to start the season. So it’s a little different now, obviously. We have a bigger goal in mind.”

The storylines are many. Can James win his fourth ring? Can Durant win his first? Will the Warriors be haunted by letting last season’s 3-1 lead slip away? Will they become the first team in NBA history to go undefeated in a postseason? How will Golden State guard Kyrie Irving? How will Cleveland try to contain Curry?

There’s also the irony that Brown, the first coach who took James to an NBA Finals in 2007 – Cleveland was swept by San Antonio – will now coach against him, likely in the same leading role he’s had for Golden State since head coach Steve Kerr was forced to take a break because of continued problems with his surgically repaired back.

“I don’t care who you’re playing, to make it to the NBA Finals, to win your conference finals, it’s a big task,” Brown said.

The biggest task awaits.

Isaiah Thomas wants Celtics to sign free agents, reportedly they are not looking to trade him (yet)

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The Boston Celtics made a huge leap forward this season: They got the No. 1 seed in the East and made it to the Eastern Conference Finals. For a team on the rise, that’s impressive.

However, as soon as they landed the No. 1 pick in this draft, a big question started to bubble up:

What is the future of Isaiah Thomas with this team? Which is a strange thing to say about a guy who averaged 28.9 points per game and was All-NBA this season, but here we are.

First, the Celtics are not looking to trade IT this summer as some have suggested, reports Sean Deveny of the Sporting News.

That starts with All-Star Isaiah Thomas, whose name has lately been the subject of trade speculation. But league sources indicate that any talk of dealing Thomas is strictly speculation at this point — the Celtics have had no such discussions. Not yet, at least.

The challenge for the Celtics seems to be this: If they draft Markelle Fultz No. 1 (as is expected by everyone around the league), then what is the future for Thomas? Do you want to pay Thomas max money just as he turns 29 when you have a stud young point guard coming up behind him?

That led to talk of extending Thomas this summer with the team’s cap space (which assumes they do not sign Gordon Hayward). Except Thomas would rather the money be spent on free agents than himself, as he told Chris Forsberg of ESPN.

“We need the best possible player that’s gonna help us win, and I’m with that,” said Thomas. “Anything Danny and this organization need me to do to help bring even more talent to this city, I’m all for that. I want to win a championship and being so close to getting to the Finals, that makes you want it that much more.

“I’m all help if they need it. I’ll be around.”

Nothing is certain in the NBA, but here is the most likely outcome of the Isaiah Thomas situation: They keep him, they draft Markelle Fultz, they do not extend Thomas (whether they land Hayward or not), and they see how it all fits together for a season. Then they make a decision on Thomas in the summer of 2018. The bottom line is he may well have more value to the Celtics than another team, and while he’s certainly getting a raise from the $6.3 million, he will make next season he may fall short of the max, and in a zone where the Celtics are willing to keep him.

In pure basketball terms, the Celtics may be hesitant to spend on Thomas, but he is also the most popular player on the team by a mile. Letting him go is not that simple.

There are a lot of questions to be answered between now and next summer when it comes to IT.