Mike Woodson’s Loyalty to N.Y. Knicks Won’t Save Job as Deeper Issues Arise

NEW YORK — Mike Woodson never got an interview for the Knicks’ head coaching job. He got a tryout.

It came in March 2012, when Carmelo Anthony stopped listening to Mike D’Antoni, and D’Antoni stopped trying to sway him, opting instead to seek the nearest exit, saving himself the aggravation.

In stepped Woodson, who enjoyed Anthony’s unconditional support and, as a consequence, a brilliant start to his Knicks career—an 18-6 record over the season’s final weeks, earning the city’s adulation and a rich three-year contract from Madison Square Garden.

Woodson was everything the Knicks needed then, all tough love and growling soliloquies. He preached defense and accountability and, critically, he catered to Anthony’s ball-dominating proclivities.

He was everything the Garden wanted, too: a coach so eager to get the job that he would fire his longtime agent and hire the Garden’s business partner, Creative Artists Agency, at management’s request. Woodson was a company man who played by company rules, qualities that James L. Dolan, the Garden chairman, seems to value above all else.

None of that matters now, with the Knicks lurching toward irrelevance and flirting with disaster.

The “Fire Woodson” drumbeat began weeks ago, gained volume across the course of a nine-game losing streak and spiked anew in a 41-point rout by the Boston Celtics on Sunday. His status has never seemed more tenuous.

The Knicks needed a late surge Wednesday night just to put away a depleted Chicago Bulls team, securing an 83-78 victory only after blowing a 23-point lead in the second half.

If not for a late jumper by Amar’e Stoudemire and a flurry of free throws from Anthony, the night would surely have ended with another round of chants and, quite possibly, an actual firing.

“From a mental standpoint, if this game would have got away from us, ain’t no telling what would have happened,” Anthony said.

As it stands, the Knicks are still a sickly 6-15, their playoff hopes sustained only by the embarrassingly dismal state of the Eastern Conference. They are, stunningly, just 2.5 games behind division leader Boston (10-14) and 2.5 games behind the Derrick Rose-less Bulls (8-12) for the eighth seed.

Every game now is framed as Woodson’s last stand, every loss reigniting speculation about potential successors.

“It’s going to be like that, man,” Anthony said. “When we win, the heat is off; when we lose, the heat is on. That’s just our business. That’s society. That’s New York.”

This is the bargain that Woodson accepted two years ago, along with the understanding that he works for the most impulsive, erratic, shortsighted owner in the league.

If Dolan can fire general manager Glen Grunwald in September, just months after completing a 54-win season, then he can surely fire Woodson on a moment’s notice in December, without considering circumstances or context.

There is plenty to criticize in Woodson’s coaching: his stubborn reliance on mind-numbing isolation play; his lack of faith in Pablo Prigioni, who is easily the Knicks’ best passer; his refusal to use the dual-point guard lineups that were so successful last season; his inexplicable marginalizing of Iman Shumpert, the franchise’s most promising young player.

A staunch traditionalist, Woodson still prefers a “big” lineup, with a 7-footer at center, even if that 7-footer is the pillow-soft Andrea Bargnani; and he prefers Anthony at small forward, though Anthony thrived last season as an undersized power forward.

While Woodson styles himself as a defense-first coach, his team ranks 27th in defensive efficiency, sandwiched between the Sacramento Kings and the Philadelphia 76ers. And though he once preached accountability, he gives far too much latitude to Smith, whose questionable shot selection is matched only by his questionable tweeting.

But the Knicks’ greatest frailties are more structural than strategic, owing to an awkwardly constructed roster, mixed agendas in the front office and the physical frailties of too many players.

Stoudemire only recently was cleared to play on consecutive nights, after opening the season on a strict minutes restriction to protect his fragile knees. Kenyon Martin also just had the cap on his playing time lifted.

Smith is erratic, Shumpert looks lost and Raymond Felton (when healthy) is looking more like the poorly conditioned bust who was run out of Portland than the valued sparkplug who directed the Knicks offense last season.

Bargnani has provided some scoring pop, but the Knicks’ two other summer pickups, Metta World Peace and Beno Udrih, have been on the fringe of Woodson’s rotation.

The Knicks never obtained a solid big man to back up Tyson Chandler, and they immediately paid the price when Chandler broke his leg in the first week of the season.

