Dwight Howard’s popularity decline as measured in All-Star fan votes

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When the surprise announcement came that Kevin Love and Blake Griffin had leapfrogged Dwight Howard to become All-Star Game starters this season — leaving the Rockets’ big man for the coaches to pick as a reserve — my first thought was “that’s a huge Lakers fans base that he pissed off.” They took their vote elsewhere (to Love, who Lakers fans think will be in their colors in a couple of years).

However, Howard’s issue bigger than just the Lakers — how he handled his exit from Orlando (trying to force a trade, then pulling back on that and waiving his opt-out, then forcing a trade again) followed by the injury-riddled disaster in Los Angeles last season has hurt Howard’s popularity everywhere. Howard’s demeanor of wanting to have fun can be spun as a guy not serious about winning or his craft (which isn’t really true), and that doesn’t sit well with fans.

You can see it in the number of All-Star votes Howard has gotten over the years, which were compiled by Jeff Caplan of NBA.com and he added some other notes.

Orlando, 2009: 3,150,181 (top overall vote-getter)
Orlando, 2010: 2,360,096 (third)
Orlando, 2011: 2,099,204 (second)
Orlando, 2012: 1,600,390 (first)
L.A. Lakers, 2013: 922,070 (eighth)
Houston, 2014: 653,318 (12th)

Howard’s 653,318 votes this year account for 10.2 percent of the total Western Conference “frontcourt” votes (the top 15 vote-getters the NBA releases). Last year his votes accounted for 15.6 percent of the total West “frontcourt votes. In 2009, when he was the overall leading vote-getter, he accounted for 19.6 percent of the Eastern Conference “frontcourt” vote (under the old format I used the top five vote-getters at “center” and the top 10 at “forward”).

There are other factors in play here, for sure. The biggie is the NBA removed the “center” designation on the ballot last season so fans didn’t have to vote for a center, they could vote for an undersized front line where LeBron James has to play center if they want (which the fans did this season, pairing LeBron, Carmelo Anthony and Paul George up front for the East).

Also, there are young stars on the rise in Western frontcourts — Blake Griffin, Kevin Love, LaMarcus Aldridge and others. They siphon votes away from Howard.

But obviously Howard’s popularity has taken a serious hit as well.

As I’ve said before, Howard can repair that image by winning — Kobe Bryant and LeBron also took serious PR hits in the past but in this country winning trumps that. Those two have largely re-written their image. It is the only model for Howard — and the Rockets are a good team, albeit one still trying to really find its identity. They are inconsistent right now, but should grow out of it (and there will be roster tweaks coming).

This is also why you suddenly see Howard back in the pool to play for Team USA, maybe at the World Championships this summer, maybe at the Rio Olympics in 2016. Howard has a gold medal from Beijing, but his image could use another one.

With some wins you’ll see Howard’s image change again, slowly. With that you could see changes in the All-Star voting. But the fan vote is a popularity contest and right now Howard is losing.

Marcus Smart responds to Jimmy Butler: ‘It ain’t hard to find me’ (video)

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Jimmy Butler said Marcus Smart is “not about that life.”

Smart, via MassLive:

Laugh at that. This about the Celtics versus Chicago Bulls, not Marcus Smart versus Jimmy. I ain’t got to sit here and say this and that. I’m this. I’m that. I ain’t that type of guy. My actions speak louder than words. It ain’t hard to find me. But, right now, I’m focused on my teammates and this series.

That led to a few excellent follow-up questions:

Are you about that life?

Like I said before, I ain’t got to talk about what I am about. I just show you. I can show you, but I’m not going to tell you. Like I said, it ain’t hard to find me. You heard him. He said, “I don’t think Marcus Smart is about that life.” Last time I checked, if you’re going to say somebody ain’t about that life, you should know, right? But like I said, we’re going to keep this Chicago Bulls vs. Boston Celtics, not Marcus vs. Jimmy.

Has anyone accused you not being tough before?

Never.

What was your reaction to that?

Haha.

Smart flops too much. He gets overly emotional.

But he’s way too tough to let Butler’s comments pass without rebuttal.

The real test will come on the court in Game 5 tomorrow.

