TrueHoop: Dwight Howard

Blazers, Rockets take similar paths to Rd. 1

April, 19, 2014
Apr 19
12:29
PM ET
By Daniel Nowell
Special to ESPN.com
Archive

The Portland Trail Blazers and Houston Rockets tip off Sunday in a first-round matchup that will seem, in many ways, like warp-speed shadow boxing.

This series is perhaps the most stylistically even of any in the opening round -- both teams are in the league’s top five in 3-point attempts, and both are in the top 10 in pace. Both are defined by inside-out, All-Star combinations, and both are led by staid coaches who believe in letting it fly when the opportunity presents itself. Both teams are in the middle third of the league in defensive rating, so fans of high-scoring marksmanship competitions will likely find this matchup irresistible.

For all the broad-stroke similarities between the two teams, however, the truly compelling aspects will be found in the details. For instance, Portland’s offensive style is committed to flow and ball movement; the ball tends to move radially around LaMarcus Aldridge post-ups in Portland, swinging around until it produces a seam to attack inward.

Houston, conversely, relies very much on James Harden’s ability to produce from the outside in, beating the game into submission with drive after drive to the rim and the free throw lane. In fact, with the league increasingly favoring shots at the rim and behind the arc as cornerstones of healthy offense, Portland and Houston represent two contrasting approaches to realizing the ideal.

On the one hand, Portland has an almost principled commitment to an open, aesthetically pleasing style of basketball, and coach Terry Stotts takes pride in a fan-friendly product. Houston, on the other hand, combines random bursts of transition frenzy with a stubborn, almost cynical dedication to producing free throws with Harden drives and Dwight Howard post-ups.

If you wanted to read that ideological divide into the teams’ organizational characters, you’d find plenty to support it. In Houston’s corner is GM Daryl Morey, high-volume trader king of the league, and his counterpart is former actor and workout guy Neil Olshey.

Olshey inherited much of Portland’s core, and what he didn’t inherit he has built with holistic finesse. Aldridge was the lone All-Star when Olshey took over the team -- adding a scoring point guard in Damian Lillard and a yeoman rim protector in Robin Lopez.

Morey inherited … well, who can remember? The Morey model views players as assets, and an accumulation of assets must always be gathering interest. After a few years of stockpiling, he liquidated and found himself holding the gems -- Harden and Howard.

When these teams played this season, it played out more or less how a bookie might call it. Houston held a 3-1 advantage in games and a combined margin of plus-26 points. Where the Blazers have All-Stars, the Rockets have superstars, and Houston has proven slightly more tenacious on defense than Portland.

Among rotation players, Portland has just two real defensive specialists, and, while Lopez and Wesley Matthews are smart, rugged, and dutiful, their Houston counterparts, Howard and Patrick Beverley, are simply more disruptive.

Crucially, Lillard is shooting just 25 percent against Beverley, and his ability to improve upon that mark might well decide the series. The Blazers rely on two pressure valves: Aldridge’s abilities from midrange on the left block and Lillard’s ability to cash in from any range when left unattended.

When Beverley is on the floor, Lillard is hardly ever unattended, and, what’s more, the Houston provocateur has done what few defenders have in seeming to get under Lillard’s skin enough to draw comment. After a particularly physical exchange earlier this season, Lillard somewhat famously told reporters "I’m just not going to let somebody be in my chest doing all that extra stuff." From Portland’s measured young All-Star, that rates as near-vitriol.

On the other side of the ball, the Blazers have had difficulty slowing Harden but might be more concerned with Howard bludgeoning their thin front line. Beyond Lopez, the Blazers lack a real post deterrent, and foul trouble will bring Joel Freeland, recently recovered from a sprained MCL, more in focus than Portland would like. Though the Blazers have consistently proven unable to contain Harden, they’ll need to be just as careful, over two weeks of attrition, not to allow Howard to control the series.

There are other players. Portland’s Nicolas Batum has oscillated between being the West’s most versatile offensive player and a nearly unfelt one; Houston’s Chandler Parsons provides a similar flexibility to the Houston lineups. It appears that everywhere you look this series, a strength is met with a nearly equal one.

Certainly, it appears the Rockets have a wider margin of error, but this series seems destined to provide viewers with the best that postseason basketball has to offer: adjustments, readjustments and two teams who figure to play larger roles over the next few springs.

Who is the NBA MVP?

March, 24, 2014
Mar 24
10:22
PM ET
Strauss By Ethan Sherwood Strauss
ESPN.com
Archive
Amin Elhassan gives us his early top-five ballot for the NBA's MVP.

James Harden settles in as a star

February, 4, 2014
Feb 4
10:42
AM ET
Abbott By Henry Abbott
ESPN.com
Archive
James Harden
Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images Sport"I’m still new to this whole 'star player' thing" says the Rockets' leading scorer, James Harden.
The most famous beard in the NBA was getting a touch-up, and it needed it: In minutes, it would be starring in a major ad campaign.

“I’m super selective,” said James Harden from the stylist’s chair on the Houston set of the ad shoot, “about who trims my beard.”

It was an off day in mid-January, and Harden was in full NBA-leading-man mode. It's not just that the iconic global brand on his chin was being groomed. It's routine offseason trips to Asia on behalf of sneaker companies, his status as a shoo-in All-Star, his highlight-ready score-from-anywhere game, his flirting with the unofficial "NBA's best shooting guard" title. On top of all that, Harden had a reporter on speakerphone and an assortment of “people” hovering at the ready -- from Foot Locker, from various agencies -- to fetch things or chime in to protect Harden, the beard or the brand, as necessary.

Although Harden has a disarmingly low-key way of talking -- part of his appeal is everyday nonchalance -- his message can veer into star territory. At one point, he circled back to add “you know, me and Dwight,” after, accidentally or not, calling the Rockets “basically my own team.”

And the commercial he's in the middle of making pivots, with a wink, on the notion that Harden is incredibly famous.



Of course, there’s nothing wrong with one of the best basketball players in the world acting and talking like one of the best basketball players in the world. Harden is a business worth many millions. He is the centerpiece of a team that’s hanging tough in a stacked Western Conference. He is one of the most skilled scorers in the game. He is all that.

The surprising part of Harden’s place in the spotlight is that Harden was known, not long ago, for the opposite.

Less than two years ago, Harden was a delightful young surprise off the Thunder's bench, and his GM in Oklahoma City, Sam Presti, was telling The New York Times that what made Harden special was that fitting into a team was “really more appealing to him than being a focal-point player.”

If that was wishful thinking from a GM hoping to hold his contending squad together, it didn't sound like it. Everyone in the organization, including Harden, talked like that. It was believable, and, to those fans who prefer players who don't act like millionaires, delightful. Here was a player you could love for his jaw-dropping highlights, his blue-collar attitude or both.

Then, in the summer of 2012, coming off an NBA Finals loss to the Miami Heat, the Thunder faced a dilemma. Assorted hard realities -- no team has ever had three maximum-contract wing players, the owners were feeling a financial pinch, the team was destined for heinous salary-cap and luxury-tax issues -- drove Presti to offer Harden less than a max deal to remain with the team.

When Harden declined, he was promptly traded to the Rockets, causing an uproar that still simmers. “If the Thunder could have kept Harden” is one of the league’s enduring memes.

In Houston, famously analytical general manager Daryl Morey was ready to pounce. He had examined Harden’s production every which way and saw the elite double-team-drawing scorer his team sorely lacked. The Rockets were only too happy to give Harden all the dollars, minutes and touches any All-Star could dream of. And, more than any other move, nabbing Harden made Morey's early career. Although there will always be grousing about Harden’s defense (it’s not great) and his high usage rate (he shoots a lot) -- not to mention the coming barrage of "What has he won?" critiques that are standard for ringless All-Stars -- there's no disputing that Harden is a top-tier NBA scoring talent, and now he's a Rocket.

Yet Harden remains a source of anguish. The Thunder had the closest thing the NBA has to a fairy tale -- all those supertalented young Durants, Westbrooks, Hardens and Ibakas putting the team first. A lot of NBA watchers and Thunder fans liked the idea of Harden sticking around for the long haul as an icon of good-natured ego management. A lot of people wanted the dream of that Thunder team to last forever. Even Harden sounds wistful at times, saying, for instance, that he wishes the team could replay Game 2 of the Finals the Thunder lost to the Heat.

But it's over. And, in part, Harden plays the hero in that story -- as the player everyone wanted. At the same time, he's part villain. His insistence on more dollars helped bring it all to an end. At times, Harden has been reluctant to discuss his transition from Oklahoma City backup to Rockets leading man, but, from the beard stylist's chair on the set of a commercial shoot in Houston, he was gracious enough to address it in some detail. The conversation has been edited for length.




Can you talk? Are you allowed to move your jaw while you’re getting a beard trim?

Yeah. Little movements. But I can do it.

Challenging environment.

Right.

Do you have a beard-care strategy?

No strategy. I just let it grow. It’s got a mind of its own. If it needs trimming, it gets trimmed. I’m super selective about who trims my beard. My barber usually does it to make sure it’s fresh. But if he’s not around, then I usually comb it a lot and occasionally trim it myself.

Take me back to June 12, 2012. You were up 1-0 over the Miami Heat in the NBA Finals, and I think, if you asked Vegas, people would have bet that the Thunder were about to reel off multiple championships. What were you feeling like that day?

Oh. Three more. Three more, and our next game is at home. We’re going to win that game, and try to take care of business in Miami. Three games away from a championship is closer than ever. Seems like everything slipped away from there.

I guess the vast majority of NBA players never get to that point.

Right. It’s so tough in this league. You’re talking about championships, and some players go 10, 15 years without even making the playoffs. So it’s difficult. You have to cherish it every single time that you’re there.

Did you picture it? Did you picture winning it all?