The Knicks had two viable veterans in training camp, Josh Powell and Ike Diogu, but they waived both in order to keep Cole Aldrich and Chris Smith (brother of J.R.), neither of whom belong in the NBA. (Chris Smith, in fact, is toiling in the D-League, but he continues to take up a roster spot. His employment can only be explained by his family ties and his business ties. Both Smiths are represented by CAA.)

To understand the Knicks’ offseason agenda, you have to go back to last season, when the team (at Woodson’s behest) loaded up on late-30s veterans: Jason Kidd, Rasheed Wallace, Kurt Thomas and Marcus Camby. Kidd and Wallace were especially critical in propelling the Knicks to an 18-5 start. But Kidd’s play eroded over the course of the season, and the other three broke down physically.

So the predictably reactionary Dolan sent down a new edict: sign and develop young players. That led to the signings of Aldrich, Chris Smith and Toure’ Murry—and the decision to jettison Powell and Diogu, regardless of how they performed in the preseason—according to a person with ties to the front office.

“I think there’s a real toxic environment there, all the way through,” the person said.

Woodson’s preferences seemed clear in the preseason: He played Powell (18.6 minutes per game) and Diogu (16.2 minutes) far more than Aldrich (11.4 minutes), who performed miserably.

Even with Chandler out and the options limited, Woodson has used Aldrich for just 35 minutes.

Chandler’s return, expected in the next few weeks, will help. But his absence alone cannot account for the Knicks’ dismal results, nor will his presence erase their varied blemishes. Woodson will continue to be imperiled by every losing streak.

The usual names have already been floated as replacements, but the most intriguing candidate might be the gravelly voiced coach barking at the opposite bench Wednesday night. Tom Thibodeau is under contract with the Bulls for three more seasons, but his widely reported tension with the front office could push him out the door much sooner, especially if the Bulls opt to rebuild next summer.

Already disenchanted with management, Thibodeau could use a rebuilding plan as a reason to ask out of his contract—a request the Bulls would likely grant. If the Bulls remain contenders, however, sources believe he will stay put.

If he’s available, Thibodeau would be everything the Knicks need. His teams play hard every night, without fail, even when key players are out. They play an elite brand of defense. A former Knicks assistant, Thibodeau is already well-versed in Garden politics. He’s tight-lipped with the media, a practical requirement to work there.

And, perhaps more significantly, Thibodeau has the right representation: CAA.

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Carmelo Anthony Can’t Save Hapless NY Knicks

Do you see the photo up above? Does it seem like a man alone in the face of the enemy?

There’s been a lot of piling on lately when it comes to the New York Knicks, and Monday night’s game in Portland won’t change that narrative—once again, Carmelo Anthony couldn’t save his hapless team.

It’s not that the Knicks didn’t have their chances. There were moments when they came within striking distance, when they began to find a little momentum. And each time, they’d come to another hill and start to sputter.

After the game, Melo summed things up succinctly. Per Frank Isola for the New York Daily News:

When you’re losing it’s not fun, Anthony said. Are we having fun on the basketball court? No. The game is not fun right now. When you start pressing, pressing, pressing it makes everything that much worse. So no we’re not having fun playing basketball.

There was about two minutes left in the third quarter, and the Knicks were knocking on the door once again—looking to get it under ten. Portland’s Wesley Matthews nailed a three-point shot, Anthony missed on a jumper and LeMarcus Aldridge grabbed a missed Lopez putback and hooked it in. It seemed like a microcosm of the night on whole.

It wasn’t even that Anthony was throwing everything against the wall and hoping for something to stick. Sure, he scored 34 points, and the Knicks are 0-4 this season when he scores 30 or more. That in itself is worthy of discussion.

Still, other Knicks did in fact score the ball—if you’re simply evaluating off a box score. Five Knicks were in double figures compared to four Trail Blazers. And regardless, the Blazers still won it 102-91.

Sometimes, it’s not the numbers. Sometimes, it’s just about a losing habit—about a season heading down the wrong way on a one-way street. The Knicks are a pretty old team, and lately, they look even older. Granted, the injuries to Raymond Felton and Tyson Chandler hurt. The injuries just add fuel to a fire that feels hotter off-court than on.