Damian Lillard ‘obsessed’ with beating Warriors

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The Warriors just eliminated the Trail Blazers for the second straight year.

Portland star Damian Lillard sounds hardened by the experience.

Chris Haynes of ESPN:

After the Portland Trail Blazers were swept by the Golden State Warriors on Monday, point guard Damian Lillard told ESPN he’s developed a newfound obsession with trying to take down the Warriors.

“You have to be obsessed with that because you know that they’re so good that they’re going to be there,” Lillard said after a 128-103 loss in Game 4. “That’s who you’re going to have to get through to get to where you want to get to. That’s what it is.”

I have no doubt this will drive Lillard. He just finds way to lift himself.

But will the rest of the Trail Blazers keep up with a team that features Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant, Draymond Green and Klay Thompson?

C.J. McCollum is a solid co-star, but it gets dicey beyond that with several players locked into expensive long-term contracts. Portland will have to pry enough production from Jusuf Nurkic, Al-Farouq Aminu, Maurice Harkless, Allen Crabbe, Noah Vonleh, Ed Davis, Meyers Leonard and the Nos. 15, 20 and 26 picks in the upcoming draft.

The Trail Blazers have a path upward, but needing to climb as high as Golden State, the road is narrow.

Pat Riley says he wishes he gave Chris Bosh’s max contract to Dwyane Wade

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Heat president Pat Riley has said he should’ve given Dwyane Wade a max contract in 2014 after LeBron James left Miami.

Instead, Wade stayed with the Heat on what became two one-year contracts. That lack of long-term security bothered Wade, who took discounts in prior years, and contributed to his exit to the Bulls.

But paying Wade and Chris Bosh, who got a max contract from Miami two years ago, so much into their late 30s likely would have cost the Heat dearly. It’s nearly impossible to build around two declining max players.

Riley apparently has a retroactive plan for that – re-signing only Wade, not Bosh.

Wright Thompson of ESPN:

But of course, Riley says, almost immediately after LeBron left, Bosh’s camp wanted to reopen a deal they’d just finished, knowing the Heat had money and felt vulnerable. Bosh threatened to sign with the Rockets. In the end, Riley gave Bosh what he wanted. Now he wishes he’d said no to Bosh’s max deal and given all that money to Wade.

Riley says that Wade’s agent asked to deal directly with the owners instead of Pat, so he merely honored that request. Mostly, he just wishes the whole thing had gone differently. “I know he feels I didn’t fight hard enough for him,” he says. “I was very, very sad when Dwyane said no. I wish I could have been there and told him why I didn’t really fight for him at the end. … I fought for the team. The one thing I wanted to do for him, and maybe this is what obscured my vision, but I wanted to get him another player so he could end his career competitive.”

When he describes his reaction to Wade’s leaving, it’s always in terms of how sad it makes him feel

Riley has done a much better job explaining to the public how sad he is about Wade leaving rather than actually doing something while he had the chance or even expressing his regret to Wade after the fact.

It’s almost as if Riley knew excommunicating a Heat Lifer would be both good for the franchise long-term and a terrible look in the short term and is trying to mitigate the damage. Wade might even realize that, too.

To a certain degree, Riley could be speaking in hindsight. Bosh’s deal has not worked out, with Riley believing the big man’s career is over due to blood-clot issues. But hindsight also says giving Wade, now 35, a five-year contract two years ago would’ve been disastrous.

There’s sentimentality at work here. Wade is the greatest player in Heat history. Riley drafted him, groomed him and built three championship teams in two eras around him.

I just can’t figure out how much Riley is exploiting that sentimentality to warm Miami fans after coldly letting Wade walk and how much Riley genuinely regrets contract negotiations with Wade. This is almost certainly shades of both.

Raptors’ Patrick Patterson and P.J. Tucker wear same outfit to Game 5 (photo)

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I can’t verify Raptors forwards Patrick Patterson and P.J. Tucker wearing the same outfit to last night’s Game 5 against the Bucks is the happenstance Patterson presents it as. But there’s a saying in journalism: It’s too good to check out.

Whatever led to this, Toronto ought to keep doing it. The Raptors smashed Milwaukee.

Patterson: