In the most awkward moment in a lockout-shortened season that was bound to provide some bizarre happenings, Orlando Magic center Dwight Howard walked up to his coach, Stan Van Gundy, and wrapped his arm around him in a public show of unity. Howard wanted people to know that it was all hunky-dory between him and Van Gundy.
Little did Howard know that Van Gundy had just disclosed that his star player wanted him fired. Van Gundy calmly took a swig of his Diet Pepsi and slid away, leaving Howard to get bombarded with questions. Howard was ill-prepared for the barrage that followed, just as the NBA and its players really had no idea what was in store for the second season in NBA history that was condensed because of a labor dispute.
The grueling 66-game grind is approaching an end, and some places (Charlotte, New Jersey, New Orleans) are probably wishing that it had never started, while some players (Kobe Bryant, Kevin Garnett and Tim Duncan) are grateful not to lose a season in the twilight of their careers. Here are some of the unexpected occurrences of the 2011-12 campaign:
Experience over exuberance
The success of the Boston Celtics and San Antonio Spurs has solved the debate about which teams would have an advantage during a shortened season. With little rest between games, older veteran teams still win out over youthful legs. The Celtics started slowly but are finishing strongly with rejuvenated 35-year-old Kevin Garnett leading a spirited charge after moving to center. Thirty-somethings Paul Pierce and Ray Allen have also helped Boston catch Philadelphia and close in a fifth consecutive Atlantic Division title. Tim Duncan sat out a game this season for being “old” but he has moved up and down the floor with more pep in his step at age 35. With Duncan and Manu Ginobili still going strong, the Spurs are headed for another Southwest Division title and are within range of the top seed in the Western Conference.
Mavs’ meek defense
The Mavericks wanted to have a chance to defend their championship, but this has been a bumpy season in Dallas. Dirk Nowitzki struggled early with his conditioning. The team traded for Lamar Odom but watched him loaf before eventually parting ways. And they have been stop-and-go, never finding a rhythm.
Dallas is in a hotly contested battle for playoff position in the Western Conference and seeking to avoid becoming the third team in NBA history to win a title and miss the playoffs the next season. The 1969-70 Boston Celtics missed out the year after Bill Russell retired and the 1998-99 Chicago Bulls sank when Michael Jordan retired, Phil Jackson wasn’t retained and Scottie Pippen was traded.
Most vanishing player
How valuable is Derrick Rose? Rose earned most valuable player honors and vaulted his hometown team back to relevance last season. But when the Miami Heat beat Chicago in five games in the Eastern Conference finals, the prevailing thought was the all-star Rose simply didn’t have enough help. Rose has fallen victim to the lockout’s grueling schedule and missed 23 games to injury — the second-most by an MVP since Bill Walton in 1978-79 — but the Bulls have been nearly as successful without him as they are with him. The Bulls need a healthy Rose to win a title but can no longer be viewed as a one-man show.
Michael Jordan’s jersey number has been so synonymous with greatness that it has been retired outside of Chicago and few stars are willing to wear it. But the No. 23 might take on a new meaning with Jordan’s Charlotte Bobcats in position to end a wretched, embarrassing campaign on a 23-game losing streak. The Bobcats are an abomination. They have accumulated a cast of fringe NBA players and made little effort to resemble any more than a bad expansion team. Charlotte needs to win one at least one game down the stretch to avoid setting a record for NBA futility. The 1972-73 Philadelphia 76ers went 9-73, compiling a winning percentage of .110. If the Bobcats finish with seven wins, they would finish at .106.
The New York Knicks’ season has been sectioned off into so many distinct parts that it feels as if the team has compressed five campaigns into one. They sputtered early with Carmelo Anthony and Amare Stoudemire unable to coexist. They were reborn with the surprising breakout of the twice-cut Jeremy Lin, who created a phenomenon and lifted the team into playoff contention as the supposed superstars sat. They plummeted again when Anthony returned and refused to buy into Coach Mike D’Antoni’s system. They were resuscitated when Mike Woodson replaced D’Antoni, then lost Stoudemire to a bad back and Lin to a knee injury. Now Anthony is carrying the team into the postseason in the same manner he did with his former squad in Denver.