If Lakers can't motivate Howard, then what will?
Sixth Man: Storylines, Raptors' Amir Johnson (cont.)
Sixth Man: Bill Russell story, Michael Carter-Williams (cont.)
Is there a less-inspiring star in basketball than Dwight Howard?
The Rockets' center ought to be one of the NBA's most inspiring players. He has the talent to dominate the paint defensively, and now that he's healthy -- which was his excuse, credibly, last season with the Lakers -- he should be commanding his new team's defense from the back. By example, he should be urging his teammates to challenge opponents on the perimeter with the promise that if someone gets loose to the basket, then he'll be there to snuff out the drive. Everyone should be better because he's on the floor. He should be single-handedly starting fast breaks and sprinting to keep up so that he can be active offensively, too.
Now that he's in Houston, the game really ought to be revolving around him. That is why he is being paid $20,513,178 this season.
Instead, Howard is denying that Thursday's embarrassing 99-98 home loss to the Lakers was a blow to his reputation and his pride. "Every loss hurts," he said afterward, dismissively.
Howard refused to acknowledge one of the NBA's basic instincts -- to prove to the Lakers (and Kobe Bryant) that he was right and they were wrong -- and if that impulse for redemption doesn't drive Howard, then what will? On the same night, the other end of the spectrum was seen in Miami, where Dwyane Wade and LeBron James have won the last two championships and therefore have every right to relax through an early-season game that is sure to be forgotten by playoff time. But that wasn't how they approached their potential NBA Finals preview against the Clippers. Hours before Howard performed with reticence, James and Wade were playing with passion.
There was a recent time when James and Wade were vilified for their arrogance, for believing that championships would come easily in Miami. They were more unpopular than Howard back then, and now they're more inspiring than him. With James bothered by recent back problems, Wade has overcome the pain in his knees to score 20 points in each of his last four games. He had a team-leading 29 points (with 11 in the fourth quarter) and seven assists to put the Clippers in their place and reaffirm the Heat's commitment to a three-peat. If the Heat are this stubborn and nasty in November, how are they going to be in May and June?
Throughout their 102-97 loss at Miami, the Clippers were forced to recognize the difference between wanting to be the best vs. actually being the champion. The Heat know how to focus as the minutes grow more important, and in those precious minutes the Clippers unraveled. What the Clippers have going for them is leadership: Chris Paul shows his anger, he drives his team and he doesn't deny his instincts as Howard does. In essence, Paul doesn't waste time pretending that certain things don't bother them.
As this season wears on, the Rockets are going to be seeking stubbornness and nastiness on the court from Howard. He used to be that way, but on Thursday he ceded those qualities to the Lakers.
The Lakers have looked as terrible as most people thought they would during blowout losses to the Warriors and Mavericks, but they've given themselves a chance in their other games, and they've won three of them. They're .500 against a rough schedule made up entirely of likely playoff teams, and they've done it without Bryant, with Steve Nash playing hurt at age 39 and with Pau Gasol going 1-for-10 in Houston.
What the Lakers are doing is inspiring and not entirely unexpected now that Howard is gone, because everyone who plays for them now is committed to coach Mike D'Antoni's style of play. If they keep at it, most of them are going to have more value in April than they do now -- and they will be in demand as individuals because they focused on the needs of their team. That has been D'Antoni's track record as coach: He turns nobodies into somebodies, and his good players become more productive.
Howard's career has been wandering off in the other direction. To watch him play Thursday was to wonder what all of the fuss has been about. If you had never seen him at his best a handful of years ago in Orlando, or if you had never seen him wearing a cape in the sideshow dunk contest that has, to his misfortune, grown to define his career, then he would have looked to you like just another good player in his team's loss to the Lakers. That game should have meant the world to Howard. But he played as if it didn't.
Howard could have been telling the truth when he said losing to the Lakers didn't hurt him more than any other loss. Or to put it another way, the Rockets must hope that he isn't telling the truth. Because if that's true, if he really doesn't care about a game that should mean so much to him, then they and the rest of the league will be left to ask: What does he care about?
• Russell Westbrook returns. The Oklahoma City point guard wound up missing exactly two regular-season games. The Thunder went 4-7 without him dating to last year's playoffs, and they've won both games since his return. His quick recovery from the latest knee operation will enable the Thunder to devote the entire season to establishing a rotation around the best duo in the NBA. Westbrook was predictably inefficient in his first two games, but -- and this is most important -- he was his old aggressive self, which suggests that the rest of his game will recover fast.
• Indiana's 5-0 start. The NBA's lone undefeated team is the only challenger in the East that has its act together right now. The Pacers lead the league in points allowed (84.4 per game) and field-goal defense (37.5 percent), while Paul George (25.8 ppg) continues to evolve into the All-NBA leader his team needs him to be. If George emerges as an MVP candidate throughout the season (while Danny Granger returns to develop a constructive niche in the offense), then the Pacers will have the type of elite offensive star who has defined 33 of the last 34 NBA championship teams (the lone exception being the 2003-04 Pistons).
