Dwight Howard’s 2011-12 Season

Dwight Howard’s year started off and for awhile, it looked like it would be a memorable one. Superman had the Magic at the third spot in the East despite carrying a lackluster supporting cast night in and night out. But Howard’s potential MVP season went downhill pretty quick and will forever be scarred in history by a season-long drama that culminated with yesterday’s announcement that he will miss the remainder of the regular season and the entire playoffs for the Magic. The herniated disk in Howard’s back will require surgery and sideline him from contact drills for four months, meaning he’ll be back next season in full health. But after a tumultuous season full of flip-flopping, behind-the-scenes moves, rumors and apparent backstabbing, should Orlando even want him back?

Dwight Howard put his city through hell this season, but Orlando’s been in an uncomfortable position ever since Howard announced he was unhappy there with Stan Van Gundy. Then management started catering to his every whim in order to appease their spoiled but lovable superstar. They brought in Glen Davis and Gilbert Arenas last year to make him happy, shipping off the now-valuable Brandon Bass to Boston. They most likely bent over backwards before the trade deadline this year to try and bring someone else in to appease Superman. They allegedly told him he’d have managerial powers beyond that of a player, effectively being able to decide the fate of both Van Gundy and GM Otis Smith at the end of the season. Ever since Howard made his discontent and desire to be traded known to the public, Magic management has has done everything but appoint him as head coach and GM in order to get him to stay. Which is still not guaranteed. Enough is enough.

Now I’m not one of those who immediately jumped on the “Blame Howard!” bandwagon when the Magic’s season first started to take a turn for the worse. I didn’t think he was faking his injury or using it as a form of protest after Van Gundy publicly threw him under the bus. Yesterday’s report describing the severity of his injury should prove those rumors to be false. I still don’t know for sure whether or not Howard has to power to decide the fate of Orlando’s head coach and GM. And I understand Howard’s frustration with his team and his coach. If you were a once-in-a-lifetime superstar, would you want to play for the sarcastic Van Gundy surrounded by a bunch of role players who most likely wouldn’t even start for some of the better teams in the league? J.J. Reddick, Jameer Nelson, Hedo Turkoglu, Jason Richardson and even Ryan Anderson are all quality role players and outside shooters at times, but those aren’t the players you build a championship team around. So everyone should ease up off of Dwight Howard a little bit. But it’s just a bit, and that bit ends there.

Howard played through the pain and made his back worse to prove to his team that he wasn't quitting on them. That's gotta be worth something.

What we’ve seen from Howard this season has been downright despicable at times. This isn’t the kind of behavior you want to see out of any player on your team, let alone your franchise star. Howard has vehemently denied his involvement in management, he’s denied that he wants Van Gundy gone, he’s denied that he quit on his team and he’s denied that his injury was just an excuse to spite his coach and his teams with all the rumors swirling around him. But Howard is guilty of leaving an entire organization and fan base hanging. He is guilty of flaking back and forth between staying and leaving on the day of the trade deadline. He may be guilty of trying to usurp his head coach who helped develop him into the defensive juggernaut he has become. And while his performance on the court says otherwise, his off-the-court actions, “roll the dice” comments and overall lack of commitment to the city that’s given him so much is just as good as quitting on his team, his fans, his coach and his city. Howard doesn’t understand that he can put up 30 points and 20 rebounds every night for his team, but it won’t make him a team player or a franchise star worth remembering if he’s doing it while looking into where he can play next season.

I think there are a lot of people to blame in this season of melodrama between Dwight Howard and Van Gundy. Howard shouldn’t be orchestrating these managerial moves behind closed doors if he is, just like Van Gundy shouldn’t have said what he said to throw his star player under the bus. You can say all you want about how “that’s just how Van Gundy is” and how he just wants everything to be out in the open, but there are some things you should keep within the family. Telling reporters that Superman wanted him gone was a huge mistake that broke this story open again.

When reports surfaced Thursday morning that Howard wouldn’t play anymore for Stan Van Gundy, I didn’t know what to think. I hesitated on writing about it or passing out judgement until the full story was revealed, and thankfully, Howard furiously denied the latest rumors again and the real report that he required season-ending surgery on his back came out. Never mind the fact that his back got a lot worse because he played through the injury, which happened after people questioned his dedication to his team and the game with that mailed-in performance (the day Van Gundy called him out). Never mind that before all the trade deadline drama and Van Gundy’s foolish mistake, the Magic were playing pretty well behind a terrific season from Howard that deserved MVP consideration. I think that Howard tarnished his legacy in both Orlando and the NBA this season. Some of what ruined his reputation is fair and he should bare the blame for the things he did wrong, but there are some things that Van Gundy and Orlando’s management should have handled better that are unfairly placed on Superman. It will be interesting to see where Van Gundy and Howard end up next season, but for now, blame Dwight for what Dwight did and don’t buy into the rumors until the full story is unveiled. Because things are way too political and deceptive down in Orlando right now to know fact from fiction. Orlando fans should want Dwight Howard back, even if he’s on thin ice. Given the choice between Howard and Van Gundy, they’d be foolish not to pick Howard. But one thing is for sure: lf Dwight Howard is in an Orlando Magic uniform next year, he’s going to have to bust his ass to move up from Clark Kent to Superman again.