Lauren Moranor for Sports World Report recently relayed J.R. Smith’s feelings on the matter:

Lack of intensity, Smith said. I hate to say it, but our defense’s backbone is on Tyson and Tyson’s not here right now and we know that and he’s not going to be available for a few weeks now, so we’ve gotta step it up individually. It’s a team game but individually we’ve got to take pride in guarding the ball, guarding our man. We have to enjoy stopping the other team.

The problem lies in reverse momentum—the Knicks have lost six in a row now, and by the time Chandler and Felton get back, it could be too late. It seems early in the season to make that statement, but that’s how losing seasons are.

Can Anthony do anything about it? He had 15 boards, three assists, a blocked shot and a steal to go along with his 34 points. He didn’t play a perfect game by all means, but the Knicks problems run deeper than that. And once things start to snowball in New York, it gets downright nasty.

We’ve seen this story before. There have been seven different head coaches for the Knicks in the past ten years. The carousel doesn’t always seem like the best solution, but we know its music all too well and it’s getting louder by the game.  

Melo is in a contract year. That adds to the talk in a real and tangible way—is he just trying to get his numbers? Maybe not, he’s averaging a double-double for the first time in his career, and that has to say something for effort.

Maybe he can’t save the hapless Knicks. But credit him for trying. If only they’d match his effort, maybe they’d turn around their season.

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Can Jordan Farmar Save the LA Lakers’ Point Guard Position?

Jordan Farmar, Los Angeles native, UCLA alumnus and holder of two NBA World Championship rings with the L.A. Lakers, is back where it all started with a golden opportunity to lock down a long-term spot as the team’s No. 1 point guard.

It’s quite possible that one of the reasons Farmar left millions (he signed a three-year, $10.5 million deal in 2012 to play in the Turkish Basketball League) on the table in Turkey after one season to return home and suit up for his beloved Lakers is because he knows Steve Nash is not the Nash of old and may be on his last NBA legs.

Farmar may also have seen an opportunity to supplant the team’s current starting point guard, Steve Blake, who will turn 34 in February.

And that could happen down the road, as Blake is a free agent next summer and may go elsewhere. In fact, Blake is coveted by a lot of NBA general managers and could fetch decent assets were the Lakers to move him before the end of this season.

Upon signing a minimum deal with the Lakers last July, Farmar told ESPNLosAngeles.com reporter Dave McMenamin:

“They (Lakers) knew about my deal overseas and really didn’t push it earlier because they didn’t think I’d be willing to give up that guaranteed money I had over there. I wanted to be back in the NBA, but more importantly, back with the Lakers. This is the only situation I would have taken a minimum deal with.”

Regardless of what Nash and his camp are saying about his relentless efforts to get back on the court, it doesn’t look good for the soon-to-be 40-year-old former league MVP who is dealing with nerve damage suffered last season when he broke his leg.

Recent reports have Nash out of the lineup for at least another 10 days, while some reports claim he is pondering early retirement.

Head coach Mike D’Antoni tried to squelch those rumors at practice this week, telling ESPNLA’s Ramona Shelburne:

“He’s (Nash) 39, almost 40 years old. I think he’s looking at, ‘What am I going to do when I’m 50?’ But no [he's not thinking of retiring]. Now, whether he can get over this, we’ll see. We think he can. We hope he can. But there’s no talk of him sitting over there eating bon bons the rest of the way. No.”

With Nash gone, Farmar has moved from third to second on the point guard depth chart. His early-season play has been sporadic, and he’s appeared tight at times, turning the ball over a career-worst 2.6 times per 19 minutes. Farmar is hitting just 37 percent of his attempts from the floor, including 28 percent from downtown.

On the positive side, Farmar has been aggressive and high-energy when running the offense. He’s dishing out close to five assists and pulling down over three rebounds in just those 19 minutes. The desire is clearly there, and the shots will start to fall once he relaxes and tries not to do too much.

Conversely, Blake has been on fire of late. The 6″3″, 10th-year PG has taken control of the team’s offense and appears much more confident in this role than at any time during his four years with the Lakers.

Heading into Friday night’s game at home against Golden State, Blake was averaging 46 percent from beyond the arc and even had a last-second, game-winning three-pointer at Houston to celebrate about. Blake is also averaging over seven assists per game, including 16 dimes in last Sunday’s win over Detroit.

Assuming that Nash is ever closer to retirement and Blake is auditioning for one final contract next summer or a trade this winter, Farmar finds himself in an enviable position. He turns 27 next week and is just entering the prime of his NBA career.