• Tyson Chandler injured. The Knicks were already in early trouble when Chandler suffered a small non-displaced fracture of the right fibula. The broken leg will sideline New York's second-best player for four to six weeks. Amar'e Stoudemire and Kenyon Martin are in no shape to fill in, which means that newcomer Andrea Bargnani is going to have to take on a bigger role. The Knicks must hope that their East rivals continue to be inconsistent.
• Early surprises. The 76ers' 3-0 start behind the shocking leadership of rookie point guard Michael Carter-Williams gave way to two straight losses. Philadelphia won't be able to stay in the playoff race, but the Bobcats might: They started 3-2 despite the absences of centers Al Jefferson and Brendan Haywood. The young, rebuilding rosters of the Magic (3-2) and Suns (3-2) have also impressed, especially in Phoenix, where new general manager Ryan McDonough has been focused on accruing draft picks, not wins.
• Derrick Rose struggles. The Bulls' 1-3 start revolved around the difficulties of their point guard, who looks like a player who hasn't played in more than a year. And yet there is no reason to doubt that Rose will recover his old form. Rose and coach Tom Thibodeau are committed to the work that will ultimately make the difference.
• Walt Bellamy dies at 74. Bellamy was the starting center on the 1960 U.S. Olympic team, Rookie of the Year and an All-Star in each of his first four NBA seasons. Thereafter his numbers receded, but if he were a young man today he would probably be a default choice to make the All-Star Game for several more seasons. Instead, he was part of a generation of tremendous play at center.
• Andrew Bynum returns to Philadelphia. The 26-year-old center sounded dour as he told reporters Thursday that he thinks about retirement, that he's "a shell" of what he was as a Laker and that he doubts he will recover his old athleticism. This could not have been inspiring for his new team in Cleveland as it attempts to make the playoffs for the first time since LeBron James' departure in 2010. Bynum didn't play a minute for the 76ers last year, and their fans will surely be booing him Friday.
• Stephen Curry injured. The Warriors look like a highly dangerous team in the West, but the latest injury to his left ankle was a reminder of their vulnerability. He was listed as day-to-day, fortunately, and it goes without saying that their hopes depend on his health.
The Raptors' 6-foot-9 power forward is averaging 11.2 points and 6.4 rebounds after experiencing the best season of his nine-year career in 2012-13. Here's a little more about the 26-year-old:
1. He was born and raised in Los Angeles. "Basketball wasn't my first sport," he said. "I was a sprinter -- I did the 100, 200, the high jump and the long jump. That's probably where I get my running and floating ability. They say I'm one of the fastest bigs down the floor. I was always told to just run the floor.
"I started playing with the church league. My family pretty much put me into basketball. I started getting into it when I was about 10. I realized I didn't have to run as much in basketball. That's when I found basketball interesting. I could run around and get to score a layup instead of running around a track."
2. He became an AAU star. "I started playing for a bunch of AAU teams, like Tyson Chandler's team," Johnson said. "I played for a bunch of coaches, learning the game, and that made me really want to learn more and more. I was working with my father, just little stuff that I learned from coaches. I found it very interesting on defense and how to get down and slide your feet right. It was hard work -- that's the part I really didn't like -- but I know how to play the game."
Johnson was planning to attend Louisville. "I visited with my friend Andre McGee," he said. "We signed as soon as we got there. It was simple. We were kids, there was no thought process. I love how it was separated. The team had their own building, they had their own facility, they had their own dorm. It made us feel like we were the kings on campus, because we had our own little facility to use at all times."
3. Johnson changed his mind and entered the 2005 draft. He thought he'd be a first-round pick but wound up sliding to the end of the second round (No. 56 overall), where he became the final pick to enter the NBA straight out of high school. Fortunately for Johnson, his free fall resulted in an opportunity to join the defending champion Pistons.
"As soon as I got drafted, they were talking to me like I was a part of the championship team," Johnson said. "I ate everywhere for free, man, it was cool. I wish I could have made it there a little bit earlier.
"Winning the championship makes the whole team, the whole organization, relaxed. Everybody's happy every day. Practice is pretty smooth. We'd go out there and kick people's butts, which was fun.
"And especially with guys I've played with, like Ben Wallace, Rasheed [Wallace], [Antonio] McDyess. I had a bunch of good bigs. ... On that Detroit team, it wasn't just like Kobe Bryant and the Lakers, it wasn't just LeBron James and the Miami Heat; it was that one team, which is pretty cool."
In 2009, Johnson was traded to the Raptors. "I'm friends with everybody on the team," he said. "It's how I am and how I play. I want to help everybody as much as possible. If a man's down, or a guy needs help, I'm over there to help him. That's my mindset."
