Northwest preview: Thunder still favorites

The Blazers are tough, but Kevin Durant’s injury won’t knock the Thunder off their perch.

      
 

 

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Devon Still surprises college basketball player

Lauren Hill is battling an inoperable brain cancer.

      
 

 

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Kevin Durant still unsure about foot surgery

The Thunder star is not sure if he’s going to have surgery to repair Jones fracture

      
 

 

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Durant still unsure about foot surgery

The Thunder star is not sure if he’s going to have surgery to repair Jones fracture

      
 

 

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LeBron is still undecided about Rio Olympics

LeBron James still undecided about 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro; 2 other Cavs in pool

      
 

 

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LeBron still undecided about Rio Olympics (Yahoo Sports)

RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL - OCTOBER 10: LeBron James #23 of the Cleveland Cavaliers fields questions from the media before practice at Clube de Regatas do Flamengo in preparation for their game against the Miami Heat on October 10, 2014 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. (Photo by Matthew Stockman/Getty Images)

RIO DE JANEIRO (AP) — The beaches and glamour of Rio de Janeiro haven’t yet convinced LeBron James that he should come back in two years for a shot at a third Olympic gold medal.


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The ghost of Wilt Chamberlain still exists

Photo: AntDUHHIn a game championed by icons, Wilt Chamberlain’s impact remains one of the NBA’s most unique, fascinating and encompassing. Philadelphia Daily News copy editor Mark Perner still gets a kick out of the 76ers final regular-season game in 1968. The 61-20 Sixers played a rather meaningless game versus the Baltimore Bullets. On a squad […]
The post 15 Years After His Death: The Ghost Of Wilt Chamberlain Still Exists appeared first on The Sports Fan Journal.

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Dwight Howard Can Still Win Defensive Player of the Year Again Very Soon

It wasn’t that long ago that Dwight Howard was universally considered the best center and defensive player in the league. However, declining play the last two seasons has raised the question: Can he regain his Defensive Player of the Year form?

While he was with the Orlando Magic, Howard was a beast. From the 2007-08 season until 2011, he was First Team All-NBA, First Team All-Defensive Team and the East’s starting center in the All-Star Game.

From 2008-09 through 2010-11, he was the named the DPOY, making him the only player to ever win the award three consecutive times.

However, since then he hasn’t dominated to the same degree. He’s still one of the best in the league, but he’s no longer clearly better than everyone else. Not only has he not won any more DPOY awards, but he hasn’t even been named to an All-Defensive team.

This raises the question: Is Howard’s career in decline, or have injuries and switching teams just put a speed bump on his road to the Hall of Fame? Let’s take a look at both sides of the argument. Let’s also consider whether Howard can return his defense to an elite level.

 

The Argument For a Career Decline

Many of the factors that go into deciding awards such as DPOY or All-Defensive or All-NBA teams are purely subjective. During the “Dwightmare” saga which spanned from the 2011-12 season to the summer of 2013, Howard’s image took a massive hit.

The perception (fair or not) is that he got Stan Van Gundy fired and left Orlando anyway, earning the reputation of a wishy-washy coach-killer.

After being traded to the Los Angeles Lakers, he decided he didn’t like where he’d been traded and bolted in free agency for the Houston Rockets, leaving another slain coach (Mike Brown), a shattered franchise and a miffed Kobe Bryant in his wake.

And he did it all while smiling, shooting free throws for candy and eating cookies off his face. The cavalier, seemingly childish attitude he held through all of it was somewhere between off-putting and infuriating, depending on where your loyalties were.

Some could argue that the perception of his character, not his play, is the reason why the accolades have stopped coming.

But the numbers argue for decline.

With his offense, that’s expected. He went from being Orlando’s offensive centerpiece to being a second option with Los Angeles and Houston. But his defensive numbers have been taking a hit, too, as demonstrated by his defensive win shares per 48 minutes.

And yes, teams can impact those things, but defensive real plus-minus (DRPM) and its predecessor, defensive real adjusted plus-minus (DRAPM), tracked by stats-for-the-nba.appspot.com, at least attempt to mitigate some of those factors. And that shows the same conclusion:

Sometimes those subjective voters are relying on substantive data objectively. It looks like Howard’s career is in decline.

 

The Argument Against Decline

The problem with the objective argument is that it’s overly simplistic, annulling the possibility of mitigating factors. That his numbers have regressed could mean that his career is in decline. It could also mean other things.

It could be injury-related. Prior to his being traded to the Lakers, Howard had a lumbar microdiscectomy to treat radiculopathy caused by a herniated disc. In layman’s terms, that means he had to have some gunk removed from his back because it was making for a serious owie.