Of course! Of course we pictured it. Like I said, we were there. We needed three more games. Our Game 2 was at our home court, and it was tough to beat us there. We would have to steal two in Miami. And if we didn’t, we would come back home. Like I said, it seemed like it just slipped away from there, and we lost four straight.

Miami did a pretty good job in just doing what they did. They were in that situation the previous year, and so they kind of knew, you know, how to play and especially on the road in the Finals. They stole one! And then they came home and took care of business at home.

If you had won that year, would you be in Oklahoma right now?

I have no idea. It’s a great question. I wish we could go back and play Game 2 again.

Then you had that crazy summer of contract uncertainty. I know you played it cool, but it must have turned your stomach a little not knowing what was going to happen.

No, not really. That summer was pretty busy for me. I didn’t really have time to think about it. Right after the Finals, it was off to USA Basketball for the entire summer, so I really didn’t have much time to think about it.

We started discussing it right after the Olympics. That’s when the discussions really started to begin.

It ended up they had some salary cap and money concerns and didn’t offer you as much as you could make elsewhere. If the money had been equal and you could choose OKC or Houston, where would you have chosen?

Um. It’s a tough question. It’s a tough question.

I don’t know.

Like I said, I grew in Oklahoma City. They taught me a lot. Now I’m in Houston, I’ve got my own, basically, my own team. You know, me and Dwight. It’s kind of different situations. Oklahoma City: came off the bench. Now, I’m starting. There’s a larger role. Both are great situations.

I found this old Sam Presti quote: “James really wanted to be a part of something … [being part of something bigger] was really more appealing to him than being a focal-point player. We loved that mentality. We thought it was a really mature outlook.” Was that a phase? Was it never really the case?

Definitely that was the case. Winning is the most important thing. Winning is how anybody gets recognition. We already had our groove. We had me coming off the bench, the starters did what they did. Everybody felt comfortable in their role. That’s how it worked.

I fit in, and I bought in. And it was good for us.

Could it have ever lasted? One thing someone explained to me, that makes sense to me, is that no team has three max wings. It has never happened. If you had gotten there first, and Kevin Durant had arrived later, it would have been a no-brainer that he would have looked for his own team because he’s Kevin Durant. That you happened, by random chance, to get there later, doesn’t make it weird that you’d like to run your own team, because you’re James Harden.

I didn’t look at it that way. Like I said, those were my brothers; we were focused on one thing, and that was winning. If I had to take a backseat, I was comfortable with it. Just ’cause, you know, the most important thing was winning.

You have this incredible array of ways you score. Jabs, step-backs, Euro-steps, floaters, hesitations ... how does that evolve? Does it come from the offseason? Does it come from watching film? Do you steal from other players? Do you have a personal coach who helps you with that? Is it Rockets staff, do they help you develop it?

All of the above. I do a lot of work in the summertime. I have coaches helping me out with the Rockets. I watch a lot of film and see how defenders are guarding me. Even during the season, every single day I’m constantly working on something in my game. I’m still new to this whole "star player" thing, so I have to be on point at all times. Just me working every single day is going to help me out.

If you work on something alone, how do you know it’s going to work with defense there? What are the signs of a good maneuver?

Just by watching film. Like I said, by watching film and seeing how different defenders are guarding me and different counters to how they’re guarding me. Obviously, it’s a lot different when they’re there, but if you focus on the move and you go hard enough, it doesn’t matter if the defender’s there or not.

How deep is your shooting range? If they had 4-pointers that were 35 feet or whatever, would you take ’em?

I would probably take ’em. But not often. Not often. I’d leave that to other guys in the league.

People can do it though, right? In practice, people can hit very long shots.

Oh yeah, definitely. I see it all the time. I see it all the time. But I wouldn’t be one of those guys to take a lot of 4-pointers.

Does your left hand, still, at this level, get you buckets from the fact that people are used to guarding righties?

Yes.

Us lefties are very rare. So, um, I don’t know if people forget sometimes that I’m left-handed or whatever, but it’s difficult to guard.

What was your role in recruiting Dwight?

Very small. I guess Dwight knew his choices and options and what he wanted to do and where he wanted to spend his career, and he chose Houston for the reasons that, you know, he did. As far as that we have a lot of options and a lot of growth. I guess he felt this was the right fit for him.

I saw that, when teams were pitching Dwight, some people told him that James Harden uses the ball just as much as Kobe does, so he shouldn’t go play with the Rockets because he won’t get the ball. How does that make you feel?

Uhh ... I mean, I never heard that. But I handle the ball a lot. A lot. As far as bringing the basketball up. But I’m definitely a willing passer. I would rather average 18 points and 10 assists than 28 points.

So, whatever it takes to win, that’s the kind of team player that I am. You know, my job is to make my teammates happy, and Dwight happy.

How the draft lottery weakens the East

January, 3, 2014
Jan 3
1:00
PM ET
Harris By Curtis Harris
Special to ESPN.com
Archive
The current state of the Eastern Conference has been widely panned and rightfully so. As of Friday morning, only three East teams sit above .500, and the conference currently holds an overall win percentage of .442, which puts it on track for 36 wins per team. That’s a historically horrific track to be going down. Just once before has a conference had a lower win percentage -- and that was way back in 1960 when the West won 40 percent of its games.

This year may be the worst-case scenario for the East, but it’s continuing a steady trend. For 15 years dating back to the 1999-00 season, the Western Conference has won an average of 52.5 percent of its games overwhelming the East’s 47.5 percent. But since 2009, the West has held a higher win percentage than the East in every individual season.

There are many reasons for this. One of them that has not been discussed much is that the NBA draft system often unintentionally (but systematically) awards decent West teams slightly better draft picks than similar teams in the East. It's a system designed to help the weak get stronger, but it's rewarding the stronger conference almost every season.

It works like this. The lottery format, of course, semi-randomly assigns the top overall picks -- only twice since the 1999-2000 season has the worst team in the NBA won the top pick. But what matters is who gets into the lottery: specifically, teams that miss the playoffs. In the West, those are typically good teams. In the East, that's not so. So the top draft spots are going to a pool of teams that includes some strong West teams and weaker East ones.

Since 2000, 13 Western Conference teams have been in the lottery despite having one of the 16 best records in the NBA. On the flip side, this means that 13 Eastern Conference teams that did not possess one of the 16 best records in the NBA made the playoffs.

This odd situation is a quirk of the playoff structure, which takes the eight best teams per conference not the 16 best teams from the whole league. And it’s also a byproduct of the draft which then promises the top 14 picks to the non-playoff teams, not the 14 worst teams in the NBA, recordwise.

The average victories for the should-have-been playoff teams from the West is 43.3 wins. The average for those should-have-been lottery East teams is 39.6 wins. The situation reached its nadir in 2008 when the Golden State Warriors won 48 games, which was the 12th best record in the NBA. Still, they missed the Western Conference playoffs. Meanwhile the 37-win Atlanta Hawks got themselves a spot in the Eastern Conference postseason with the 19th best record in the league.

Other notable misfortunes include:
  • The 43-win Utah Jazz missed the playoffs, but made the lottery, while the 38-win Milwaukee Bucks saw the postseason in 2013.
  • In 2011, the Pacers won just 37 games and made the playoffs, while the Rockets won 43 and got a lottery pick.
  • In 2009, the 46-win Phoenix Suns didn't make the playoffs, but the 39-win Detroit Pistons did.
  • 2005 saw the Timberwolves win 44 and make the lottery, while the Nets won 42 and didn't.
  • In 2004, the 39-win Knicks and 36-win Celtics made the playoffs in the weak East, while the 42-win Jazz and 41-win Trail Blazers drew pingpong balls.
  • In 2001, the 45-win Rockets and 44-win SuperSonics earned spots in the lottery, but the 43-win Orlando Magic and the 41-win Indiana Pacers did not.

Those 42-, 44-, even 48-win Western Conference teams are getting an (admittedly slim) chance at the No. 1 overall pick in the draft. More importantly, though, they are absolutely getting a leg up on a better opportunity to collect talent compared to those Eastern teams which are losing three, five, or even 11 more games.

This discrepancy helps to reinforce the power of the Western Conference, while limiting the ability of the Eastern Conference to correct the imbalance.

The 13 West teams that missed the playoffs but got into the lottery received an average draft selection of 12.5 when in a league-wide draw would have been slotted in at around 16.5. That’s an appreciable four pick difference. Meanwhile, those crummy East teams got an average draft slot of 15 when they should have been picking at No. 13.

Obviously, the uppermost part of the draft is where the franchise-changing players are added. LeBron James, Dwight Howard, LaMarcus Aldridge, Dwyane Wade ... they were all taken in the top five picks. However that mid-range in the draft is important for complementing those stars with good role players.

Luckily for the East, the Western Conference has largely bungled its draft choices in this range. The 2008 Warriors with their 14th pick, instead of the 19th that they deserved, took Anthony Randolph ahead of useful players like Robin Lopez and Roy Hibbert.

You can lead a horse to water, but sometimes it’s going to drown in the pool, I suppose.

This quirky situation isn’t the end of the world, and it’s certainly not the cause of the disparity between the East and the West. I don’t think we’ll ever really know why the West is demonstrably better than the East for 15 years running now.

But the point here is that the current, peculiar format of the draft and the playoffs isn’t doing a lot to correct the imbalance and the solution is fairly simple.

This is yet another argument for a HoopIdea that many others have made before: It's time to reconsider the process of allocating talent to teams. At a minimum, it would make sense that the 14-worst teams receive the top 14 picks. The West is already formidable enough.

10 Things To Know: Christmas games

December, 24, 2013
12/24/13
4:36
PM ET
Verrier By Justin Verrier
ESPN.com
Archive
"I actually feel sorry for people who have nothing to do on Christmas Day other than watch an NBA game.” -- Stan Van Gundy

Despite concern among the mustachioed and unmustachioed alike, the NBA's Christmas Day lineup has become a holiday unto itself.