Howard's 2011-12 season will be forever stained by all the drama and flip-flopping. But Magic fans should want him back if he's committed to winning for them again. We'll have to wait it out to see.

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Western Conference Predictions

The West always seems to come right down to the wire in determining its eight playoff teams, and this year is no different. Only 3 and a half games separate the fourth seed in the Western Conference from the tenth spot, meaning that these next few weeks will be critical, not only to determine postseason matchups, but also which teams even get in. Here are my predictions for who will end up in seeds one through eight, including which last three teams will be left out in the end.

1) Oklahoma City Thunder – This one is fairly easy since the Thunder currently have kept their distance from the rest of the West all season long and have now won four straight. It would take a meltdown for OKC to relinquish its number one seed to San Antonio, especially since Gregg Popovich will likely rest his older players as his team’s position in the West becomes more set in stone at the two spot. And despite the fact that OKC has a formidable schedule down the stretch (Chicago, Miami, LAL twice, LAC twice, and Indiana), this is the time of year they could send a message by finishing strong and locking that first seed down. Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook are playing great ball as always, but if James Harden, Serge Ibaka and Kendrick Perkins continue to play the way they have been, no one’s going to beat the Thunder in the postseason.

Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and the rest of their supporting cast are too good to not lock up the number one seed.

2) San Antonio Spurs – The Spurs could make a push for the first seed, but knowing Gregg Popovich and his older players, San Antonio might just coast in their last few games unless the Lakers and everyone else in the West puts serious pressure on them for the second seed. This seems unlikely since the Lakers are still four and a half games behind the Spurs. San Antonio usually cruises into the postseason and tries to make the switch as soon as the playoffs start, and this season should be no different since the Spurs have a pretty favorable path to the end of the regular season. Plus, Stephen Jackson’s promising play and the recent signing of Boris Diaw and backup point guard Patty Mills should add further depth to an already impressive San Antonio bench. I don’t see the Spurs letting the gap dissolve with such a favorable remaining schedule and they should easily take the two spot.

The Spurs have added valuable role players recently, including Boris Diaw.

3) Los Angeles Lakers – Despite Kobe only shooting 37.8% from the floor in his past six games, the Lakers are currently two games ahead of the Clippers and Mavericks for the third seed. Although Vinny Del Negro received a vote of confidence from his owner and GM and the Clippers no longer have to worry about a firing tearing the team apart, they still have to worry about the negative effect of the fact that Del Negro is staying: the fact that Del Negro is staying. The Clippers will still lose some games because of his poor coaching and a lack of floor experience (Chauncey Billups), and the Mavs have been too hit-or-miss this season to put a run together. So I don’t see LA falling to the fourth spot unless this whole Mike-Brown-benching-Kobe-Bryant-and-now-Andrew-Bynum thing gets blown even more out of proportion to the point that there’s disunity in the locker room (which would eventually lead to Brown getting the axe). Bynum shouldn’t have shot that ridiculous 3-pointer, but Brown needs to tread carefully; the Lakers have been looking like contenders recently, so there’s really no reason to create drama now.

If Andrew Bynum continues to make a big deal about getting benched, there will be problems in Los Angeles.

The last five seeds are really a toss-up at this point, but here’s how I think things will unfold:

4) Dallas Mavericks – Dallas has one of the toughest remaining schedules in the NBA and has been hit-or-miss all season. However, Dirk Nowtizki has been on a tear lately, averaging 25 ppg this month, and another team with a tough remaining schedule is the LAC, who is their biggest competition for this spot. Jason Terry and Dirk bring the leadership necessary for this veteran team to start peaking at the right time. Terry, Jason Kidd and Rodrigue Beaubois have all increased their offensive production in March. Dallas has a horrendous lineup waiting for them, with a particularly rough upcoming stretch (Miami, Orlando, LAC, and Memphis). But if they can get through it with a few wins they get a slight break before taking on the rest of their challenging schedule (Utah, Houston, LAL, Chicago and Atlanta).

Dirk has been putting up big numbers for the Mavs in March.

