Dwight Howard is saying all the right things, which is not good for Orlando

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Free agency and the years prior to it will never be the same after “The Decision.”  We heard LeBron James say all the right things. “I love Cleveland.” “I love our fans.” “I would love to win a championship here.” But what was missing was James ever giving the words that would bind him to Cleveland. He said almost everything. But he never said the words which would lock him publicly to Cleveland. And that’s the formula. You heard it from Dwyane Wade, you’ve heard it from Carmelo Anthony, and you’re hearing it now from Dwight Howard, with his free agency a full year and a half away.

From an interview with ESPN’s Marc Stein this weekend:

Stein: When you walk around town, do people ever ask you if you’re going to leave town someday like Shaq did? How often do people ask those kinds of questions? Can you feel that people in Orlando are worried about history repeating itself?

Howard: I want to win a championship. And I’m going to do whatever I can to win the championship here in Orlando. This is where I started my career and I would love to finish my career here.

via Weekend Dime: Howard Q&A – ESPN.

So Howard gave the positive words you want to hear as a Magic fan without telling you “Yes, I will re-sign here” or even “I intend to re-sign here but if we don’t win a championship I’m gone.” Just saying what he’s supposed to say via his agent, and not saying what he would need to say to end the questions. He has the ability to end the questions that apparently he doesn’t like. But he won’t. Because this is the new reality.

And here is where we depart from the linear narrative.

There is a question here of responsibility.

The constant refrain is “I want to win a championship.” Every player is heeding the words of Kevin Garnett, who feels he wasted his time in Minnesota on losing teams. Never mind the legions of fans in Minnesota who supported him and desperately need him to win a championship there versus the Boston Celtics who needed to throw another trophy in the gigantic trophy room they swim in like Scrooge McDuck.  Garnett felt that he wasted his best years not contending, and now all players are trying to accomplish multiple titles in their prime, not when they’re aging veterans. And so this new crop pursues it, without ever considering the responsibility for championships rests not only on the teams who employ them, but on everyone else.

It’s ego. Ego that drives players to believe that no matter what, no matter how many free throws they miss, the blame for failing to win a championship should fall on all other members of the organization and not themselves. Ego that causes them to overlook and shrug off the responsibility that comes with being a franchise player, being the player teams build around, being the player teams depend on. Instead they listen to agents and handlers tell them that a shrinking field goal percentage and a modified jumper is enough, that it’s the failure of the team to construct a good enough supporting cast. This, despite the enormous amount of luck it takes to win a championship, never mind the complexity of obtaining truly great talent by a contending team. Instead, they simply look at what Paul Pierce has had handed to him (after nearly a decade of struggle as the only real star), what Kobe Bryant was granted (despite the ridiculous circumstances that landed Pau Gasol in Los Angeles), and decide that’s what they want.

It’s fine to want help. Fine to feel that your supporting cast is not worthy of you. LeBron James’ next best player was Mo Williams, for crying out loud. Danny Ferry was mercifully released before the circus popped its tent up, and so was spared the agony of public exhumation of his moves, which included trades for Ben Wallace, Wally Sczerbiak, Williams, and Antawn Jamison among the list of attempts toward truly great team composition. But Howard? Howard has no such excuse. Gilbert Arenas is not what he once was, but is still a good player, especially on the Magic, and is their sixth man. Jason Richardson was acquired. Brandon Bass brought in. Hedo Turkoglu. Marcin Gortat was re-signed to provide help so Howard wasn’t the only real center on the roster (as he is now). The Magic have made good faith efforts to win a championship, and those efforts brought them as close as you can get without winning as the Eastern Conference Finals.  But there are more factors in play here. Health, like that of Jameer Nelson or Kevin Garnett in 2009. Matchups, team chemistry, when teams get hot or get cold, over-confidence, the list goes on and on.  Should the Magic fail to win a championship in the next two seasons (provided there is a second season), the responsibility will ultimately be Otis Smith’s and Stan Van Gundy’s. But it will also be Howard’s. He is the one they have built around, the one who they consider the talents of with every personnel move we make.