With football occupying a large portion of the viewing public's attention as the calendar year winds down, the first month-plus of the basketball season tends to be more of a warm-up for most. Christmas Day, then, has become something of an unofficial start to the season for late arrivals over the past few years, and the league has welcomed all with open arms by providing a smorgasbord of premier, nationally televised matchups.

To prepare for the full slate at hand, here are 10 things to know about the 10 teams hitting the NBA hardwood on Dec. 25.


1. The Kobe-LeBron rivalry is over before it began

The puppets are always the first to know.
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In 2009, just before LeBron James officially established his MVP bona fides and Kobe Bryant proved himself on a championship stage without Shaquille O’Neal, their clash over the same rarefied air space defined the NBA. James’ Cavaliers and Bryant’s Lakers were emerging as the league’s controlling elite, and with the two seeming predestined to meet in the NBA Finals at some point in the near future, if only because we deserved such a matchup from the basketball gods, Nike launched an ad campaign featuring plush likenesses of the All-Star wings sharing the same apartment to capitalize on the momentum.

But arguing over excess chalk dust on their Muppetized loveseat likely will be the only important postseason meeting between the two in their careers. What at one point seemed an unavoidable collision course turned into two highly accessorized ships passing in the night. Their seven-year gap between human and basketball years simply led to unparalleled peaks, and now what we’re left with to show from all the debating, hyping and hoping, besides the residual effects from the careless rearing of poor Lil’ Dez, are two Christmas Day blowouts in favor of James’ team, in 2009 and 2010.

The appetite from the league at large, though, remains unsatisfied. Why else would Heat-Lakers be plopped on the schedule this offseason right in the middle of Bryant’s recovery from an Achilles injury, instead of, say, Heat-Pacers? If market size does indeed matter so much, why not choose the Los Angeles team contending for a title?

Given James and the Heat's otherworldly production and Bryant and the Lakers' current struggles, both physically and personnel-wise, the rivalry that figured to end as an all-timer will never be the same, even if what we got never seemed enough.


2. The master

Twenty-eight is old in basketball years, but Chris Paul has probably seemed that way for some time now. LeBron James is 28, too, but his mass appeal keeps him at the forefront of the youth culture, even amid all that family-man branding. Blake Griffin (24) and DeAndre Jordan (25) feel like they’re decades apart from their point guard. In his own way, the reserved Kevin Durant (25) does, too. There’s always been an extreme poise emanating from Paul, whether it’s assuming control of the offense by sheer food-chain protocol or wrangling his chubby-cheeked son in the Clippers’ locker room. Even at his flashiest, knifing through lanes with precision dribbling, it’s all about seizing complete control.
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Indeed, Paul can dazzle, but he’d rather pull it back and process a situation. While centers stretch out to the arc and coaches push the pace to Ferrari-like speeds, Paul is content in his Volvo, getting exactly where he needs to go without any complications.

But with a roster built to get up and down more so than in his previous two seasons in Los Angeles, Paul has had to soup things up a bit. After playing at the 25th-fastest pace in his first season and the 19th-fastest in his next, Paul’s Clippers now rank eighth, among the Houstons and the Denvers. That plus the added slack taken on after the injuries to J.J. Redick and Matt Barnes have led to a hit in his shooting numbers, which surely nags him, but he’s never been more efficient as a Clipper, and most of his other stats are up (rebounds, assists) or near highs (points) for his stint in L.A., too.

The proliferation and growing public consumption of analytics only deepen the appreciation for the decidedly old-school game manager. The passing data from the SportVU tracking system is a virtual shrine to his mastery of the position: He leads all others in assists per game, total assists, secondary assists (tied), assist opportunities, points created by assists and points created by assists per 48 minutes. There’s only one other category, passes per game, in which he ranks second.

What’s old is new again, or maybe it’s the other way around. But the Clippers are looking forward again after some early hiccups, and Paul is again on track to finally capitalize on the window he has in his prime years, however long it may last.


3. A pair of aces
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Each cut to the rim, each stroke on his wizardly mane, each up-and-under move to draw a foul will probably always sting a little back in Oklahoma. There's no replacing a James Harden, even if the kiddies being groomed in the second unit are beginning to look like important pieces in the Thunder's championship quest. But the two dynamic superstars still lurking on the wings certainly haven't slowed down in their sixth season together.

According to our friends at ESPN Stats & Info, Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook are currently the highest-scoring duo in the NBA for the third consecutive season, with 49.7 points per game between them. Only four other duos in league history have accomplished that for three straight seasons or more, with Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen the last to do so from 1989 to 1993 with an NBA-record four.


4. It’s gotta be the sleeves?

First, a few words from LeBron James on the shimmering, Y2K-influenced sleeved jersey each team will don for Wednesday’s five-game slate, via the Miami Herald’s Joe Goodman:
LeBron said in pregame that the Heat’s shooters “are already upset about” the Christmas jerseys.

LEBRON: "I can’t have my shooters out there worrying about some sleeves and not shooting the ball."

Shooters are a neurotic bunch. Ray Allen, the greatest long-range threat in history, is more programmed than any player at this point: He follows the same warm-up routine, eats the same pregame meal, shaves his head at the same time. He once told Jackie MacMullan that he has “borderline OCD.” Anything that alters that ritual could pose an issue, and imagined or not, those teeny compression sleeves present just enough foreign element to unravel what is largely a life of repetition for the modern pro basketball player.

The Warriors, then, would be among the teams most likely to feel such an effect. Golden State has built its brand around its deep shooting, and currently ranks second in the NBA in 3-point shooting percentage and among the league leaders in percentage of shots taken from 3.

But after serving as the lab rats for adidas’ grand sleeved experiment last season, the Warriors have sported white, home jerseys with the new look and shown no apparent ill effects from it. In the four games they’ve broken out the sleeves in 2013-14, the Warriors have shot 46.5 percent from the floor and 40.6 percent from 3, which is right on par with their season averages of 46.2 and 40.2 (and among the more ridiculous stats ever published).


5. An exercise in sadness, Part A

Brooklyn knew it was operating without a net. You don't hand out draft picks like grocery-store coupons without feeling the pressure, the doubt of it all, even with all those barrels of cash to wipe your brow. And somehow, that self-awareness only makes the crash landing of the Nets' championship hopes, all the way down to fourth from the bottom in the putrid Eastern Conference, that much more gruesome.

Here's a look at all the grim and grisly carnage thus far.







6. Behold: The Sultan of Swag

At this point, Kobe Bryant’s snarling underbite is a tradition that ranks right up there with the more menacing characters of Christmas-season story time. The 17-year veteran has played in more Christmas Day games (15) than anyone else in NBA history and has accumulated the most career Christmas points (383). Really, what use is a Christmas ham these days without a dozen contested midrange J's to go with it?
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This year, though, your yuletide bombardiering will come not from the itchy trigger finger of Bryant, who is expected to miss five more weeks with a knee fracture, but courtesy of the “Swag Mamba,” Nick Young, who in his first season with his hometown Lakers enters the Christmas spotlight for just the second time.

The cockatooed sixth-year swingman certainly lacks the gravitas Bryant brings these days, but any game that prominently features Young, a smiley SoCal native with the O’Doul's version of Kobe’s skill set, is something of an impromptu field day -- all fun, all the time.
And with Bryant again aching, there’s been more Swag Time than ever: Young, whose shot selection ethos befits an “If it fits, I sits” cat, leads the Lakers in attempts (16.3) and points (21.3) in three games sans Bryant, and has even been given spot duty at the 1 for the point guard-depleted Lakers despite one of the very worst assist ratios among small forwards.

So, another LeBron-Kobe clash may not be in the offing, but these modern-day Lakers are a special kind of “Showtime” with the blissfully oblivious Young as their guiding force. Expect enjoyment, if not fierce competition, to ensue.


7. Welcome back, Dwight Howard

Anyone who has ever had to procure a postgame quote from Dwight Howard wouldn’t be surprised that the All-Star big man needed time to do anything, but 20 months and three teams after undergoing back surgery, the now-28-year-old center is beginning to look as close to his heyday as he may ever get.
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Smart people across the Interwebs have discussed the progressive tactics the Rockets’ offense has employed to great success, and amid the revolution, the back-to-the-basket big man Daryl Morey nabbed from the Lakers this past summer is having his best month offensively since April 2011, with 21.2 points on 62 percent shooting, 14.5 rebounds, 2 blocks, 60 percent free throw shooting (!) and 100 percent 3-point shooting (!!) in 35 minutes over 11 December games. The Rockets have five more games on the slate before the new year, but the only thing close to that since he wore out a FastPass at Disney World was a torrid eight-game April (20.9 points, 61.1 FG%, 10.5 rebounds, 2.4 blocks) to push the Lakers into the playoffs.

Outside of PER, virtually all of his advanced numbers on the season are better than they have been since 2010-11, and while he’s no longer the pre-eminent rim protector in the league, he’s become a force again in the paint on both ends of the floor. It seems the four-out, one-in approach on which he thrived in Orlando and now is again (to a certain degree) in Houston is more to his liking than blowing off pick-and-rolls. A happy Dwight is indeed a productive Dwight.


8. An exercise in sadness, Part B

Need another downer while the yuletide joy is flowing?

Facing off against the Nets on Wednesday will be one of the few teams that can feel them in all their catatonic pain, the Chicago Bulls, who have wandered the earth aimlessly after losing Derrick Rose once again.






9. Melo has Durant’s number

It’s quite fitting, given this fever dream of a Knicks season, that Carmelo Anthony joins their Magna Carta-length list of question marks with a bum left ankle right before they need him most. The Knicks obviously rely on Anthony and his 26.3 points per game; his 28.9 usage rate is fourth-highest in the league; and he's one of the team's few major contributors with a plus/minus better than minus-1 on the season, per NBA.com/stats.
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But while Kevin Durant and the Thunder roll into Christmas Day as the most imposing challenge in the league right now, they present the Knicks with one of their best chances yet of obtaining a first big win of the season -- if Anthony is active.