5) Los Angeles Clippers – LAC’s tough remaining schedule and Vinny Del Negro’s job security will prevent the Clippers from keeping their current spot as the fourth seed in the West. The Clips’ remaining schedule includes OKC twice, LAL, Dallas, Memphis, Atlanta and New York. Chris Paul brings playoff experience, but I don’t think it will be enough to guarantee this team the fourth seed compared with Dallas’ veteran experience and superior coaching. Mo Williams being out for a few weeks is also a big blow to LAC’s bench that Randy Foye and Nick Young might not be able to fill. The Clippers won’t fall apart, but I don’t think they have the chemistry and floor leadership without Chauncey Billups to net that four seed.

Can Chris Paul and Blake Griffin carry the Clippers any higher than a five seed?

6) Memphis Grizzlies – As much as I like Memphis to make some noise in the playoffs this year, their remaining lineup of opponents does not favor the Grizzlies. This season, Memphis is 17-18 against teams in the Western Conference and 12-17 against teams .500 and above. Of the Grizzlies’ remaining 18 games, 13 are against teams in the West and 10 are against teams at or above .500. So despite Zach Randolph’s return and the signing of Gilbert Arenas (which I’m still waiting to be excited about), I don’t see the Grizzlies out-winning the Clippers or Mavs. However, they should grab the six seed and pick up wins against the lesser teams they play thanks to their solid 15-4 record against teams under .500.

Does Zach Randolph have any playoff magic in store for us this year?

7) Denver Nuggets – The Nuggets have struggled this season and never lived up to the West powerhouse they looked like they would become, but their remaining opponents aren’t too intimidating. Denver really only plays the Magic twice, LAL, LAC and OKC to close the season, and their matchup with the Thunder comes at a time when OKC should be resting their starters. However, the Nuggets have been too inconsistent lately to put them higher than a seven seed for now (they beat the Derrick Rose-less Bulls and then lose to the Raptors?). Kenneth Faried stepping up with Nene gone has been huge, but injuries have crippled this team’s chemistry at times (Danilo Gallinari, Rudy Fernandez, Kosta Koufos), and no one has been able to fill the void left by Gallinari.

Kenneth Faried has been a pleasant surprise for the Nuggets this year, but Denver needs Gallinari back.

8) Utah Jazz – I’m still not entirely convinced about Utah. They had a nice winning streak but the biggest reason I’m putting them in the final spot is that I don’t like Houston without Kyle Lowry and Kevin Martin and Phoenix is too far behind to catch up. The Jazz have an 11-19 record against teams above .500, and 9 of their last 15 games are against teams that fit that description. The Jazz have definitely turned their season around, becoming one of the hottest teams in the NBA, but I still don’t think they will get the wins they need to pass Denver or Dallas.

The Jazz need Al Jefferson to just keep plugging away.

Didn’t Make the Cut: Houston Rockets, Phoenix Suns and Minnesota Timberwolves

9) Phoenix Suns – The Suns are currently only two games back in the playoff race at the ten spot, but I don’t see them closing the gap in time. The Suns have an incredibly tough remaining schedule: Utah twice, Denver twice, LAL, Memphis, OKC, LAC and San Antonio twice. There are too many other teams in the driver seat that the Suns need to lose for me to have any confidence in their playoff chances. If the season wasn’t shortened to 66 games, they’d have a better chance, but there are no guarantees that Phoenix’s hot streak is anything but a desperation push for the postseason. With Utah and Denver looking to turn things around and hold on to their current standings, the Suns will be hard-pressed to beat those teams along with the other powerhouses coming up, so even though I think they will make a run at it thanks to their dramatically improved bench play, I don’t think there’s enough in the tank for Phoenix this year.

Sorry, fellow Suns fans. I just don't see it happening this year.

10) Houston Rockets – I labeled the Rockets as playoff pretenders a long time ago, so Kyle Lowry and Kevin Martin missing extended time during the most critical stretch of the season doesn’t help. Goran Dragic definitely stepped up in Lowry’s absence, but now he sprained his ankle and I don’t see this team having enough to get back into the playoff picture. Houston has a much more likable remaining schedule than their competition for a playoff spot, but the Rockets have shown they’re just as capable of beating anyone as they are losing to anyone and I don’t see them grabbing a spot. Unless Phoenix falls away and we see a complete Denver collapse, that is. And the Nuggets’ loss to the lowly Raptors last night shows there’s definitely a possibility of that happening, so Houston fans shouldn’t despair just yet. But I still don’t see it happening for Houston this year.

Dragic filled in nicely until he got injured. Houston is running out of offensive options.

11) Minnesota Timberwolves – Rubio is down. Nikola Pekovic is going to play in pain. JJ Barea is out for the time being. The Timberwolves are 2 and a half games back. Kevin Love is playing out of his mind and Minnesota is still having problems getting much-needed wins. It would take a miracle at this point for the T-Wolves to make the necessary push for a playoff run.

So there are my picks for the Western Conference. Do I have them right? Who did I leave out unfairly and who should be higher or lower on the list?

