End of an era for stars of the 1990s
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So you want an All-Star for your roster? Several of the biggest names of the game likely can be acquired, and it also begins to bring to a close the era of the 1990s in the NBA.
1. With the Knicks’ decision to pass on Allen Iverson, Class of ’96, he could be basketball’s Barry Bonds, a player who still can contribute, but who teams fear will disrupt and poison their atmosphere. When the Bulls were in Denver Saturday night, I asked Nuggets coach George Karl about Iverson, whom he coached in Denver. Said Karl about this being the end for Iverson: “I want him to play again and play well. I think somewhere along the line the switch will go on—he might be a starter, but he might not be a starter. And he has to accept that. If he accepts that, he can be a good player.” This was Iverson’s next former coach after Karl, Lionel Hollins, in Philadelphia last week to reporters: “He scored like he always scored. There have been a lot of guys who have scored and never won. And you wonder why all these teams with young guys who are scoring 20 points a game aren’t winning. It’s not just about scoring. You get older, and young guys come in and take over ... If you want to stay around, continue to have fun and enjoy this lifestyle, adjustments have to be made.” I do think Iverson eventually makes that adjustment, and I believe he ends this season with the Lakers and a chance to add a championship to his amazing resume.
2. In no surprise to any of several dozen GMs who have been asked about taking on Tracy McGrady in the last year, it seems likely—and understandable—that McGrady, Class of ’97, isn’t wanted by the young, fast paced Rockets. That seemed ever more clear last week when one Houston columnist used the phrase “self-absorbed, me-first whiner” in relation to McGrady. Wow. There have been reports of disputes with management, McGrady showing up in his uniform on despite being inactive and lately staying home with a “sore back.” McGrady is in his final contract season, but at $22.4 million. That’s a lot of potential cap room for a team like the Bulls, though matching salaries for that many players could decimate a roster. I still think Cleveland is the place assuming McGrady is healthy given they need another scorer and to keep the floor open for LeBron James.
3. So here’s the question: Would they move Shaq for McGrady? Cleveland has talked about the need for Shaq for the playoffs and Dwight Howard, though the way the Cavs have played they might need to get by other teams first. And they clearly need another real player to take the attention somewhat off James. Shaq, Class of ’92, has been out lately, and I wouldn’t be surprised if he’s hurt by starting to be faulted, in part, for the Cavs slow start. The salaries are close enough for an even deal and the Rockets could use size, at least off the bench at times. The Cavs likely wouldn’t give up on Shaq so quickly, but he didn’t cost much.
4. Rasheed Wallace: The Celtics’ up and down play, lately squeaking by the Knicks Sunday, seems partly a function of the erratic play—not behavior—of Wallace, Class of ’95. With another 0-fer Sunday, Wallace is 28 percent on threes and about 38 percent shooting overall and showing little life in his legs or game. Wallace has accepted the bench role. And maybe come playoffs he’ll be worth it, but there isn’t much there anymore.
5. And long gone also some of the bigger stars of the 90s like Chris Webber, Penny Hardaway, Jamal Mashburn, Alonzo Mourning, Stephon Marbury and Jerry Stackhouse. And the whispers in San Antonio are not that Tim Duncan is done. Hardly. But he finally is slowing down some and it is becoming much more difficult for the Spurs, which has been obvious.
Robertson the one who deserves a tribute
-- It’s pretty clear by now the curious suggestion by LeBron James to universally retire Michael Jordan’s No. 23 has been dropped with the league and now Jordan speaking to Ahmad Rashad suggesting there are better ideas. You can excuse James, who is only a product of his generation, which basically traces world history back to the inauguration of ESPN in 1979. The sad irony in James’ suggestion was he said he’d switch to No. 6, which happened to be the number worn by Bill Russell, perhaps closest in the NBA to Jackie Robinson in baseball for pushing integration in the game. “It is somewhat good to honor Mike," said the Suns Jason Richardson, echoing the more common refrain now, even that by Jordan. "He is the greatest player to play this game. But to think about retiring his number, there's too many great players you'd had to retire. Bill Russell won the most championships and the things he went through in the '60s playing in Boston when it was kind of racist still. John Stockton's most assists. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar's points. There are so many guys that you can't do it. They may come up with something to honor him but retiring his number isn't the greatest idea."
