Houston Rockets v Dallas Mavericks

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.

NBA: Kenneth Faried got away with foul on decisive basket in Nuggets’ win over Bulls

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The Bulls’ biggest loss Friday was Jimmy Butler to injury. His absence certainly contributed to a loss to the Timberwolves the following night.

But Chicago also lost to the Nuggets on Friday, and perhaps that wouldn’t have happened if the game were called correctly down the stretch.

With Denver up two points and 21.1 seconds remaining, Kenneth Faried offensively rebounded a free throw and scored. The Bulls then intentionally fouled down the stretch, and Faried and Danilo Gallinari added a few free throws in the Nuggets’ 115-110 win.

One problem: Faried should’ve been called for offensively fouling Taj Gibson on the key putback, according to the NBA’s Last Two Minute Report:

Faried (DEN) extends his arm into Gibson (CHI) and dislodges him, affecting his ability to retrieve the rebound.

This was a huge swing. Instead of Taj Gibson – a 69% career free-throw shooter – going to the line for two attempts with Chicago down two points, Faried put the Nuggets up four. Even if Gibson split at the line, the Bulls would have been in significantly better shape.

As usual, we can’t know what would’ve happened if this call were made correctly. But it significantly set back Chicago.

NBA considering if jump-on-back foul should be flagrant foul

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The video above is an intentional foul — Chris Paul jumped on the back of Dwight Howard. The same thing has happened to Andre Drummond.

Is it a flagrant foul?

The Boston Celtics tweeted this out on Sunday.

The NBA was quick to let people know that this is just something under consideration — there has been no change in the rules. This may well be where the league is headed, but it’s not there yet.

The NBA defines a flagrant foul as “unnecessary contact committed by a player against an opponent.” To me, leaping on a player’s back like that qualifies. (A flagrant two foul is “unnecessary and excessive contact” and leads to an ejection; this is not that.)

Jared Dudley — one of the more vocal players on union issues — added a good point.

Consider this part of the coming changes on the intentional fouling rules period. But this one tweak could come much faster.

NBA: Foul on Cavaliers that sparked Celtics’ comeback called in error

Cleveland Cavaliers' J.R. Smith makes a move on Boston Celtics' Evan Turner (11) during the third quarter of a NBA basketball game in Boston Tuesday, Dec. 15, 2015. (AP Photo/Winslow Townson)
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The Cavaliers were in great shape against the Celtics on Friday, leading by four points with seven seconds left.

Then, it all went so wrong for Cleveland.

J.R. Smith was called for fouling Evan Turner on a made layup, cutting the margin to two points. Turner missed the free throw, but the ball went out of bounds off the Cavs. Then, Avery Bradley made a buzzer-beating 3-pointer to give Boston the win.

Rewind, though, and an incorrect call drove the sequence, according to the NBA.

Smith shouldn’t have been called for fouling Turner, per the Last Two Minute Report:

Smith (CLE) makes incidental contact with Turner’s (BOS) body as he attempts the layup.

If this were officiated correctly, the Cavs would’ve had the ball and a two-point lead with 5.9 seconds left. That’s not a lock to win – they’d still have to inbound the ball and make their free throws – but it’s close.

Cleveland is definitely entitled to feel the refs wronged them out of a victory.

Report: Kevin Durant has “done his due diligence on the Bay Area”

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Kevin Durant has not made up his mind about what he will do as a free agent this summer. Until his playoff run ends, whenever that may be for the Thunder, his focus will be on bringing a title to Oklahoma City.

But even he admits he can’t help but think about free agency a little.

The buzz around the league is Golden State is at the front of the line if Durant decides to leave OKC, and he has done some research, reports Marc Spears of Yahoo Sports.

The Warriors play in front of an intimidating Oracle Arena crowd and are expected to debut a new San Francisco arena in 2019. Durant has quietly done his due diligence on the Bay Area, too, sources told Yahoo Sports.

His people — specifically agent Rich Kleiman and personal manager Charlie Bell — would be stupid not to have done some research on not only Golden State but on every other team he might consider: Houston, Miami, Washington, both teams in Los Angeles, the Knicks, and on down the line. Golden State, playing with Stephen Curry, certainly would have its attractions.

I’m still in the camp that Durant signs a 1+1 deal to stay in Oklahoma City (meaning he can opt out after one more season, in 2017), and it’s all about the cash. While he could get 30 percent of a $90 million cap this summer (about $27 million a season to start), with one more year of service in 2017 Durant could get 35 percent of $108 million ($37.8 million to start). That’s a lot of cash. Plus he gets one more chance at a ring with Russell Westbrook and Serge Ibaka, who both are 2017 free agents.

But you can be sure whatever Durant decides, it will be well researched and thought out. And he’s not going to announce it in a live special on ESPN.