It’s up to Dwight Howard to win a championship. Not solely him. The burden is not all his. But to shrug off the responsibility and make the excuse that a title is why you would skip town for a bigger market, burning Orlando for the second time in recent history at the same position in the same manner, possibly to the same city, that’s not what a team leader does. Some guys get it. Kevin Durant seems to. Derrick Rose seems to. Many players seem to. But Howard? He’s learned from those in the class above him. Watched them make their play to have their cake and eat it, too.

And given the history of the league, it’s fair to suggest the best way to win a title is to play in Los Angeles or Boston. But at the end of the day, these players still have a responsibility to the team that’s drafted them, has put these players on the pedestal, paid those players and trusted them to win the franchise a title. All the other parts are in place to help that player win a title. That’s the burden. Maybe Howard will realize that and sign an extension. But the modern approach is not to take responsibility for the franchise of which you are the franchise player. It’s to smile, say the right things, and demand championships on your way out of town.

Otis Smith isn’t just fighting 29 other teams. He’s fighting 29 teams and one team of agents and handlers.

The modern NBA management battlefield, and after such battles? Sometimes the battlefield is left barren, bleak, and depressing.

Just ask Minnesota.

Just ask Cleveland.

 

Report: LeBron James’ camp likes Collin Sexton

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In 2014, LeBron James tweeted his fondness for Connecticut point guard Shabazz Napier. The Heat traded up to get Napier in the draft, but LeBron left for the Cavaliers that summer, anyway.

Could history repeat itself, this time in Cleveland?

LeBron has already talked up Oklahoma point guard Trae Young, but maybe LeBron and his camp want the Cavs to take a different point guard – Alabama’s Collin Sexton – with the No. 8 pick.

Joe Vardon of Cleveland.com, via Jordan Zirm of ESPN Cleveland:

The Cavaliers should take the best prospect available. Worrying about what LeBron might want makes a mistake only more likely.

LeBron might stay in Cleveland, but as 2014 showed, it won’t be because of a draft pick. If he stays, it very well could be by opting into the final year of his contract. His player-option salary ($35,607,968) is slightly higher than his projected max salary as a free agent (about $35.35 million). If LeBron opts in, the best chance of keeping him long-term is building a better team around him.

That means taking the best prospect at No. 8 or trading the pick for someone who can help LeBron win now. If the top prospect is Sexton, that’s fine. But the Cavs are fare more likely to appease LeBron by getting the pick right in the long run rather than choosing the prospect he wants now.

2018 NBA Draft Prospect Profiles: Is Trae Young a super star in the making?

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Trae Young is a perfect example of why, as an elite freshman entering the college ranks, it is so important to pick a school that is the right fit for you.

Young was a borderline five-star prospect entering the college ranks, the kind of point guard that was recruited by everyone from Kansas to Kentucky, but instead of picking one of the bluebloods, Young opted to stay home. He enrolled at Oklahoma, where his supporting case was questionable and he had the opportunity to have the entire offense run through him every single night.

And the results, at first, were sensational.

Young put up massive numbers, at one point averaging 30 points and 10 assists while leading Oklahoma into the top ten of the national rankings, getting himself compared to Steph Curry, talked about by LeBron and the focus of every college basketball broadcast for the first three months of the season.

Then, once Big 12 play started, opponents began to crack the code. Young didn’t have a ton of help on that roster, which, when combined with some of the issues that he has with shot selection and decision-making, turned him from a player with unimaginable efficiency on a never-before-seen level of usage into just another high-volume, low-efficiency gunner. Oklahoma’s season went in the toilet, the Sooners finished 18-14 on the year, losing 12 of their last 16 games and falling out of the Big 12 and NCAA tournaments in the first round.

That has turned Young into one of the more polarizing prospects in recent memory.

He became the first player in Division I history to lead the nation in scoring and assists, but he did it as a player that doesn’t like to play defense on a team that couldn’t figure out how to win late in the year.

Is he the second-coming of Steph Curry?

Or is he Jimmer Fredette?

And what GM is going to have the stones to find out?