One man. One beard. One playoff dream barely still alive.

Way of the Warriors

If you follow the NBA at all, you’ve probably read about how Chris Mullin’s special night of retiring his jersey was ruined by Golden State fans booing Warriors owner Joe Lacob. Even though you feel bad for Mullin, you’ve probably seen the YouTube video a few times and laughed your ass off while watching a flustered Lacob look for support and an irate Rick Barry scold the audience. At first, I was disgusted with these Warriors fans, booing and ruining what should have been a memorable and happy night not just for Chris Mullin but for the franchise and its ever-supportive fans. But then I realized that Golden State fans have every reason to be upset.

I felt bad for both these guys at first, and then I realized Mullin was the only one who deserved better.

Bill Simmons, my favorite basketball writer, lays out the history of the Warriors franchise in a lengthy article detailing how management has brought some of the best fans in the NBA to their knees. A few awful facts stuck out in reading his article about the Warriors over the past 35 years: 1) They’ve missed the playoffs 29 times in 35 years 2) They haven’t had an NBA All-Star since 1997 3) Despite the Warriors’ awful losing records, they’ve had 22 top-14 picks since 1985 and 4) They’ve given away Chris Webber, Jason Richardson, Baron Davis, Antawn Jamison, Gilbert Arenas as well as coaches Rick Adelman, George Karl and Gregg Popovich.

YIKES. If you’re a diehard Warriors fans (and there really is no other kind of Warriors fan), those last four sentences should break your heart. And after all that the franchise has been through, Warrior fans are still some of the best in the NBA. Everyone saw how riled up Golden State’s fanbase can get when they actually have something to cheer about, evidenced by the Warriors’ improbable playoff run as the eight seed in 2007, knocking off the Dallas Mavericks in six games. Baron Davis, Jason Richardson, Stephen Jackson and Matt Barnes almost led them past the Utah Jazz in the second round, and even if they were eliminated, the Warriors had reason to stand behind their slogan of “We Believe!” (while also giving us Davis’ wicked dunk over Andrei Kirilenko). But then poor management kicked in, players were shipped off and the Warriors have been reeling ever since (again). Until recently, it was starting to become the era of Monta Ellis, Stephen Curry and David Lee.

The '07 playoffs are the best memories Warriors fans have over the last 10 years.

Even if the team wasn’t going to contend, Ellis gave fans something to cheer about. The Warriors had a young and talented core to build around for the future, even if the present could have been better. Mark Jackson was brought on as head coach and it looked like the franchise might return to its 2007-playoff-run glory. But Jackson hasn’t shaped up to be the coach fans prayed for, Curry has been plagued with ankle injuries and the last straw came in the form of the Monta Ellis trade.

I initially defended this trade for Golden State, noting that the Warriors weren’t going to contend anyway, so there really wasn’t much of a problem gearing up for next year by getting rid of a guard (who isn’t as efficient as he should be) for an injured Andrew Bogut and a declining but still decent Richard Jefferson. But I didn’t stop and think about what Ellis meant to Warriors fans. I didn’t recall Golden State’s terrible history over the past 35 years. I failed to take into account the fact that Warriors fans are some of the most passionate in the NBA, and therefore have no reason to be satisfied with tanking this year in order to improve next season. So for Warriors fans, this trade sent their one glimmer of hope and excitement away for an big man with a history of injuries in addition to an old guy with a cap-space-killing contract.

So unfortunately for Joe Lacob, Chris Mullin, and anyone who’s uncomfortable with awkward situations, I have to applaud the Golden State fanbase for booing their owner during that halftime ceremony. It was high time fans made their discontent be known. I can understand his intentions to look at the big picture and improve for next year, but for an impatient fan, a move like trading Ellis is enraging. Fans should try and have hope for the future and feel some shame in blemishing Mullin’s ceremony. But even though Chris Mullin deserved better on his special night, it’s only fair to equally understand that Golden State Warriors fans have deserved better for 35 years.

This image has got to absolutely KILL Warriors fans.

Grizzlies Sign Gilbert Arenas

The Memphis Grizzlies signed Gilbert Arenas today in an effort to add to their scoring. The Grizzlies have dropped to the six spot in the West and are 18th in the league in points per game at 95.4.

Arenas was traded from the Wizards to the Magic last season before Orlando let him go before this season started. Arenas averaged 8 ppg coming off the bench. Arenas could be a decent acquisition depending on what condition he’s in, but I wouldn’t get my hopes up. Arenas looked washed up last year, I’m hesitant to say he’ll produce very much on the court coming in with only one-third of the season to go.

If he can put up numbers close to his time with the Magic, he could be useful, but for the most part, this signing might not mean very much to the Grizzlies.

The Grizzlies signed Gilbert Arenas today