A backcourt of Farmar and Kobe Bryant would allow the Lakers to concentrate on improving the roster with young, long, athletic wings and post players via a strong draft next summer and a stellar free-agency class.

And though Farmar’s shot hasn’t been going in, he’s being more aggressive than ever trying to make good things happen. He currently projects out to seven rebounds and nine assists per 40 minutes of action.

Farmar says that his time overseas playing in Turkey really helped him become more of a leader. There’s an air of confidence in those abilities that wasn’t there in 2009 and 2010 when he was a bench player for two consecutive Lakers championship teams.

About that experience in Turkey, where he averaged 13.8 points and 3.9 assists in 29 games for Anadolu Efes, Farmar told Los Angeles Times reporter Melissa Rohlin:

It was the first time in my professional career where I got to carry a team. I was taking and making big shots. I was at the free throw line at the end of games. I was responsible for how we were going to perform as a team because I had a lot of the load.

I never had that as a professional yet. Just going through that, I think gave me a lot more opportunity to see what works, to learn my game, to just figure myself out as a player and a person.

Farmar was so excited to sign a one-year, $1.1 million deal to return home that he went out and helped recruit Nick Young, a former rival at USC and basketball friend during their L.A. high school days.

Said Farmar (via Los Angeles Times and Eric Pincus):

I told him it’s special to be a Laker and, as kids from L.A., we have an opportunity to do some big things this year and be part of the group that helps restore things.

The opportunity for a long tenure as starting point guard for his Los Angeles Lakers is right there for Jordan Farmar’s taking.

He knows he has one season to prove he deserves it.

 

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Can Jordan Hill Help Save the LA Lakers?

DENVER —

Even if Kobe Bryant comes back to save the day, he’s not going to do it alone.

So in addition to Bryant inspiring legions of L.A. Lakers fans all over again, here’s a vision for their upstart season still to come:

  • Dudes in the third-deck stands dancing devotedly under Jordan Hill wigs and wearing garbage man costumes.
  • Mike D’Antoni’s three-point attack exploding to unprecedented levels because defenses are sucked inside by Hill’s commitment to be the active pick-and-roll roller that the Lakers assumed Dwight Howard would be.
  • There’s renewed awareness of breast cancer—Hill’s personal pink crusade since his mom died of it when he was three.
  • The cool tattoo to get becomes the Spider-Man emblem that Hill has in the middle of his chest.
  • And all the pretty people across Southern California tap into their inner beasts, doing their jobs with unprecedented passion, energized by Hill’s absolutely unstoppable attitude toward dirty work: “Nobody can keep me off the boards” (real quote).

If it all sounds a little fanciful, I’ll say this also:

I really did bring up the topic of “Linsanity” when talking to Hill late Wednesday night in the Lakers’ locker room.

Hill grinned. He laughed. Then he paused before he spoke, smiled some more and then said with a very simple chuckle: “I’m just happy to get more minutes, man. I’m just happy to get more minutes, and I’m going to continue to do what I’ve been doing like I’m a force down there in the paint.”

If Hill, 26, is in any way following in Jeremy Lin’s footsteps as another no-name phenomenon to fall into D’Antoni’s lap, it’s clear the coach now recognizes Hill as the Lakers’ energy source the past two games. Hill delivered 21 points and 11 rebounds in the victory over New Orleans and 18 points, 15 rebounds and three blocks in the loss in Denver.

Denver coach Brian Shaw specifically cited Hill for keeping the Lakers in the game Wednesday night, and D’Antoni joked that Hill got 18.5 of the Lakers’ 19 offensive rebounds (actually eight).

Averaging 16 minutes before these past two games, Hill played 26 minutes Tuesday and 30 Wednesday.

“I always thought that if I could get at least 28 minutes a game, I could easily get a double-double,” Hill said. “I’ve never really had 28 minutes a game.”

D’Antoni said after the game in Denver that Hill is now “pretty solidified.” And that’s not even as much as D’Antoni said before the game about Hill: “He’s really good—if not our best player.”

Here’s what Lakers guard Steve Blake had to say: “He’s been doing that all training camp and in practice. It’s not a surprise to us. He’s just now getting the opportunity and making the best of it. He’s a workhorse.”