Despite the Thunder’s dominance of late, in the 12 games Anthony has faced Durant over the past seven years, the elder Melo is 11-1, according to Elias, with the lone loss coming in double overtime when Anthony was still on the Nuggets and the Thunder didn’t yet exist. In those matchups, Anthony, currently the No. 2 scorer in the NBA, has averaged 30.2 points on 50.2 percent shooting, while Durant, currently the No. 1 scorer in the NBA, has averaged 26.8 points on 42.4 percent shooting. It should be noted, though, that Anthony has played Durant just once in the past two seasons.

Of course, all of that may not have mattered even if Melo were the pinnacle of physical health: The Knicks (9-18) are 0-8 against the Western Conference this season; the Thunder (22-5) are 7-1 against the Eastern Conference.


10. Pop or Scrooge?

Who said it: San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich or Ebenezer Scrooge in the 1951 rendition of “A Christmas Carol”?

A.) “I want some nasty.”

B.) “You’ll want the whole day off, I suppose.”

C.) “Happy? I don’t know how to judge happy.”

D.) “We didn’t send mariachi bands or birthday cards or breakfast in bed.”

E.) “It’s all humbug, I tell you, humbug.”

Has Houston found its missing piece?

December, 20, 2013
12/20/13
9:46
AM ET
Huq By Rahat Huq
Special to ESPN.com
Archive
Terrence JonesAP Photo/David J. PhillipOnce an afterthought, Terrence Jones may be just what the Houston Rockets have been looking for.
On draft night 2012, in the media workroom deep in the bowels of Toyota Center, a collective groan evinced upon the announcement of the No. 18 pick. Most present were content with the Houston Rockets’ earlier selections of Jeremy Lamb and Royce White. They were both tantalizing prospects with some of the most unique skill sets in the entire draft – a prototypical shooting guard and a powerful 4 with the playmaking ability of a point guard. But Terrence Jones? With Marcus Morris and Patrick Patterson already on board, were the Rockets attempting to corner the market on unimpressive, undersized power forwards?

A year and a half later, the tune in Houston has changed. After a rookie season in which Jones often rode the pine, the Rockets entered training camp for the 2013-14 season with no veteran power forwards on the roster. That made Jones the default option next to Dwight Howard in the starting unit. With Houston desperate to make an Omer Asik-Howard “Twin Towers” lineup work, Jones remained chained to the bench to start the season. But when that experiment failed, Jones was sent back out with the starters to start the second half on Nov. 11 against the Toronto Raptors. He hasn’t given up the spot since, and as result, the Rockets’ offense has taken off.
[+] EnlargeRockets
Kelley L Cox/USA TODAY SportsAfter a lengthy search, the Rockets' first unit has fit together quite well in Terrence Jones' 18 starts.

The quintet of Jones, Howard, Patrick Beverley, James Harden and Chandler Parsons has posted an offensive rating of 115.3 in 228 minutes played. They’ve posted a net rating of plus-17.9 per 100 possessions and accumulated a true shooting percentage of 60 percent. By comparison, that same lineup with Asik in for Jones scored 82.6 points per 100 possessions, with a net rating of minus-26.5. Their true shooting percentage was 45.7 percent. While Houston’s 17-9 record to start the season is worse than one might have expected, Jones was the antidote to its early-season offensive woes. With Asik out and Jones in his place, the offense has worked exactly as Daryl Morey had envisioned.

Jones, a former Kentucky standout once projected to be drafted in the top five, doesn’t have any elite indicators: average size; no post game to speak of; and while athletic, you wouldn’t pin the “freakish” label on him. But what he can do fits the Houston lineup.

A former point guard, Jones’ best attribute is his handle. The 6-foot-9, 252-pounder gets low on the dribble, a fundamental ballhandling habit ingrained into young children but a trait rare for NBA big men. Setting out on the perimeter almost exclusively during his court time, Jones attacks off the catch either with a pump fake or a hesitation dribble.

One of the more entertaining spectacles from each Rockets game involves Jones corralling the rebound and leading the break on his own. In these moments, Houston’s guards stroll the other way, confident Jones will finish the play. And with a surprisingly accurate shooting stroke, Jones can spread the floor and give Houston’s stars the space they need to operate inside. He is always moving, either in transition or in the half court, finishing the passes off cuts to the rim that Asik couldn't handle.

After attempts to honor Asik’s long-standing trade request, reports surfaced on Thursday that the Rockets had backed away from the negotiation table and planned to hold onto the big man for the time being. Undoubtedly, they weren't too thrilled by the available offers. But it's fair to assume that the urgency over filling the power forward spot has also diminished.

Still in just the infancy of his development, Jones’ next assignment will be developing the ability to create on his own out of nothing. As this face-up game evolves, a midrange jumper and some varied finishing moves would also be of use.

Jones will also have to improve on defense. While he averaged 2.5 blocks per 36 minutes last season (by comparison, Serge Ibaka averaged 2.6 per 36 his rookie year), too often he gets lost in rotations, not reacting quickly enough to help out his teammates in the scheme of the team’s defense. For the Rockets to seriously contend, this will have to change. The good news is that he is only 21 years old and will get better with each opening tip.

It’s unclear how and when the Asik situation will be resolved. The team will probably look to deal him again closer to the trade deadline. It will surely try to get him back out on the court in the meantime. But one thing is already clear: In Jones, the Rockets have their power forward.

Killer Lineup: Houston's rim squad

December, 13, 2013
12/13/13
11:14
AM ET
Arnovitz By Kevin Arnovitz
ESPN.com
Archive





Memphis GrizzliesLineup: Patrick Beverley, James Harden, Chandler Parsons, Terrence Jones, Dwight Howard
Minutes Played: 180
Offensive Rating: 114.6 points per 100 possessions
Defensive Rating: 97.8 points per 100 possessions

How it works offensively
For years, the Rockets worked toward a day when they could employ elite talent to create an offense around basketball’s most efficient shots. With the acquisition of Dwight Howard, that day has arrived in Houston.

The numbers are outrageous: 53 percent of the starting unit’s shot attempts have been taken in the basket area, and another 26.3 percent of them come from beyond the arc. That means nearly four out of every five shots for this unit originate from one of the sweetest spots on the floor -- almost unheard of. Per 48 minutes, this lineup has scored 14.7 points more than its opponents just at the rim, coming into Thursday night.

James Harden, Howard & Co. generate these premium shots by adhering to two basic objectives: Don't let the defense get set, and find the quickest, best shot off the first action. There's an assumption that the Rockets' starters have appropriated the offense of Howard’s Orlando Magic teams from a few years back: “Surround Howard with shooters, and go from there.”

Yes and no.

Howard’s Orlando teams launched from long range, but those shots were products of more deliberate half-court sets. The Rockets are a little less orderly, though the starters are hardly their most frenzied unit.

All five guys can do positive things in transition. They also initiate a lot of possessions with early drag screens on a controlled break, with the intention of maintaining that break long enough for the ball to find an open guy. Unlike the Magic, with their four proficient outside shooters fanned out in spatial perfection around Howard, his Houston quartet is involved in a more jagged, improvisational production.

A good number of these early screens are built around Harden, who lords over the chaos. He loves to attack a defense that’s still getting organized, barreling into contact, maneuvering his way to the rim, stepping back for a jumper or generally creating mischief. He manufactures these points at will. If the defense sinks, he’ll kick the ball out -- often with the intention of getting it back.
[+] EnlargeHarden
Cameron Browne/NBAE/Getty ImagesJames Harden thrives in the chaos created by the Rockets' offense.

Lately, defenses have been giving Harden a bit more cushion to shoot. One coach recently privately conceded that given Harden’s knack for drawing fouls, and his middling numbers from long range, yielding a little space to Harden isn't the worst strategy.

But Harden isn't the only option early. On the weak side, Terrence Jones might make a basket cut, or Chandler Parsons will trail, pick up the ball on the move or catch a pass in stride before stepping into a 3-pointer. Parsons has exceptional court vision, so he can move the Rockets into their next action if the shot isn't there. Patrick Beverley isn't much of a spot-up threat but isn't a bad place to have the ball early because that allows Harden to get on the move against a discombobulated defense.

This unit's slower half-court stuff isn't all that systematic, much of it designed around post feeds for Howard. He has more vision down low than we give him credit for, and gathers information as he backs a guy in. When Howard is on the left block with the ball, he spins low and finishes with his left if he doesn’t see help coming along the baseline. If he does, he turns middle and moves into his running hook. This isn’t anywhere close to the Rockets’ most efficient offense, but if Howard on the block is the gristle on the steak, the team is in good shape.

Naturally, Harden gets plenty of opportunities to isolate when the game slows down. He knows where the vacant spots and empty lanes are on the floor. Harden makes a handful of bad decisions per night, but the volume of creativity more than compensates for it. The aesthetics leave something to be desired -- the constant head-jerks and flailing are like bad miming -- but it’s hard to argue with the production.

The Rockets now have increasing faith in Beverley to get them into a half-court possession, but his first two imperatives are still to get the ball into the hands of Harden (off a pin-down, curl, etc.) and Howard (simple entry pass). Beverley is the weak link offensively but doesn't cost this unit a lot. He’s just passable enough from 3 to require some monitoring, and he’s not a bad distributor even if he doesn’t rise to the level of playmaker. All in all, Beverley plays a smart game. In parts of two seasons now with Houston, he’s put up some of the team’s best overall on-off ratings.

Kevin McHale has some old-school sensibilities and likes to hunt for a specific matchup advantage and call that number. Against the Warriors recently, Terrence Jones got a bunch of opportunities to work one-on-one opposite David Lee, and torched him. Two nights later, the Rockets looked for Howard against Glen Davis, with Howard raising his hand on the block like a guy trying to get a server’s attention.