HEIGHT: 6-foot-1.75
WEIGHT: 178 lbs
WINGSPAN: 6-foot-3
2017-18 STATS: 27.4 PPG, 8.7 APG, 3.6 RPG, 42.2/36.0/86.1, 5.2 TPG
DRAFT RANGE: 5-10

STRENGTHS

I would make the argument that Trae Young is the single-most skilled player in this year’s NBA draft. He might very well be the best shooter available, and I think that it is inarguable he is the best passer in this draft class. The biggest reason his counting stats are so high is because of the absurd level of volume and freedom that Lon Kruger afforded him, but there’s also a reason he was given that freedom.

Let’s start with his shooting. Young’s range extends will beyond the NBA’s three-point line, but what makes him so dangerous isn’t his ability as a catch-and-shoot threat, it’s how well he is able to get to his shot off of the dribble. Young’s handle is elite, as is his footwork. He’s always on balance and he has a lightening quick release, one that he doesn’t need much space to get off. He also has a variety of different step-backs and pull-backs to create space, and he’s a very good shooter off of hang-dribbles (if there’s a switch) or if a defender goes under a ball-screen.

Young is not the quickest or most explosive guard you’ll find, but he understands how to use his change of pace and some deceptive ball-handling to get a defense off balance and create room for himself to get into the paint. He has an array of shots that he can make in the paint, although he does need to continue to get more consistent with his floaters and mid-range shots.

Part of the reason that Kyrie Irving and Steph are able to thrive as two of the best scorers in the NBA is because they are elite finishers at and around the rim despite the fact that they are smaller and less athletic than the players that will be guarding them. Young will need to get to that level, and it’s certainly doable.

The other side of Young’s game is his ability to pass the ball. His vision is sensational, both in transition and in the halfcourt, and it will only get more effective in the NBA, where the players he is passing to are better and the wider deeper three-point are creates more space. The thing that really stood out to me in watching Young was his ability to read a defense in ball-screen actions. His basketball IQ and his understanding of where the defense is moving and who is going to be open is already at an elite level.

WEAKNESSES

The biggest concern with Young as a prospect is on the defensive side of the ball. Physically, he was not quite ready to defend at the collegiate level last season, let alone at the NBA level. He’s actually a little taller than you may realize — he’s just a shade under 6-foot-2 — but he weighs just 178 pounds with a willowy frame and a wingspan that is just 6-foot-3. He’s not all that strong, he’s not all that physical and he’s not all that tough, and that’s before you question if he has the quickness to guard elite NBA point guards.

And then there is the issue of whether or not he actually wants to play defense. He was a mess guarding ball-screens as a freshman, often showing little-to-no effort to fight through and getting lost when he did. He got beaten off the dribble without providing much in the way of resistance far too many times. He almost looked disinterested on that end of the floor. Context might be important here, however. With the load that Young was carrying on the offensive end, it’s certainly reasonable that he was either A) saving his legs to be able to carrying the Sooners offensively or B) didn’t actually have enough energy to defend.

That doesn’t diminish the concerns with his physical tools, but defending is about want-to, and it will be on the teams that are drafting to figure out whether or not he actually wants to defend. As flawed as Steph is defensively, he tries hard enough that he’s not that much of a liability.

The other issue is how careless and inefficient Young was late in the year. Not only did he lead the nation in scoring and assists, but he led in turnovers as well. He also has a bad habit of taking terrible shots early in the shot clock, settling for 25-footers with a defender in his face, but again, context is important to the discussion here.

The degree of difficulty on the plays that Young tried to make this season was often insanely high, but the truth is that Oklahoma really didn’t have any other options to create offense. Young had to carry the load for this group to be a tournament team, and it worked well enough for long enough that the Sooners were still a tournament team despite a disastrous finish to the season.

Again, NBA GMs are going to have to figure out the answer to this question: Was Young inefficient late in the year because that’s who he is as a player, or was he driving into three defenders or forcing 26-foot shots or trying to make tough passes because that’s what his team needed him to do?

NBA COMPARISON

The obvious comparison that gets made by everyone is Stephen Curry, and in a best-case scenario, I don’t think that’s terrible. That said, I think that, given Young’s ability to pass the ball, Steve Nash makes a little more sense — and that is who Young has idolized — but either way, you know about what his ceiling. I’m not sure he has two-time MVP upside, and comparing him to two players of that caliber is probably unfair, but he has the potential to be very, very good in a league built around ball-screens, the three-ball and pace-and-space.