Should D’Antoni have identified the unique talent he has to work with and moved earlier to cultivate it? Hill doesn’t hold any grudges, saying: “The coach was just figuring out lineups, and I respect him for that. I just waited till he wanted me to go out there in that starting lineup and do what I do.”

This is where we should stop for a little objectivity with regard to Hill’s game. He fell behind Shawne Williams and Chris Kaman in preseason by consistently missing mid-range jumpers and committing fouls while setting screens—two fundamental parts of D’Antoni’s offense.

Hill’s problem in both areas was rushing to get the job done. He made 13 of 14 free throws the past two games by slowing down his stroke.

Can he sustain his energy if he is going to play twice as long in the game? Can he be trusted not to get hurt considering last season began with a herniated disk and ended with hip surgery, with Hill now nursing a bone bruise in his right knee?

These are the kinds of limitations that usually emerge when a guy is trying to go next level. Remember Earl Clark’s Lakers coming-out party last season for a desperate D’Antoni? Clark went and signed with Cleveland for $4.5 million per year, and it took him five games there to go from starter to not playing at all.

Shaw was talking before the game Wednesday about how many players want to be like Kobe and hear stories about Kobe—but do not “understand what it really takes to perform on that level.” That includes Bryant’s aggressiveness to make sure he gets to show what he can do, something more patient guys like Hill as the No. 8 overall pick in the 2009 draft definitely haven’t brought.

But even for the tier of top players below Bryant, there is an epic gulf between them and the role players in the league. It’s just an entirely different workload—not just in minutes, but expectations and responsibilities.

If you’re going to be a main man, then you have to do difference-making stuff three out of every four nights, all season long, no matter foul trouble or woman problems or the sniffles. You establish your greatness through your consistency, not by one poster dunk Tuesday (the Lakers’ Xavier Henry) or one big game Wednesday (Denver’s Timofey Mozgov).

Hill can express confidence about making the leap, but there’s a lot that awaits him that he can’t know without experiencing. Even Lin made all that magic in New York during early 2012 and then fell off—losing his starting job in Houston this season but fighting back, improving his jumper and producing 34 points and 12 assists Wednesday night in place of injured James Harden.

What is concrete is that just as D’Antoni’s Knicks needed Lin’s creative energy, D’Antoni’s Lakers need Hill’s primal energy. Even before Hill’s massive rebounding effort Wednesday night, consider these season-to-date advanced stats from NBA.com on “contested rebound percentage,” meaning how many of guys’ rebounds were won despite a threatening opponent lurking or battling within three-and-a-half feet:

Dwight Howard 30.3 percent, Blake Griffin 30.6 percent, Pau Gasol 31.9 percent, Kevin Love 36.7 percent, Jordan Hill 60.9 percent.

To a Lakers team that D’Antoni complains gives “false energy,” Hill can definitely offer something real.

Perhaps something consistent. Hopefully something inspirational.

“Now that I’m getting more minutes,” Hill said, “I can really do what I can do.”

 

- Unless otherwise noted, all quotes were obtained firsthand.

 

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Kentucky’s James Young Tries to Save the Ball, Scores on His Own Team’s Basket

Kentucky Wildcats freshman James Young made a great effort to try to keep the ball from going out of bounds in an exhibition against the University of Montevallo. Unfortunately, the ball found a way into his own team’s hoop after he threw it back in play with a no-look, underhanded scoop.  

Check out the wild sequence for yourself:

If this had occurred on the big stage, this play would be on blooper reels for years to come. Lucky for Young, this was just an exhibition. Regardless of the magnitude of this game, though, this was a ridiculous play.

This is not the first time we have seen something like this happen. Isiah “J.R.” Rider hit a similar shot while with the Minnesota Timberwolves back in December of 1994:

Hat tip to The Big Lead for the find.

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Kentucky’s James Young Incredibly Scores on Own Basket After Trying to Save Ball

Kentucky Wildcats freshman James Young made a great effort to try to keep the ball from going out of bounds in an exhibition against the University of Montevello, but the ball somehow found a way into his own hoop after he threw it back in play.

Check out the wild sequence:

If it had occurred on the other side of the court, this play would be on highlight reels for years to come. Lucky for him, it was just an exhibition. Regardless of which basket it went through, though, it was an incredible play.