This extends beyond individual matchups. The Houston starters are quick to recognize when they have a tactical edge. Up against the paint-packing Spurs in that nutty game a couple of weeks back, they drove at sagging defenders then looked outside and generated a couple dozen good looks from long distance. Against an interior-minded defense, they’ll also run a dribble handoff with Howard and either Parsons or Harden way, way up top. If the small defender can’t get over Howard, the shot is going up without hesitation.

That might be the defining characteristic of this unit -- decisiveness. The ball doesn't always pop around the half court, not with Harden and Howard taking their fair shares of touches for one-on-one situations. But even those possessions are characterized by a clear purpose.

 




How it works defensively
With Howard situated in the middle of the defense, the Rockets are implementing the inverted principles that guide their offense -- denying opponents good shots at close range and open looks from behind the 3-point line.

Remember that stat up top that highlighted the Rockets taking four out of every five shots either at the immediate basket area or from beyond the arc? For the starters' opponents, that combined number is a paltry 55.6 percent. That’s the equivalent of facing a Doug Collins-coached offense every single night.

The starters take full advantage of the luxury that accompanies a center like Howard underneath. Howard is a patient, mobile rim defender who might have lost some bounce over the past couple of seasons but has cultivated a veteran big man’s nose for sniffing out schemes.

At first blush, it might appear as if Howard is less aggressive, but there’s clearly a defensive mandate to hang back, guard the rim and avoid triggering a rotation. Against pick-and-rolls, Howard isn't a Duncan-esque extremist when it’s time to drop, though he’s certainly inclined to maintain interior control. He commits very early to the driver, and weakside defenders are on alert early.
[+] EnlargeDwight Howard and Raymond Felton
Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE/Getty ImagesDwight Howard isn't as spry as he once was, but he still must be reckoned with on defense.

Jones usually follows the same tack as a pick-and-roll defender, immediately corralling the ball handler, arms extended. But if Jones' counterpart at the 4 is a threat, the Rockets will switch up the coverage. Jones might jump out hard on the pick then scamper back or have Howard tag his man.

Against lethal scorers and playmakers, there are instances when the Rockets will launch a blitz and double the ball -- and not just against a high screen. Playing small against Golden State, Beverley and Jones trapped Stephen Curry deep in the backcourt as soon as the ball crossed the time line. And even with Howard underneath, the Rockets will send another body at an opposing big man working on the block, as they did Thursday night in spots against LaMarcus Aldridge.

One of the better barometers for a defense is how well it responds when it has to improvise. The Rockets adapt well, aided in large part by Howard’s strong ability to buy time for Beverley or Harden and Jones’ flexibility as a guy who can hold his own against most bigs and wings. Howard will rove more than most goalie-centers, but he’s become a bit more selective as a helper and weakside menace. He no longer feels the need to contest anyone and anything in his field of vision and doesn’t enjoy defensive commutes as much as he once did.

The Rockets have found something in Beverley, who gives them a capable on-ball defender who has the wherewithal to monitor what’s going on behind him, how much time Howard can buy him on a given action and when not to gamble. He isn’t an easy guy to beat off the dribble, and when an opposing player dumps the ball off then simply tries to clear through, Beverley loves to bump him off course.

Harden doesn't contribute much defensively. He's not a guy who closes out with any effectiveness, and help from Harden generally means an idle stab at the ball while the driver zooms past. It’s impossible to know for sure since Harden has never been a motivated defender, but the presence of Howard seems to serve as yet another crutch for Harden’s when-the-feeling-strikes brand of defense.

Parsons is an average defender and Jones is a bit undersized in the half court, but as a tandem they’re insanely athletic, which comes in handy when the game turns into a track meet. Both forwards lend the defense a degree of versatility, because both can hold their own on the perimeter and in the post against most competition. With Beverley pressuring the ball up top and Howard guarding the paint down low, it’s a defense that can check just about every box.

No more Moreyball; just basketball

November, 20, 2013
11/20/13
10:31
AM ET
Huq By Rahat Huq
Special to ESPN.com
Archive
Dwight HowardAP Photo/Don RyanAfter years of uncertainty and chess moves, the Rockets finally have their superstar core in place.
It’s early November of 2012. An unfamiliar buzz flows through Toyota Center; the stands are dotted with makeshift beards. Eyes are fixed upon the oversize HD screen hanging at center court. When the camera focuses on James Harden, who is warming up, the crowd becomes delirious. There is, once again, a star in Houston.

It’s October 2013. Dwight Howard stands at the corner locker in Houston’s expensively renovated locker room. An LCD monitor hangs above him -- there’s one above every locker -- detailing some unconventional stats. The big man seems content, quietly joking with reporters nearby. About an hour has passed since Howard pulled down a career high-tying 26 rebounds in his Rockets regular-season debut. Like the billboards with his image that can be seen on the drive into the arena, Howard at this moment stands taller than his listed 6-foot-10. He is the fruit of an almost two-year-long pursuit.


Long after Yao Ming’s body could take no more and Tracy McGrady had already been shipped away, the quest for a fresh foundation had begun. With the two forlorn superstars off the books, everything in Houston revolved around finding the franchise’s next centerpieces. Management took gambles on lottery busts and let several free agents walk for nothing. It traded Kyle Lowry and amnestied Luis Scola in the name of flexibility.

The mission in Houston was “asset arbitrage,” creating value where it didn’t exist. The goal was not so much to fill a lineup but rather to short on players while value continuously accrued, waiting for the moment to completely cash in on one prized stock; in some ways, that revolving door of acquired lottery busts represented Daryl Morey’s idea of diversifying his odds.
[+] EnlargeMcGrady-Ming
Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE/Getty ImagesThe Rockets struggled to find their way after the Yao Ming-Tracy McGrady era officially ended.

Some decried the constant, seemingly directionless dealing. Morey didn’t understand basketball, they said. He didn’t value chemistry and longevity, bedrock elements in sports success. “You can’t manage a roster like a stock portfolio. How will a team ever grow?”

But now, with Harden and Howard in tow and Morey’s methods validated, for the first time in years on 1510 Polk St., the rumblings are not about cap space and asset accumulation. The debate does not center upon the high-end free agency market but rather defensive rotations. For the first time during the Morey era, basketball matters most.

The transition began last year, when Morey applied his ideology to the game action, designing a system that pushed the pace and eschewed midrange jump shots. The strategy led to a playoff berth and precious experience for foundational pieces like Harden, Chandler Parsons and Jeremy Lin -- experience that can be seen as more valuable than the acquisition of yet another low lottery pick. In the following months, still distraught from the bitter defeat, players approached offseason regimens with added emphasis. That extra attention has paid off for Lin and Parsons in particular.

Yet for all of the individual progress, for the sum of the parts, the results have been mixed. Anointed by many as contenders, the Rockets have underperformed by most people’s expectations, entering Wednesday’s matchup with Dallas at 8-4 and in fifth place in the Western Conference. On Nov. 7, the Los Angeles Lakers torched Houston with a 3-point barrage, a few nights after the Clippers had carved up its perimeter defense. Those L.A. affairs raised concerns about the team’s ability and willingness to defend, things serious observers wouldn’t have cared about even a year before. Blown leads in consecutive games against the Clippers, Raptors and Sixers raised other red flags about focus and late-game strategy, which again would have been ancillary matters in the past.


Before an early-November home game, Omer Asik peeks out from the corridor -- near the showers where press is not allowed -- into the Rockets locker room. Seeing a few reporters awaiting pre-game availability, he retreats back into safety around the wall. A week earlier, already clad in blue jeans and a green sweater, Asik is stopped by Rockets staffers on behalf of the media as he attempts to dart toward the exit elevators. This was the same night that Howard was introduced over the PA as the starter at power forward for the first time since 2004. “This is the only time we’ve gotten to speak to him in two years,” someone quips of the shy big man. Asik is asked his thoughts on starting next to Howard, an experiment to which the Rockets -- at the time -- were committed. He responds in expected generalities.

But any hope for that frontcourt marriage has ended. With the thinking being that Asik was too valuable to just give up, Kevin McHale tried in vain to pair his two centers together for 12 minutes per game. The results were disastrous and the plug has been pulled. Now Asik has yet again asked out and will inevitably be dealt.

But while that matter is of a transactional nature, the on-court implications are of paramount concern. In previous years, the focus in these situations was placed upon greatest value return (or whatever star was available, for that matter). Now the key words now are “stretch 4” and “rim protection.” The Rockets have a set manner in which they play and a set foundation, and whomever they acquire for Asik must fit neatly into that master scheme. We care now about floor spacing and the interior defense when Howard is not on the court; we’re no longer only counting dollars under the cap.


Prior to yet another Houston home affair, Chandler Parsons walks into the Houston locker room following warm-ups, sweating lightly but hair still immaculately sculpted. With a smile and a wink, Parsons pushes the rap music sounding overhead to deafening levels before sprinting away, rendering Patrick Beverley -- speaking to the media about his replacement of Lin in the starting lineup -- barely audible. Parsons is in some ways the team’s leader, its longest tenured member. And the upcoming decision regarding his status might perhaps be the greatest sign of an evolving ethos in Houston. The club can either make the swingman a restricted free agent in 2014 or allow him to become unrestricted the following year. Either way, judging by the dollars commanded by comparable players such as Nicolas Batum, Parsons is due a hefty payday.

The Morey Model that we've come to know would point toward an obvious route: selling high on Parsons and plugging in a cheaper replacement. That familiar paradigm would likely say that Parsons, not a true star, probably wasn’t worth what he’ll command on the market. But these are different days in Houston, when the games are played on the court rather than strictly on spreadsheets.

We've reached that point where “cashing out” is no longer an option. Cutting ties with Parsons would mean relinquishing the longest tenured Rocket, the team’s “glue guy.” It would disrupt the chemistry and stability. And as some have said, these things matter. And with Howard and Harden now in the fold, the Rockets are in position to take heed, to embrace the intangibles that quantitative analysis might miss.