Howard told Ramona Shelburne of ESPN Los Angeles what the injury was like at its worst:

There was a practice where I couldn’t even bend over. I just felt it all the way down my leg. That’s when I knew something was wrong. The doctor said, ‘If you can’t do a calf raise, you need to have surgery.’ And I couldn’t do it.

Not being able to use your legs is bad. Legs and basketball go really well together, what with all that running and jumping stuff. So, Howard went under the knife. According to Doug Freeman of the Good Point:

While this type of surgery has generally had a positive impact on the symptoms and has allowed athletes to return to their sport, it isn’t foolproof when it comes to getting an NBA player back to their past level of production. In a study looking at a player’s ability to return to sport after a lumbar disc herniation, researchers found that 25% (6 out of 24) of players who underwent a discectomy did not return to the NBA. Of the players that did return, they played an average of 20 less games in their first season back from surgery. There was also a decline in statistical categories such as points per game, assists per game, rebounds per game and steals per game in their first season post-surgery (although no difference was found between players who had surgery and those who did not).

The first season back, one would expect to see the type of decline Howard had, especially when you factor in that he was experiencing a torn labrum over the same period.

Last season he was recovered, and if health were a part of the reason for the decline, then we’d have expected to see Howard gradually improve over the course of the season. Based on data from NBA.com/STATS, his offensive and defensive ratings from month to month show his impact on the game did just that:

In fact, during April, the Rockets had a massive 124.5 offensive rating while Howard was on the court and were yielding just 103.7—good for a net rating of 20.8 points. 

The defense fluctuated more, but it was significantly better with Howard than without it, giving up two fewer points per 100 possessions. Patrick Beverley, the All-Defensive point guard, also missed time, which accounted for some of the variance.

Howard’s improvement supports the notion that as he got healthy and got his conditioning back, his game returned to the same pre-injury levels.

Additionally, a study at stats-for-the-NBA.appspot.com shows a conventional aging curve for defensive players. They typically maintain prime performance up until around 32 to 33 years of age. Howard is still only 28. Ergo, he’s a long way from the point where age starts taking hold of him.

A fair assessment indicates that the injuries, not age, are the reason for the decline in numbers. That means a bounce is a reasonable expectation. Next year should be a nearly complete return to form.

 

Can Howard’s Defense Return to an Elite Level?

Howard’s 2010-11 season was one of the most dominating defensive years I’ve ever witnessed. The Magic were only the third-best defense in the league that year, but Howard’s performance was still historically great.

Getting to “only” third was impossible, yet he still did it. To say that Howard didn’t have any help on defense is to give the rest of the team entirely too much credit. The best help Howard had was Mickael Pietrus, Vince Carter and Marcin Gortat.

So what happened? Barely more than one month into the season, the Magic traded those guys for Hedo Turkoglu, Jason Richardson and Earl Clark. So he went from having almost no defensive help to absolutely no help.

Howard didn’t miss a beat, though. He just made everyone around him look better. Surrounded with Jameer Nelson, Richardson, Turkoglu and Brandon Bass, he strapped the team on his back and carried them to being the third-best defense in the NBA (no wonder he needed surgery!).

Look at what happened to the opponent’s Player Efficiency Rating (oPER from 82games.com) of the teammates involved in the trade:

Pietrus and Gortat didn’t see much impact on their oPER, but it’s evident that Howard was compensating for the flaws of the others.

I don’t know if Howard can ever achieve that level of defense again. It was such a feat, though, that he doesn’t have to in order to get back to All-Defensive or even Defensive Player of the Year stature. His numbers aren’t as dominant, but his 4.91 DRPM was still sixth-best last year, so it’s not far off.

In fact, his numbers are close enough that he could even win the DPOY next year. That’s because he has something he’s never had before: two teammates who can stop at the perimeter.

Last season was the first time in his career that Howard saw a teammate (Beverley) named to an All-Defensive team. Now they’ve added Trevor Ariza, who has All-Defensive potential as well. That frees Howard to lay back and do what he does the best—protect the rim. And a great rim protector can change the entire complexion of a team when given the chance.

If the Howard-Ariza-Beverley triumvirate can hoist the Rockets to a top-five defense, Howard will deserve the most credit for it and will get it. That can elevate him back into the Defensive Player of the Year conversation. Joakim Noah got there last year with the help of Jimmy Butler and Taj Gibson. Marc Gasol won it in 2012-13 with the help of Tony Allen and Mike Conley.

Howard might not ever get back to the same level of dominance he enjoyed in Orlando, but he’s close enough to get his fourth DPOY. 