It’s not the first time we have seen something like this happen. Isiah “J.R.” Rider hit a similar shot while with the Minnesota Timberwolves back in December of 1994:

Hat tip to The Big Lead for the find.

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Jeremy Lin: Rockets PG Says He Was ‘Supposed to Save Houston Basketball’

Apparently, Jeremy Lin bought into his own hype.

According to Lauren Leigh Noske of The Gospel Herald, Lin told 20,000 attendees at the “Dream Big, Be Yourself” event in Taiwan that he became consumed with the impossible task of continuing “Linsanity” after leaving the New York Knicks:

I was ready to invigorate the entire city of Houston…I was supposed to save Houston basketball.

I became so obsessed with becoming a great basketball player…trying to be Linsanity, being this phenomenon that took the NBA by storm. The coaches were losing faith in me, basketball fans were making fun of me.

As much as it sounds like it, Lin isn’t depressed about what happened in his first year with the Houston Rockets. He seems to be in a much better place now. In fact, just to be safe, take his melodrama with a grain of salt; he was using the story to make a point about his faith.

A little creative license goes a long way with that sort of thing.

If we want to make a realistic criticism of Lin’s comments, it’s only fair to point out that nobody in his right mind ever imagined Lin was going to be any sort of savior for the Rockets. Lin is either delusional or exceptionally impressionable if he actually believed that he was expected to be a legitimate franchise cornerstone.

Even his staunchest defenders (and there are some very staunch Lin defenders) would admit that even if Lin was a very good player for the Rockets, he’d never recapture the lightning-in-a-bottle phenomenon that was Linsanity. If Lin genuinely believed that he was expected to “save Houston basketball,” he was utterly alone in that belief.

At any rate, Lin told the assembled masses that he’s much happier now that he has given up the idea of being the same player he was with the Knicks.

That’s good news for Lin—who’ll hopefully play better without so much self-imposed pressure—and good news for the Rockets.

And who knows, maybe by letting go of unrealistic expectations Lin will actually get closer to his maximum potential.

It’s not like the Rockets needed another big acquisition this summer. But if Lin returns to training camp with a clear head, the team might suddenly find itself with a new and improved version of its starting point guard.

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Dwight Howard Must Follow in Shaq’s Post-LA Lakers Footsteps to Save Legacy

Although the dislike between Shaquille O’Neal and Dwight Howard continues to be fueled by Shaq’s recent comments, via Eric Pincus of the Los Angeles Times, Howard should take some pointers out of O’Neal‘s book in order to save his very damaged legacy.

Howard and O’Neal have a lot more in common than O’Neal would like to admit.

Both starting their careers with the Orlando Magic, the two Supermen led their young squads to the finals as the most dominant interior forces in the league during their respective tenures. 

While Shaquille O’Neal was a far superior offense force even in his Magic days, he was not the defensive force that Dwight Howard was during his years with the Magic.

Both players had their strengths and weaknesses. Both players fled the smaller Orlando market for the bright lights of Los Angeles.

However, while O’Neal flourished and carved out his legacy as one of the greatest big men in the history of the NBA, Howard continued to find scorn and scrutiny for what is being perceived as the inability to perform under pressure.

Consider their post-L.A. circumstances.

An aging Shaquille O’Neal joined the Miami Heat to win one title without Kobe Bryant and validate his status as a winner. While he was not the O’Neal of old, he was still capable of rebounding the basketball and scoring 20 points a game. 

Averaging 20 points and nine rebounds per game during the regular season and 18 points and 10 rebounds per game during the playoffs en route to a championship in 2006, O’Neal cemented his legacy as a winner no matter who his teammates are.

While he was playing second fiddle to Dwyane Wade by his second season with the Heat, it did nothing to mitigate the validation he received as a champion.

Although Howard isn’t a champion like O’Neal was following his tenure with the Lakers, he is joining a young team that resembles the Heat squad O’Neal became a part of.

In Houston, Howard will create a tandem with James Harden, the high-volume shooting guard who has become the superstar and franchise player with the Houston Rockets the same way Dwyane Wade ascended in his early days with the Heat.

If Howard can put the Rockets over the top and win a title with them the way O’Neal did with the Heat, he will validate his choice to move on from the Lakers.

While he may still be considered unable to win on his own, getting the championship monkey off of his back may lead to bigger and better things (see LeBron James circa 2012). 