We've reached the point where Morey no longer has to -- or needs to -- play Moreyball.

Cutting Dwight Howard some slack

October, 30, 2013
10/30/13
10:27
AM ET
Arnovitz By Kevin Arnovitz
ESPN.com
Archive
Dwight Howard
Getty Images
Should we give a goofball the chance to grow up and develop some gravitas?

A friend asked me recently if I knew of a basketball player named Dwight Howard. This friend’s cluelessness on matters of sports has long been a source of amusement between us, but he also offers a window into the world of popular opinion beyond the NBA’s force field. A top executive at the kids’ cable network where he works had encouraged him to see how they could make use of Howard. My friend has met Howard a few times in the past year or so. He finds him friendly, polite to more or less everyone, goofy in an inoffensive way and, above all, eager to be funny.

“But he’s not funny,” my friend said dispassionately. “It doesn't work.”

When nonfans speak about sports, they do so in declarative sentences. The commentary is devoid of emotion, acid, indignation and all the other additives sports fans inject into their feelings about this guy or that team. There’s no wholesale judgment or burning desire to ascribe a player’s lack of funniness to some larger character flaw or human failing. Dude isn't funny, and it doesn't really work, but it’s still useful to put a goofy 6-foot-10 giant on the air because it lends a show some novelty, and a fair number of kids are still drawn to big-name athletes, and we’ll leave it at that.

But rabid fans aren't a leave-it-at-that kind of crowd, and there’s no such thing as detachment. The NBA is their favorite show, and they want to be vested in the characters, define which ones are compelling and which ones annoy the hell out of them. For the past several years, Howard has fallen into that latter group. If not with 10-year-old children, then certainly with many of his teammates, the die-hards and the media.

Howard has rightfully earned his membership. In Orlando, Fla. -- a low-degree-of-difficulty market -- he was clumsy handling his business. Right about the time Howard signed his first big deal, his shtick started to wear thin. One former Magic teammate described Howard as someone with two distinct modes -- big kid desperate for attention or adolescent pout. Over the years, Howard has made few friends among media personnel, who watch his postgame antics: the endless dawdling while they wait and wait by his locker, the chirping to no one in particular while he dances around, the yapping to nobody special while teammates roll their eyes and depart in their street clothes long before Howard has even dried off.

The drama at the end of his tenure in Orlando drove up his unfavorables. There’s consensus around the league that Howard wanted Stan Van Gundy out, although there’s a bit more debate about whether Van Gundy and Otis Smith wanted Howard traded, and to what extent CEO Alex Martins vetoed that proposal. Whatever the case, the torturous Van Gundy news conference was the tipping point for Howard.

When a player establishes a pattern of behavior over a sustained period of time, his reputation coagulates. We’re certain we know exactly who he is, and no one cuts him a break because it’s just too much fun. After all, he put himself in the schmuck box, and we’re under no obligation to let him out. We become overly possessive of a guy’s narrative, as if he has no say in the story going forward. We’re entitled to say what we want about him until the end of time. A statute of limitations is granted only upon the presentation of a ring, and, even then, the guy often has to undergo a massive rehabilitation.

The problem with this thinking is that it ignores a simple truth: A lot of callow people ultimately grow up. For most, it happens outside the glare of the public eye. You bump along, absorb a few of life’s blows and become more sensible about the tasks that come with being an adult. Those who are long on self-doubt become more confident, and those who see themselves as invincible learn a thing or two about their limitations.

None of this comes naturally to athletes at the highest level. Most pro ballplayers work like crazy, but, dating back to the moment they showed exceptional potential, most of their material needs have been met -- to say nothing of the gross amount of attention and approbation they've received along the way. When you've been given a ton of stuff, you become insulated, which makes those potholes on the road seem like craters.

The first half of Howard’s pro career has followed this path. But, one thing we've learned from the smartest talent evaluators in pro sports the past couple of decades is that it’s ill-advised to project future performance based on past performance without taking age into account. Self-awareness is a trait people pick up later in life.

The Tobias Harris/No. 12 snippet notwithstanding, Howard has shown some promise in the past four months. His move from Los Angeles to Houston was handled cleanly. He took meetings at the beginning of the week in an orderly fashion, then spent a couple of days in seclusion to weigh the most important professional decision of his life. As teams were crossed off his list, they were notified, and, on Friday, he announced his decision to sign with Houston.

None of this deterred the gangs who roam the alleys of social media, who continued to roast Howard. The chattering class insists that anything short of a title will render Howard a fool, although players such as Chris Paul and Carmelo Anthony rarely get called out for being poolside by mid-May. Meanwhile, Shaquille O’Neal knocked him for melting under the bright lights of Los Angeles, as if an aversion to Southern California is a mortal shortcoming and not a matter of taste (Woody Allen is celebrated for his L.A. Hate, but Howard’s apprehension about working there is inexcusable?).

Of course, all of this goes away if Howard wins a title in Houston, but that implies that a championship is the most important measure of character, when it’s really just a measure of professional achievement. Whether he ever hoists a trophy, it’s possible Howard will continue to be juvenile well into his twilight years. Some athletes mature (see: Webber, Chris), and some don’t. Howard has given no certain indication that he’ll ever be Mr. Gravitas, but he should be given some breathing room -- not because we owe him a thing. This isn't about a fresh start.

It’s about affording someone the opportunity to excise his frustrations and become better at who he is and what he does.

Monday Bullets

October, 21, 2013
10/21/13
4:01
PM ET
Arnovitz By Kevin Arnovitz
ESPN.com
Archive
  • It's 363 pages on my Kindle and chock full of all kinds of hoop goodness: It's the 2013-14 Hardwood Paroxysm Season Preview, in e-book form, for only $1.99. You get fancy charts, team previews, fan fiction and illustrations, including what appears to be the cover of Grand Theft Auto: Rip City Edition.
  • Zach Lowe of Grantland on the Jazz extending big-man-of-the-future Derrick Favors, and the wisdom and limited downside of planning ahead: " If it's right, Utah will have saved itself some valuable cap space by acting early, just as Philadelphia (Jrue Holiday, now gone) and especially Golden State (Stephen Curry) did a year ago by acting in advance of restricted free agency. There are at least eight teams with the potential for max-level cap room next summer, and though a few are already crowded on the front line (Detroit, perhaps Orlando), there are at least a couple that would have loomed as potentially aggressive suitors for Favors."
  • There's a fair amount of debate inside the Wizards' locker room over who's a better poster boy for Kellogg's -- Trevor Booker, who has "at least 12 boxes of cereal" in his pantry right now, or Chris Singleton, who starts his morning with "Dexter and Fruit Loops." Also receiving votes: Ariza, Trevor.
  • There may not be a lot of height in Bhutan, but there are a ton of basketball enthusiasts in the Buddhist kingdom, including Queen Jetsun Pema Wangchuck, who has a regular women's pickup game. According to the New York Times' Garndiner Harris, "The royal set shot is as sweet as honeyed ghee, and the royal dribble as poised as a monk in meditation." (H/T Jacob Greenberg)
  • In the Philippines they hoop in flip-flops. The Trique Indians of Oaxaca don't even bother. A team of boys from the southwestern Mexico state won a youth basketball tournament in Argentina playing barefoot.
  • There are at least two teams in the league that run what they actually call, "a Maggette play," whereby a strong, agile slasher who can drill free throws will curl up from the corner, get the ball on the move and barrel towards the rim. Corey Maggette recently retired and Aaron McGuire used the opportunity at Gothic Ginobili to pay homage to the NBA Journeyman.
  • If the Philadelphia 76ers were a player, they'd be Brian Roberts.
  • And if every Los Angeles Clipper was a Ramones song, it would look like this.
  • Point guard battle in Sacramento: Isaiah Thomas vs. Greivis Vasquez. Who ya got?
  • I love a site that goes to the trouble of inserting the diaeresis above the 'O' in Ímer Asik's name. Forrest Walker of Red94 does Turkish right, and also ponders what kind of production the Rockets need from the 4 spot this season alongside Dwight Howard.

Q&A: Stan Van Gundy, Part 3

August, 27, 2013
8/27/13
10:34
AM ET
Strauss By Ethan Sherwood Strauss
ESPN.com
Archive
In Part 3, Stan Van Gundy discusses how his Orlando Magic teams were constructed and how the defensive rule changes of the 2000s impacted the NBA.

Stan Van Gundy Q&A: Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3


So your Magic teams adopted a distinct, spread-floor strategy. How did you come by it?

The plan -- not just my plan but [GM] Otis Smith's plan -- was that, when you have Dwight Howard, he's the centerpiece of your team. What you always want to do is take your best players and figure out how to complement them and the best way to help a big guy like that is to get him room on the floor. And you do that by putting as much shooting out there as possible.

When we looked at guys -- I mean they drafted [J.J.] Redick -- shooting was always a priority. And then what happened in that first year the same summer that I came here. Then we got Rashard [Lewis] and [Hedo Turkoglu] who are both 3-men, but clearly among their top four players [at their position], along with Jameer [Nelson], so they obviously were going to have to play together.

So one of them had to become a 4-man. Rashard was just a better fit at the 4. Look, if Tony Battie had not gotten hurt that year, there's a good chance that we would have played big at least half the game and not been quite as much four-out. With the roster we had, it was just an absolute necessity that we played the way we did. And I thought the shooting around Dwight really helped. The thought was always trying to put guys around Dwight that complemented him.

Is concocting NBA strategy actually fun? Coaches are so famously miserable.

I really enjoyed that part of the job. Sitting around with your staff, and kicking around ideas and looking at different things and trying to find the best way to make it work for your team. I find that to be one of the most enjoyable parts of the job, to think about those things and really, really try to make it fit and make it all work.

What aspect of what you did strategically were you most proud of?