That said, the floor for Young is very low. If he can’t figure out how to defend and he never ends up being good enough to have an offense built around him, I think there’s a real chance that his second contract is with a team outside of the NBA.

OUTLOOK

As the NBA moves more and more towards small-ball, the skill-set that Young has is going to continue to get more valuable. Elite shooting is something that every team in the league needs, and Young has that ability to shoot. He’s excellent in ball-screens as well, and his ability as a passer when the kind of spacing he’ll see on an NBA court is something that absolutely should translate.

We’ve been over the issues that he has with inefficiency, decision-making and defending. All of those are concerns, but I do think that the situation that Young was in at Oklahoma exacerbated them to a degree.

In my mind, Young’s career is going to be determined by whether or not he ends up being good enough that to have an offense built around him. The way he wants to play is as a James Harden or a Russell Westbrook. Even Steve Nash had the ball in his hands the majority of the time. Being a ball-dominant lead guard that gets run through 20-30 ball-screens a night is not something everyone can do.

And if Young can’t do that, I have a tough time envisioning what his role will be in the NBA.

Rumor: Spurs won’t trade Kawhi Leonard to Western Conference team

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Kawhi Leonard reportedly wants the Spurs to trade him, ideally to the Lakers or Clippers.

Chris Sheridan of Get More Sports:

He is not going to Los Angeles…or any other destination in the Western Conference, sources are telling GetMoreSports.com.

Leonard has some leverage in that he can tell any non-L.A. team that he has no interest in signing an extension after his current deal expires in a year, and that may end up diminishing the value of offers Eastern Conference teams are willing to make.

But if you think that bothers Popovich, you don’t know Popovich. The guy would gladly take 75 cents on the dollar for Kawhi if he could ship him out of the West — even if that upsets Kawhi.

There are two choices here:

The Spurs are a well-run organization that will manage this crisis as effectively as possible.

or

The Spurs will outright refuse to trade Leonard to a Western Conference team.

It can’t be both.

If the Spurs trade Leonard, they should take the best offer they get – no matter who makes it. Teams like the Celtics and 76ers have better assets to dangle. But if the Lakers and Clippers are the only team with assurances Leonard will re-sign next summer, they could offer more, even assembling a package from a shallower pool of assets.

The Spurs shouldn’t worry where Leonard lands. But that doesn’t mean they won’t worry where Leonard lands.

Report: Celtics believe Kyrie Irving happy in Boston

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Chris Mannix reported Kyrie Irving, when he played for the Cavaliers, told teammates of his desire to play for the Knicks. In the same discussion, Mannix speculated on the Celtics’ fear of Irving leaving in 2019 unrestricted free agency. Asked about his future in Boston, Irving gave a cryptic answer.

There’s just no good way to resolve this until summer 2019. As Irving knows, a contract extension is illogical. The largest extension he could sign, beginning July 1, would be four years, $108,053,240 ($27,013,310 annually). If he waits until 2019 free agency, he could re-sign for a projected $188 million over five years (about $38 million annually) – and even more if he makes an All-NBA team next year. In that case, his max would project to be $219 million over five years (about $44 million annually).

So, the Celtics must ride this out – or trade Irving before he gets to free agency. How do they feel about his future with Boston?

Adam Himmelsbach of The Boston Globe:

A league source said Friday that the Celtics believe Irving is happy in Boston and would like to be with the team long-term, but that there are no certainties.

This is probably correct. Irving clearly wanted out of Cleveland, so him longing for a spot on the Knicks made more sense then. Overall, Irving seems happy in Boston. A noncommittal answer from someone whose brand is mysterious ideas doesn’t set off alarms.

That said, also file this under: What else are they supposed to say? The Celtics maximize Irving’s trade value if everyone believes he’s happy and not a flight risk who should be preemptively traded.

The Celtics must closely monitor Irving’s satisfaction with them. If it seems he might leave, they ought to look hard at trading him first.

But it really seems the Celtics aren’t anywhere near that point. If they are, they’ve bluffed well.