With the Heat, Shaquille O’Neal was an interior force that commanded double-teams and used that attention to help create lanes for his teammates. 

Although he had regressed on both ends of the court, he used his size and strength to be a force in the paint on both ends of the court.

While it is unfair to compare Dwight Howard to Shaquille O’Neal in his prime, it is more than fair to compare Howard to the Miami incarnation of the original son of Jor-El. 

Howard’s presence and force rivaled the declining O’Neal in terms of sheer physicality. Whereas O’Neal was dominant using his unparalleled size and strength, Howard used to dominate with his athleticism and leaping ability pre-back injury. 

If Howard can come close to matching O’Neal‘s production offensively, he can make an even bigger impact in Houston than O’Neal did in Miami. Howard is a superior defensive player than O’Neal was even in his prime. 

With shooters surrounding Howard in Houston, they could run a system similar to how Orlando used to play with Howard as its centerpiece. 

Howard saw the most success on the court when he was surrounded by shooters and able to use his physical prowess to gather offensive rebounds and create second-chance opportunities. 

The difference between Howard’s supporting cast in Orlando and his supporting cast in Houston is that he has more youthful athleticism this time around.

Surrounded by shooters and athletes such as Harden and Chandler Parsons, Howard will have creators and three-point shooters to potentially stretch the floor better than Hedo Turkoglu and Jameer Nelson post-2009. 

The key is for Howard to eventually win a title with Houston. Following in O’Neal‘s footsteps and winning a title after his tenure with the Lakers is the only way to begin to repair his legacy. 

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LeBron James tries to save ball, lands in Shaq’s lap

LeBron James tried to save a ball that was going out of bounds during the third quarter of Game 6 of the Eastern Conference finals between the Miami Heat and Indiana Pacers on Saturday, and he ended up in the crowd where he was saved by none other than Shaquille O’Neal. Heat guard Mario Chalmers [...]

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Can Miami Heat Solve Defensive Identity Crisis vs Pacers in Time to Save Series?

The Miami Heat need to forget about the shoddy officiating. Their spotty three-point shooting could use some work, but that’s hardly their gravest concern. They might even do well to overlook the fact that their Big Three has, at times, been whittled down to a Big One, with a hobbled Dwyane Wade and an invisible Chris Bosh leaving LeBron James to shoulder a massive load for the defending NBA champs.

Because Miami’s most pressing issue at the moment opposite the Indiana Pacers lays not with those who score or even with those dressed in zebra stripes, but rather with its lackluster effort on the defensive end.

As Grantland’s Zach Lowe noted after Miami’s 99-92 loss in Game 4, the Heat have allowed the typically anemic Pacers offense to score in this series at a rate that would cause even the bumbling Charlotte Bobcats to cringe:

 

Pro Basketball Talk’s Kurt Helin added later that the Heat have allowed the Pacers to recoup nearly 40 percent of their own misses:

 

That mark would rank not only as the best in the league this season for Indy, but also as the best of all time, per Basketball Reference (h/t Zach Lowe). Likewise, the Pacers have managed to pummel the Heat’s defense for 48 points in the paint per 100 possessions through the first four games of this series, including a sturdy 50 such points in Game 4.

To be sure, the general trends at play between the Heat and the Pacers aren’t entirely surprising. Everyone and their mother came into this clash knowing that Indy’s biggest advantage was its sheer size, particularly with Roy Hibbert and David West up front. Miami, by virtue of its full-fledged small-ball approach, all but conceded that edge from the get-go.

Just as it did during the regular season. In three meetings, two of which went the Pacers’ way, the Heat surrendered 105.3 points per 100 possessions, including 38.7 points in the paint per 100 possessions, and allowed Indy to rebound exactly one third (33.3 percent) of its own misfires.

Some of that production is, well, inevitable. Pat Riley, Erik Spoelstra and the rest of the Heat organization made a conscious decision this past summer to all but end their pursuit of a traditional center in favor of a more flexible, floor-spreading style of play. Going “small” with Bosh at center and the likes of LeBron, Udonis Haslem and Shane Battier at power forward grants Miami a somewhat unique edge on the offensive end.

But such a strategy necessarily incurs a tradeoff on the other end, one that Spo and company have made willingly and of which they understand the consequences. Playing smaller and quicker against bigger opponents on offense means trying to stop those same bigger opponents with those same smaller and quicker players on defense.