There's a fairly small group of guys who are just going to be successful wherever they go and in whatever system they're in. I mean, they're just so talented or so versatile or whatever it is that, wherever you put them, they're really going to be successful. But I think a great majority of the league and probably some guys that are in and out of the league, it really comes down to getting in a place where you fit what's going on. So my first year here, we had Keith Bogans and Mo Evans splitting time as the starting 2. And they were both really successful. Courtney Lee started as a rookie the next year on a team that goes to the NBA Finals.

If you want them to do things that aren't really going to fit their strengths, then they're not going to be as good. And I think that's why some teams don't like a guy because he doesn't really fit what they're trying to do. And then he goes somewhere else and plays well and people’s first reaction is, "Team A made a bad trade in giving the guy up!"

Well, maybe not. He didn't really fit what they were doing. I think that fit is so important for, I don't know what percentage, 80 percent of the players in the league.

Did the rule changes in the early 2000s change the league a lot?

Coaches are going to adapt to whatever the rules are. The rules certainly change strategy. Even within that, even since that happened, things continue to evolve. People are always trying to find a different way.

One of the big ones that's changed a lot, even more than the illegal defense rules, is what you're able to do with your hands out on the perimeter guarding people. Your team defense became a lot better because it's becomes a lot harder individually to guard guys.

I remember when we had Dan Majerle when I was an assistant in Miami, and Dan, at that part of his career anyway, wasn't the quickest guy in the world but he could certainly move his feet. He was a real, real tough guy, and very committed. But with his strength, and under the rules at the time where you could put a forearm on the guy, Dan could really reroute guys and things like that. And that rule changed. To me, that probably changed NBA defenses.

Look, I mean, I've only been in the league 18 years. I mean, you can go back and talk to guys who were in it a long time ago. But the time I've been in [the forearm rule] changed NBA defense and NBA defensive strategy more than the illegal defense guidelines.

Do the rules have something to do with why centers are less involved offensively?

They've certainly become a lesser part of NBA offense. Now, the reason. I think there's multiple reasons. Most kids growing up don't want to play in there. It's not a lot of fun. There’s a lot of contact. You’re not handling the ball. You’re not getting to shoot it with range. That’s number one. The other reason, there’s just not enough people feeding into the NBA who are low-post players who want to do that work.

It’s always been a defended position. A guard can just sort of get the ball and get himself a shot. A center needs his teammates to bring the ball down into him.

Passing as a skill really hasn't gotten much better. A lot of coaches actually think it's gotten worse, and so that makes it harder to get guys the ball. Certainly the defensive rules have allowed us to do things that we previously couldn't do to make it harder on post people.

I mean, you can front the post and bring another guy over behind him. You could never do that kind of stuff before. Certainly the rules have contributed to that. And I also think, you combine the rules with now, how are you still going to be able to get the ball inside because you don't have a rule that artificially gets your post guy some room? That’s also led to putting more shooting on the floor, and teams playing smaller, because the only way now to prevent teams from doing those kinds of things is to put enough shooting on the floor to get those guys space.

Q&A: Stan Van Gundy, Part 1

August, 26, 2013
8/26/13
10:36
AM ET
Strauss By Ethan Sherwood Strauss
ESPN.com
Archive
Stan Van GundyAP Photo/Nick Wass

Stan Van Gundy can talk. Away from the sidelines -- and not screaming -- for more than a year, the former Orlando Magic coach no longer sounds like Dwight Howard's famously raspy imitation.

This Van Gundy is still bluntly honest, but he is also more expansive with his comments. He’s been guest-hosting weekly on Dan Le Batard's Miami-based radio program -- training that perhaps has turned Van Gundy's points into paragraphs, sound bites into monologues. Like any radio host worth his Arbitron, he keeps you invested throughout the verbal essays.

On this day, he’s pontificating on a variety of subjects, including his relationship with Howard, media coverage in the NBA, and more.

Stan Van Gundy Q&A: Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3


Why are coaches getting fired so often when they dictate so much of the game?

That one I would have a hard time explaining. You get to the point where you're changing 13 jobs in one year, over 40 percent of your league and three guys [Vinny Del Negro of the Clippers, Lionel Hollins of the Grizzlies, George Karl of the Nuggets] who led their teams to the most wins in franchise history. Look, there's a lot of different reasons and I certainly don't know the ins and outs of each situation, but I think a large part of it is that there's sort of been a new breed of general manager coming into the league. We had younger guys. We've got guys not coming from coaching backgrounds as much. More guys coming from the analytics backgrounds. And they want different things than their head coaches. And I think in large part, I think a lot of them, [you] hire younger GMs without a coaching background.

My theory is that not all, but some of those guys are intimidated by experienced coaches that have their way of doing things and they're more comfortable having younger guys, first-time guys that they feel will listen to them more, that they will have more control over. So, there definitely has been a change. I think it's more coming from the GM side, but all of these things in the NBA tend to run in cycles, so we'll just have to see where it goes.

Why do you and Dwight Howard remain friends? Why do you still frequently text each other after everything that happened?

I do think that one thing that we all do is look at the whole picture when you're looking at something. And there's no one I know, there's no one that I care about, people I'm a lot closer to than guys I've coached like my family, there's not one of them I haven't had major disagreements with.

One, you still love them and everything else, but also you're judging by the whole picture. So, I can look at what Dwight did for me as a coach and for our whole basketball team in Orlando and everything else and I'm very, very appreciative.

Plus, I don't think there was ever a point where I didn't like Dwight personally. I like him. I've had a lot of laughs with him. He's a good guy. We had some things that we disagreed on. We had some things we disagreed strongly on and some times where we pissed each other off. And those were well-documented. But it doesn't negate all of the good things he did and the good times that were there in the five years we were together. So for me, it's not a hard thing to overlook.

Just look back at your life and the people in your life. If you're really being honest about it, then you're going to think of major blowups you had with those people. You're going to think of times you stormed out of the house. But you keep coming back because for the most part you will work off things in the big picture. You have to be careful not getting caught up in the moment too much.

Can media coverage have a corrosive impact on a team?

The media's job is different than ours. Let's put it this way: The media can certainly be a challenge. You're out looking for stories. And that's your job. And for a lot of people, maybe not a lot, but for a few people, the easiest way is to look for the negative.

The whole world has different challenges now with the 24-hour news cycle and just the volume of stuff that's out there. And everybody has to get out there. So you've got all these people now, because it's online 24 hours, if I want to get noticed, I got to have something different. And so the beat reporter writes his story and the team played well and blah blah blah. Well, I can't write that same story now. Nobody's going to read it.

So every angle is going to be covered. Every angle. That's not just in sports. That's in everything. It certainly presents a challenge, but I don't think that that's something you can blame on the media. I think coaches sometimes look at the media as the enemy. I don't think that's fair. It's going to be like any profession. Ninety-nine percent of the people are going to work hard and just try to do a good job. And you're going to find that 1 percent that lacks integrity, will trump up stories, won't be honest, but there's so few of them. I never wanted to look at the media as an enemy, I never wanted my players to look at the media as an enemy.

Do coaches get frustrated by media ignorance of strategy and details?

I never really got that frustrated by that. You have to realize that their level of knowledge is not going to be what a coach's is. The criticism from the media never really bothered me. I'd correct it when I can, but that's their job. If stuff wasn't personal, then it really didn't bother me.

I'm sure I've pissed off everybody I've ever met one way or another. And whether they like me or not, I hope they're at least basing it on the whole picture.

Is watching the NBA more fun now that you’re not coaching?

I would say I probably enjoyed it more when I was coaching because I was more specifically looking at it in terms of, "Wow, that would be good for our team" if I was just watching another game or, "When do we play that team? We're going to have to do this." I enjoyed the deeper analysis more than I enjoy just sitting down and watching a game.

I enjoyed how I watched the games as a coach more than I do how I watch games now.

Why do you respect (Tampa Bay Rays manager) Joe Maddon so much?

He is very analytical in what he does. Is there any way he can gain an advantage with his shifts, probably the most obvious one, or squeeze bunting? He's not afraid to go against the book. He's not managing worried about what might be said if something doesn't work. He's going to analyze situations and go with what he thinks gives his team the best chance to succeed in that situation and not worry about the possible repercussions. And to me, that's the biggest thing to learn.

One-on-one: Jerry West

July, 12, 2013
7/12/13
8:36
PM ET
Arnovitz By Kevin Arnovitz
ESPN.com
Archive
A brief summer league chit-chat with Lakers legend and Warriors consultant Jerry West.

lastname
West

Q: Being on Dwight Howard’s short list, and still in the hunt hours before his announcement -- is there a moral victory in that?

West: When people look at you a little differently, it’s flattering. But when I look at the younger players we have and the job our coaches did last year, it makes you feel good people are starting to take notice, and for Dwight to have an interest in us. We had a great meeting with him, but at the end of the day, we felt like he had made up his mind where he was going to go.

Q: When did you guys identify Andre Iguodala as a target internally?

West: We have some young people in the front office interacting with people and looking at free agent lists. We all felt we needed more of a defensive presence and a player that could play multiple positions. He’s a terrific veteran. It wasn’t hard, to be honest, because of his career. You can count on him every night and pencil him in for two or three positions.

Q: Guarding three positions, playing three positions -- did you ever imagine there would be this kind of emphasis on versatility. Nobody really considered those things when you played. A guy was a point guard or a power forward or a center and that was it, right?

West:The league is changing and we don’t have many back-to-the-basket players. We now have a game that requires skill and versatility. A lot of that is about being able to think. It makes all the difference in the world to have a player in there with a high basketball IQ who can make the right decision.

Q: What’s caused that evolution, a game where a power forward is often a guy who’s 6-foot-7 hanging out in the corner?

West: The advent of so much dribbling has created a different kind of player, and it starts at a very early age. We have so many gifted ball handlers. Everything is pick-and-roll. Unless he’s a catch-and-shoot guy, a player is going to put it on the floor and attack. Kevin Durant is a wonderful ball handler. And anytime we get a Derrick Rose or a Chris Paul or someone who can do those kind of things, kids are going to emulate that.