From Celtics president Danny Ainge, on his first training camp (in 1989) with then-Sacramento Kings VP Bill Russell:
"The Celtics actually had some dealings with Bill when he was with the Kings. In fact, one of those deals was a trade for me -- he traded to bring Brad Lohaus and me to Sacramento in the deal for Joe Kleine and Ed Pinckney."
That trade was made in February 1989. Ainge finished that season with the Kings, who were one of the worst teams in the league. The following October he reported to their training camp in Hawaii, where they held two-a-day practices.
"On the first day of practices Bill asked me, 'Do you play golf? I'm looking for someone to play golf with today after the morning practice.' I said, 'Yes, I play golf, but I don't think we'll have enough time to play before the afternoon practice.' He said, 'Don't worry, I'll have you back for that."'
Ainge tried to object, but the NBA's greatest champion would have none of it. "I said, 'I don't have clubs,' because I wasn't thinking about playing golf at training camp. He said, 'Don't worry, we'll set you all up.'
"So we're out there playing golf, just the two of us, and I'm out there with my rented clubs. I keep looking at my watch because I'm getting nervous about the next practice. Around the 14th hole, I said to Bill, 'I think we need to get going.' I'm going to need to get back for practice, I'm going to have to get taped and all that. He said, 'It's all right, we have plenty of time.' So we keep playing, and we played all 18 holes. By the time we got back, I was a half-hour late to practice. But everybody saw me coming in with Bill, so it was OK."
Ainge had never been late for practice in his life. It was no way to start a training camp, but his coach cut him off before he could say a word. Jerry Reynolds was in his third year with Russell, and he grabbed Ainge by the forearm, stared deep into his eyes and said: "I understand."
An NBA advance scout on 6-foot-6 rookie point guard Michael Carter-Williams, the No. 11 pick out of Syracuse who led the 76ers to a 3-0 start:
"Smaller guards like Derrick Rose or Avery Bradley can guard him, but then he can raise up over them to shoot. When a shot goes up, he'll crash the boards to get offensive rebounds and create second-chance opportunities. That's something that most point guards won't do.
"He's all over the place making plays at both ends of the floor. His skill set is better than people give him credit for. His game is diverse -- he can make outside shots and take the ball to the rim.
"The most impressive thing are the plays he makes as a rookie at the end of a tight game. I watched what he did against Chicago: The Sixers are up one in the closing seconds. He penetrates on a pick-and-roll with Spencer Hawes, and when the Bulls jump out at him, he casually throws a behind-the-back pass to Hawes at the top of the key. He had the confidence to make that pass [which led to Hawes' jumper with 5.9 seconds left].
"He has no fear. It's a small sampling, but he's taking the pressure off that team as a guy who can make things happen in the last 10 seconds of a possession. In his first three games, he was the best player on the floor when it counted the most. We're talking about them trading an All-Star in Jrue Holiday and replacing him with this rookie, but right now they look like geniuses.
"He's a legit 6-6, he's athletic, and not playing much as a freshman at Syracuse probably humbled him and made him work hard. He came back from basically not playing as a freshman to being a lottery pick after his sophomore season.
"We'll see how the wear and tear is on him as a rookie who is doing all the things he's doing. They don't have a great backup point guard, so he's going to play a lot of minutes.
"He's in a bit of a honeymoon state. Going forward, teams are going to pick him up full court and try to wear him down. Teams will start changing their coverages and going over on the pick-and-roll instead of going under. I would double-team him off the pick-and-roll and make him get rid of the ball -- make Evan Turner beat me instead."
In honor of Sharman, who died last month at age 87, this team honors NBA players who went on to win championships as coaches. The emphasis is on the best players: Sharman was among four Hall of Famers who went on to become a championship coach. He was also in the middle of the NBA's signature rivalry, helping the Celtics win their first four championships as a shooting guard, and then coaching the Lakers to their first championship in Los Angeles in 1971-72, when they won a record 33 games in a row.
My All-Bill Sharman Team goes as follows:
C: Bill Russell (2 championships as coach): The greatest big man ever also became the first African-American coach in pro sports.
PF: Tom Heinsohn (2): Hall of Fame player, but also deserving as a coach.
SF: Billy Cunningham (1): ABA MVP and five-time All-Star with the Sixers who played for one Sixers champion and coached the other.
SG: Bill Sharman (1): Hall of Famer as a player and a coach.
PG: Lenny Wilkens (1): Hall of Famer as a player and a coach.
F: Phil Jackson (11): Contributed to Knicks' 1972-73 championship team.
F: Rudy Tomjanovich (2): Five-time All-Star whose productivity was shortened by incident with Kermit Washington.
G: Buddy Jeannette (1): A Hall of Fame guard from the early days of pro basketball.
G: K.C. Jones (2): His number is retired in Boston for helping win eight straight championships.
G: Larry Costello (1): Six-time All-Star, won the '67 championship with the Sixers.
G: Doc Rivers (1): All-Star and backcourt leader throughout his 13-year playing career.
G: Al Attles (1): Played in two NBA Finals during his 11-year career.