Unless the Heat can magically dig up a seven-foot behemoth who can check Hibbert, defend the rim and not be a complete non-factor offensively between now and the end of the series, they’ll simply have to make do with the hand they’ve dealt for themselves. As such, any attempt to go tit-for-tat, to size up for an extended stretch, would only throw a wrench into Miami’s established identity and further jeopardize the team’s chances of advancing.

The Heat need only look to the New York Knicks to see what happens when a small-ball team abandons its principles on a whim against Indy. In Game 5 of the Knicks’ second-round series against the Pacers, Mike Woodson opted to start Kenyon Martin up front, next to Carmelo Anthony and Tyson Chandler, to mitigate Indy’s size advantage.

The switch didn’t help, to say the least. The Pacers still won the battle of the boards decisively, 54-36, while New York’s shooters went cold (8-of-28 from three) in what turned out to be a 93-82 defeat.

This isn’t to excuse Miami for its lackluster effort on the glass. Under no circumstances should Bosh (i.e. Miami’s biggest and tallest player) come up with just three rebounds (and 3.3 per game in this series). Neither should Ray Allen, a 37-year-old who spends the vast majority of his minutes as far away from the basket as possible, lead the Heat in rebounding, as he did with seven caroms off the bench in Game 4.

That is, assuming Miami wants and expects to win.

Nor is any of this to suggest that the Heat should accept the Pacers’ superior size and all the perks that emanate thereabout without contest. Truth be told, Chris Bosh’s foul and ankle troubles did plenty to diminish his impact in Game 4, though he hadn’t exactly been setting the court ablaze before those issues arose. As for Chris Andersen—who had no points, no shots, two rebounds and four fouls in 19 minutes on Tuesday night—the Birdman must’ve flown the coup before tipoff.

If those two can contribute in Game 5 to the extent that they can and have in previous playoff games, then Miami should be able to mitigate Indy’s interior dominance. They’ll have the bodies to make Hibbert and West work on both ends, to contest the Pacers’ shots at the rim and to better battle on the boards. No longer can the Heat afford to let the Pacers slip in for back-breaking offensive rebounds, as was so often the case during the fourth quarter of Game 4.

But even Miami’s athletic bigs lack the sheer mass and reach to completely cancel out Indy’s bulky giants.

Luckily for the Heat, they don’t need to. The Heat’s defense has long been predicated not on size and strength, but rather on speed, length and creating an overwhelming sense of chaos and confusion. Against a team like Indy, it’s imperative that Miami focus its defensive efforts on applying ball pressure on the perimeter, disrupting passing lanes and doubling down if/when the orange finds its way into the post.

The Pacers have certainly proven themselves vulnerable to defensive pressure in the past. They were among the most turnover-prone teams in the league during the regular season, and suffered through their fair share of mistakes in these playoffs coming into Game 4. Indy did well to limit itself to 13 giveaways in its last outing, though Miami still managed to score 21 points off of them. More Indy turnovers mean fewer Indy opportunities to crash the glass.

And, on the other end, more easy baskets for the fast-breaking Heat.

That aside, Miami could clog the middle of the floor, and likely will at times as it has so far, though that approach comes with its fair share of perils. The Pacers shot uncharacteristically well against the Heat from beyond the arc during the regular season (39.4 percent on 22 attempts per game) and have carried that trend into the Eastern Conference Finals (37 percent on 13.5 attempts per game).

But that might be the price that Miami has to pay on the defensive end. The Heat held the Pacers to 3-of-14 shooting from three in Game 4, albeit while suffering through the aforementioned pounding in the paint.

Furthermore, it’s a risk Miami should take going forward. Indy ranked 15th in three-point attempts and 22nd in percentage (.347) during the regular season, and had hit just 30.8 percent of its treys through the first two rounds of these playoffs. Allowing the Pacers to launch from beyond the arc has its pitfalls (i.e. the shots going in), but doing so may well draw them away from their strength on the inside.

At this point, it’s imperative that the Heat throw the Pacers out of their rhythm by any means necessary and regain control of the run of play in this series. Otherwise, Indy will continue to have its way in the paint and on the boards.

And the Heat, like the rest of us, will have to watch the Pacers and the San Antonio Spurs slog through the NBA Finals after a somewhat historic—but, ultimately, disappointing—2012-13 season.

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