Dwightmare, Part III?
What, you thought Dwight Howard’s fear of commitment ended once he ditched Orlando and connected with the prettiest girl in the room? Howard took the Magic and its fans through a nauseating ordeal of flip-flopping suspense for two consecutive summers, until the situation became too untenable for both sides. The Los Angeles Lakers once again got their big man — as they previously have with Wilt Chamberlain, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Shaquille O’Neal — but Howard will become an unrestricted free agent next season. Howard stands to make more money by becoming a free agent, but he also has to remain coy about his intentions, adding more tension to the Lakers’ pursuit of a 17th title — and Kobe Bryant’s chase for a sixth. The Lakers have an aging roster, after also adding two-time most valuable player Steve Nash to a team already featuring fellow 30-something all-stars Bryant and Pau Gasol. And Howard, who complained about the media glare in Orlando, will be under more intense scrutiny in a place where championships are the expectation and not the hope. Howard probably won’t be a one-year rental, especially with Bryant grooming him to take over the franchise when he plans to steps aside in two years. But if the pressure is too much for the fun-loving Howard, the Lakers come up short or implode, would he be willing to do the dance once again?
Fear the Beard’s departure
Small-market NBA owners demanded and received a more punitive luxury tax penalty in the latest collective bargaining agreement, with the hopes that it would allow them to compete with big-spending franchises in New York, Boston and Los Angeles. The adverse effect, however, is that the new economic structure already has damaged the ability of Oklahoma City, a model small-market franchise, to contend for titles while keeping its young core intact. The Thunder was forced to deal James Harden, the bearded wonder and reigning sixth man of the year, to Houston when he became too expensive to retain with an extension. After already locking up three other players it drafted and developed in Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and Serge Ibaka, the defending Western Conference champion got plenty in the trade (Kevin Martin, Jeremy Lamb and three draft picks). But Oklahoma City will have to continue its steady climb and overcome yet another disruption to its enviable chemistry less than two years after already experiencing a heartbreaking split with Jeff Green.
Heat torches usual positions
Chris Bosh, LeBron James and Dwyane Wade shattered time-honored team-building methods in the summer of 2010 with their controversial decision to join forces rather than be combatants. Two years later, with two NBA Finals trips and an NBA championship in tow, Heat Coach Erik Spoelstra is using those three players to help make traditional positions obsolete. Miami added the greatest three-point shooter in NBA history (Ray Allen) to a team that has a big man who can put the ball on the floor (Bosh) and shoot from the perimeter, a shooting guard who thrives as a playmaker (Wade) and a point guard trapped in a power forward’s body (James). A do-everything whatchamacallit whose physical attributes made him a threat from almost anywhere on the floor, James unleashed a refined post game during Miami’s Finals victory over Oklahoma City. Now, the Heat can experiment with unorthodox lineups, obliterate conventional thinking and explore new possibilities as it attempts to repeat.
Battle for New York
Being on the wrong side of the Hudson River, and a history of lousy teams, always made the Nets a distant afterthought in the New York metro area. Even during the Jason Kidd-repeat-Finals-trips hey day, the Nets were never a serious threat to attract attention or fans away from the New York Knicks. Despite no championship since 1973, the Knicks are still the more respected and relevant franchise, with a more storied history, revered arena and legendary former players. New York is still trying to turn the Carmelo Anthony/Amareé Stoudemire union into the core of a serious contender and spent the offseason adding players close to qualifying for AARP, including 39-year-old Kidd. But the Nets are hoping that a move to the other side of the East River to Brooklyn, an allegiance with hip hop mogul Jay-Z, a spectacular new arena and growing angst with the James Dolan regime in Manhattan will create an opening to at least be viewed on equal footing. Mikhail Prokhorov, the Brooklyn Nets’ billionaire Russian owner, is willing to spare no expense to build a championship team and splurged on pieces that should at least get the first franchise to call Brooklyn home in 54 years back in the postseason.
Can the very good be great?
The Detroit Pistons created hope for teams without established superstars in 2004 when they defeated the Los Angeles Lakers’ collection of future Hall of Fame talent in the NBA Finals. The revolution never followed. Stars win in the NBA, like no other major professional sport, and with the recent trend of superstars aligning, teams without elite talent — especially those in smaller markets — have a more difficult challenge to compete. That hasn’t stopped Denver and Indiana from trying to build teams loaded with talent, athleticism and depth. The Nuggets had to try a different approach when Carmelo Anthony forced his way to New York and last summer were able to find the perfect embodiment of their new plan in Andre Iguodala — a versatile, defensive-minded small forward whose inability to satisfy frustrated fans in Philadelphia made him expendable. Indiana gave Miami trouble last postseason and retained its core, including Roy Hibbert and George Hill, with the plan of taking advantage of Derrick Rose’s knee injury to move up the Eastern Conference ladder.