 

Unless otherwise stated, the stats for this article were obtained from 82games.com, Basketball-Reference.com and NBA.com/STATS

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New Lakers coach expects Kobe to still be Kobe

The important Kobe Bryant-Byron Scott dynamic appears to be off to a healthy start.

      
 

 

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New-Look Bulls’ Hopes Still Rest on the Knees of Derrick Rose

CHICAGO — Derrick Rose is only three years removed from his 2011 MVP campaign, but it feels like a lifetime—to fans and to the Chicago Bulls’ superstar point guard.

“It seems so far away,” Rose said Monday at Bulls media day, kicking off what he hopes will finally be the year he reclaims some of that glory. His first comeback attempt, following a torn left ACL that sidelined him for the entire 2012-13 season, lasted 10 games. Even that feels like ancient history now.

Indeed, a lot has changed for the Bulls since this time last year, when Rose sat at the podium on media day and answered question after question about his knees, his health and his mindset.

There are some high-profile new names on the roster, both veterans (Pau Gasol) and rookies (Doug McDermott and Nikola Mirotic). There’s a new balance of power in the Eastern Conference, with LeBron James and Kevin Love joining forces in Cleveland. Even the building in which he answered these questions is new, a state-of-the-art practice facility across the street from the United Center.

But after all this change, the central questions remain the same as they were a year ago: How healthy is Rose, and how far can he take the Bulls?

Rose is as tired as everyone else is of his knees being the story around his team. He’d rather focus on the lessons he’s learned in two years of rehab and on the depth and potential of the reloaded roster the Bulls front office has armed him with for his latest comeback attempt. But he knows as well as anyone the questions aren’t going away anytime soon.

“I know that it’s always going to be there,” Rose said. “I know I’m going to have to answer this question for the rest of my career. For the Bulls fans, I can sit here and say it a million times, but the only way to answer all the critics and everyone asking about me is to be on the court and to actually play.”

When Rose does return to the court with the Bulls, returning to form is going to be a process. Anyone who watched him last month during Team USA’s championship run in the FIBA World Cup tournament knows that his jump shot has a ways to go.

He shot an abysmal 25.4 percent from the field in the tournament, averaging just 4.8 points per game. He’s got a handful of preseason games over the next month before the games start to count, but as confident as he is in his own body and abilities, Rose knows that might not be enough time to make up for two years of injuries.

“I’m not going to sit here and just say that my shot is going to be fixed when the season starts,” he said. “I’m still going to shoot the shots that I normally shoot. If you leave me open, and the game is telling me I should shoot, I’m going to shoot.”

That’s all mental stuff. The good news this time is he has no hesitation with the physical part of his recovery. For as poorly as he played in Spain, he still played in every game without any setbacks, and everyone in the organization views the tournament as a resounding success.

“First of all, in that setting, he’s not taking a lot of shots,” said Bulls general manager Gar Forman. “You could see the reactivity, the explosiveness, I like to call it some of the old Derrick Rose moves. The way he would get into the lane, get to the basket. I know some people were concerned that he didn’t shoot a high percentage. That’s not a huge concern for us.”

“He hasn’t played for a long time,” added head coach Tom Thibodeau, who served as an assistant for Team USA during the World Cup. “Basically, when you’re off for two-and-a-half years, there’s going to be rust. But the good thing is, he got through the practices, he played five games in six days. He handled the physical part well. The shooting’s still not there. He’s done a lot of shooting, but it’s different when it’s body-on-body. He’s got to get used to that again, but it’s timing. That will come.”

What will also come for Rose is the adjustment to playing with new teammates in a different offense, which includes some badly needed outside shooting. 

The addition of Gasol in particular gives the Bulls a versatile offensive weapon to pair with Joakim Noah in the frontcourt. Gasol and Noah are both gifted passers who can score around the basket, which could lead to more open looks and less playmaking responsibility for Rose. He’s already begun visualizing his role in a more diversified offense.

“I automatically go to the fourth quarter,” Rose said. “I’m out on the perimeter, and I’m just waiting to get a set shot, but you’ve got Pau and Joakim on the other side cleaning everything up. I just see him in the post, I’m waiting for a jump shot and you pick your poison.”

All of that sounds great on paper, and if things go as planned, the Bulls will be competing with the retooled Cleveland Cavaliers in June for a shot at the NBA Finals. They’ve got the talent, the depth and the coach to compete with anyone in the league—if Rose can stay healthy.

Lately, that’s been a big “if.” It’s Rose’s job this season to turn that “if” into a “when.”

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