Q: From the perspective of a Hall of Fame guard, what makes Stephen Curry the shooter he is?

West: He’s got that baby face, but this guy really likes to compete. Some people have gifts that others don’t have. When he shoots the ball, I don’t care if it’s what I consider to be a bad shot, I think he’s going to make it. He’s got almost perfect mechanics. You can’t have a flying elbow. His release, his rotation on the ball, he shoots every shot the same. That’s the most important thing with shooting -- repetition. It’s a lever, and he’s got a great lever. But even more important, he’s got something in his fingers.

Q: Can Harrison Barnes play the 4 for the Warriors?

West: Watching him develop. My goodness. His ability to become a better player in one summer is remarkable to see right now. Remarkable. He can be an All-Star player. If you look at him now, he’s gotten bigger physically. He’s a tireless worker and he’ll work on the things that will make him a better player, not just the things he does well. And our coaches know what he can do.

Kobe Bryant wins again

July, 8, 2013
7/08/13
10:34
AM ET
Verrier By Justin Verrier
ESPN.com
Archive
Kobe BryantAndrew D. Bernstein/Getty ImagesWith Dwight Howard now gone, Kobe Bryant is at the forefront of the Lakers once again.
For a player defined by an insatiable appetite for superiority, Kobe Bryant was dealt a major blow by the departure of Dwight Howard. Not because of who left his Los Angeles Lakers, but what Howard took with him: Bryant’s last best chance at another NBA championship.

Though already 34 years and 316 days old, and only three months into his recovery from a torn left Achilles, Bryant told the Lakers’ team Web site last week that he intends to play, at a high level, for at least three more years in the hopes of pushing "the rings count out a little further." That prospect obviously takes a hit in the wake of Howard’s decision to sign a free-agent contract with the Houston Rockets. Which is why, despite the notorious mismatch in personality and outlook with his now-former superstar running mate, Bryant plunked himself down in Beverly Hills last week with the rest of the Lakers strike force to try to coax Howard into staying put. Even amidst all the tumult of last season, a zened-out Bryant would preach patience and staying the course, because doing so represented the only route to winning and aiding his legacy-defining ring quest.

But while the literal wins are sure to decline without Howard, at least in the immediate, Bryant once again comes away from a Lakers free-agency scare a winner. Because like in 2004, when he was the one threatening to walk, the outcome leaves the Lakers constructed very much in his image.

When Bryant re-upped in Los Angeles nine years ago, after the departures of Shaq and Phil Jackson, the Lakers effectively traded in a team built for contention for one that prioritized Bryant. With Lamar Odom and Caron Butler next to him, Bryant’s usage rate and scoring average rose slightly from the previous season, and then, when Jackson returned to the fold the following year, soared to what still stand as career highs. The Lakers accumulated just four playoff wins in the three seasons after he signed his new contract, which then led to roundabout trade demands spurred by his own impatience with the franchise. But Bryant got what he wanted: most notably, out from under the "sidekick" label.

An older, wiser and less-guarded Bryant appears more in tune with the big picture these days. Despite how sharp and tone deaf his message to Dwight was in their sitdown last week, the words that surfaced read more as an attempt to inspire than scare away. Lately, Bryant has sentimentalized his position in Lakers lore, particularly after the death of owner Jerry Buss, who twice talked him off the ledge when he was thinking hard about leaving the franchise, and his pitch appears driven as much by "Been there, bro" wisdom as it does personal gain.

Howard, of course, chose a better chance at future titles over being a part of a history filled with past titles, and as a result, Bryant’s fast-closing window for that coveted sixth ring only grows smaller. But what he got from Howard, who was quickly denounced as a villain by Lakers sympathizers (if he wasn't there already), is the kind of consolation Bryant, in particular, should appreciate: the chance to wear the white hat and save the day.

The Bryant preparing to enter his 18th season is a monolith, ingratiating himself to the fan at large more and more with every curse-word-laced quote and odds-defying pull-up jumper. In this age of quantifiable fact, he is our antihero, and he has already won over a large chunk of the public by swinging his big tween stick at Howard on the interwebs, unfollowing him on Twitter and Instagramming a photo of him soldiering on with best bud Pau Gasol soon after word of Howard's choice was announced.

Now picture what awaits Bryant this season: He's coming off a career-threatening injury, one he’ll probably come back from way earlier than expected; playing for a crestfallen, prestigious franchise that’s already being counted out; alongside sympathetic, good-guy sidekicks in the twilight of their careers; for a coach who encourages a fast pace and heaps of possessions.

Bryant has spent his entire career finding motivation from anyone and anything he could find; he was already ticked off at potential doubters the night he tore his Achilles. Next season offers up a typhoon of adversaries for him to overcome.

Age, one of the important factors in Howard’s decision, is already at the top of Bryant's list.

"I think the [Achilles] injury has something to do with it. It really increased the drive. And probably San Antonio getting so close to winning No. 5, probably hurt me a little bit, too," Bryant explained to Lakers.com’s Mike Trudell about his three-more-years declaration. "I want to make sure I push the ring count out a little further. It was really, really close there. They played phenomenally well. But it's a testament to what skill can do. To what us old guys can do if you play together, if you play with one mind and one purpose you can accomplish great things. It was inspirational for me and hopefully inspirational for the city of Los Angeles and this organization of what we can do, how this tide can change fairly quickly, and we'll be looking at a parade."

The Spurs’ success in the face of annual questions over how long they can win is deservedly hailed around the league, particularly with the rise of so-called super teams. As Bryant indicates, it has even become a bellwether for aging giants like himself.

With Howard gone and the Lakers looking more like the Spurs than the super team they feigned to be last season, there is an opportunity for Bryant to reach similar unexpected heights, to push the Lakers into the playoffs and prove himself against the one force larger than anything he can conjure up.

It may not result in a championship, but for Bryant, the opportunity presented by the loss of Howard is indeed a victory.

Howard's potential statistical fit: Rockets

July, 5, 2013
7/05/13
8:00
PM ET
By Steven Martinez & John McTigue
ESPN Stats & Information

Jesse D. Garrabrant/Getty ImagesDwight Howard and James Harden could be teammates this upcoming season.


Earlier this week, the Stats & Information Group took a look at how Dwight Howard would fit with the Rockets. We've updated that post to reflect the current news.

Rockets Offense
The Rockets didn’t have much of an interior presence on offense last season. The Rockets posted up on a league-low 4 percent of their plays and averaged a league-worst 3.5 points per game on those plays, less than half the league average.

Even in a down season, Howard averaged 2.4 points per game more on post-ups last season than the Rockets did as a team.

In his last season with the Magic, Howard averaged 10.8 points per game on those plays, three times the offensive output of the Rockets last season.

Howard provides an offensive upgrade over Omer Asik, who started all 82 games at center for the Rockets last season.

Asik averaged 10.1 points per game for the Rockets, but did his best work off the ball, as over half his points scored were on cuts to the basket or pick-and-roll plays. Asik averaged less than a point per game (0.73) on post-ups last season.

Rockets Defense
The Rockets allowed opponents to shoot 61.6 percent inside five feet last season, the sixth-worst rate in the NBA.

Howard’s impact as an interior defender last season was diminished, with opponents shooting 59.5 percent inside five feet with him on court and 61.8 percent with him off court (57.6 percent on court, 63.9 percent off court two seasons ago).

However, Howard’s presence does deter opponents from trying to shoot from in close. Opponents averaged nearly five more attempts per 48 minutes inside five feet with Howard off the court last season.

A Winning Formula?
In the 2008-09 season, the Magic made the NBA Finals with Howard in the middle and a strong group of 3-point shooters. That season the Magic attempted the second-most 3-pointers per game (26.2) while posting the sixth-best shooting percentage from beyond the arc (38.1 percent).

That season the Magic shot 39.0 percent from 3-point range with Howard on court and 35.7 percent with him off court.

The Rockets already have put together the shooters. All that's missing is Howard.

Last season the Rockets attempted the second-most 3-pointers per game (28.9) while posting the eighth-best shooting percentage on those shots (36.6 percent).

Howard’s presence could free up Rockets shooters even more, something that could pay big dividends.

Of the top 10 3-point shooting teams last season, eight made the playoffs. The Heat had the second-best 3-point shooting percentage last season en route to the NBA title, defeating the Spurs, who had the fourth-best 3-point field goal percentage.

Houston's big-man lineage
Howard, who has averaged 18.1 points and 12.9 rebounds per game, would have a lot to live up to, following in a line of prominent Rockets big men.

Elvin Hayes
Hayes came with the Rockets when they moved from San Diego to Houston, then spent a second stint with them from 1981 to 1984.

Hayes was a four-time All-Star who ranked fourth in franchise history in total points.

Moses Malone
Malone averaged 24 points and 15 rebounds on 51 percent shooting in 464 games with the Rockets from 1976 to 1982. He’s the franchise’s all-time leader in points per game and rebounds per game, and made five All-Star teams. Malone won two MVP Awards (1979 and 1982) and led the team to the 1981 NBA Finals.

Ralph Sampson
Sampson was the first overall pick by the Rockets in 1983 and was hindered by knee issues throughout his career. He averaged 19.7 points and 10.5 rebounds and made four All-Star teams.

Hakeem Olajuwon
“The Dream” spent 17 seasons with the Rockets after being selected No. 1 in the 1984 NBA draft and won titles and Finals MVP Awards with the team in 1994 and 1995. Olajuwon was selected to 12 All-Star teams and won the 1994 NBA MVP award.

He is the team’s all-time leader in games, points, rebounds, steals and blocked shots.

Yao Ming
Ming’s career, like Sampson’s, was also shortened by injury. He still managed to make eight All-Star teams in his Rockets career, which spanned from 2002 to 2010, and averaged 19.0 points and 9.2 rebounds per game.



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