I hear all these names mentioned and the one most often left off the list is likely the one today’s players owe the most to, Oscar Robertson. Robertson, like baseball’s Curt Flood, effectively gave up his career to fight for free agency and the ability of today’s players to become fabulously wealthy. Robertson not only was, to some, the greatest guard in the game’s history because of his all around transcendent game, but a player willing to stand up for his peers with lesser voices and reputations and risk his own to provide for the many. A brilliant man who built his own vastly successful business, how is it possible Robertson was denied the chance to coach or manage a team? Because he fought the NBA establishment and won on behalf of the players and was blackballed as a result. The same occurred with one of Robertson’s co-plaintiffs on the suit, the Bulls Chet Walker. These are the men today’s players should be celebrating. They sacrificed so those who came later would have better lives in the game. Forget that Robertson was the only player ever to average a triple double for a full season while averaging more than 30 points per game. If an image supposedly of Jerry West defines the NBA’s overall logo. The players association’s official logo should be of Oscar Robertson. No one did more for today’s millionaire athletes.
Chicago product Howard joins young stars in Portland
-- The guys to watch for the Bulls Monday against the Portland Trail Blazers will be Brandon Roy, LaMarcus Aldridge and Greg Oden, all youngsters with star potential. Juwan Howard will be there as well. No longer the star, he’s been drafted as a key reserve with injuries to the team’s top two small forwards and an impressive run into his 16th year for the guy who once played with the stars known as the Five Fab.
“I feel it says a lot about my preparation and my passion and drive for the game,” says the Chicago Vocational product. “These days after 16 years, I still can be a part of (winning) franchise. They did their homework and understood what I bring on and off the court. I take pride in the games, in practice, in working hard. I approach the game like I’m still averaging 35 minutes a night. Because you never know when your name will be called.”
For Howard, brought in by Portland more as a mentor, it has meant about 10 minutes per game in a solid reserve role with Travis Outlaw and Nicholas Batum out. But perhaps more than anything-—in addition to the good fortune of being healthy—it demonstrates not only Howard’s legacy as a committed worker but as a player who understood the changing nature of his career and continues to adjust and remains a coveted figure.
“There are certain players with the intangibles to remain in the league, chemistry, character and leadership, and Juwan is one of the top big guys on that list now,” says George Karl, who had Howard in Denver last year. “Juwan knows what he is and who he is and it’s OK. He wants to hand around and get a ring. You won’t see him with bad teams.”
In fact, Howard is very bullish on his latest team, his seventh with multiple stops in Dallas and Denver.
“I’ve been intrigued with Portland,” said Howard, who also talked to Charlotte, Cleveland and Atlanta last summer. “I like their young group. I respect he coaches and staff and what they bring to the table and how they transformed them into in my opinion a title contender.
“When I talked to the staff, Nate (McMillan) was looking for me to be more than a locker room kind of guy and now I’ve had a chance to play more with the injuries,” said Howard, widely regarded as one of the class men of pro sports.
I asked him his highlight of his career and he said without hesitation being drafted. When I asked him his disappointments of a player frequently traded and booed in Washington for having a big contract, he said there were none.
“I still have fun with the game and enjoy it,” says Howard. “Helping prepare young guys to play in this league, working in the gym. It’s great.”
Happy anniversary to the Big Apple
-- This past weekend marked the one year anniversary of the Knicks last being over .500 at 6-5 when they traded Jamal Crawford and Zach Randolph, who’ve both continued to be productive, Randolph now in Memphis and Crawford in Atlanta the leading candidate along with Jason Terry for best sixth man. Since then, the Knicks have gone 28-48. That includes 13-28 since trading for Larry Hughes. The Knicks’ plan now is to get Eddy Curry up and running and trade him for an expiring contract, which would give the Knicks money next summer for two free agents, which then could put them back in play for LeBron James. Said one general manager, “Donnie (Walsh) keeps saying how great Eddy is and what great condition he’s in.” I know, I know. Then why wouldn’t he want to keep a seven foot center like that?
NBA news and notes
-- It didn’t sound good for Lawrence Frank with the winless Nets when GM and long time advocate Rod Thorn said last week: The reality is that we're not the only team that has people who are hurt. Other teams do, too. A lot of the teams we've played have had key guys injured." Frank is in the final year of his contract. Also considered day to day is the Clippers’ Mike Dunleavy with daily reports on his fate in the L.A. Times. Former NBA coach and now assistant John Lucas a possible successor. … The 76ers Eddie Jordan isn’t going anywhere after having been just hired. But his team is already being booed at home and Jordan offered his own boo when he said after a home loss to Memphis last week: “I'm not going to sugarcoat it. We had five individuals on the floor. We didn't rally around each other.” Though Lou Williams is scoring, the 76ers desperately miss Andre Miller, now back on the bench in Portland, and are casting around the league for a point guard. You wonder if the answer lies in Detroit, which basically plays multiple small guards in Rodney Stuckey, Ben Gordon and Will Bynum. Chicagoan Bynum has been the surprise as a terrific pick and roll player. Perhaps the answer for the 76ers lies there. It’s no secret Jordan and Elton Brand have been crossways and the Pistons could use some inside scoring. You figure with Gordon and Stuckey they’d like to move Richard Hamilton or Tayshaun Prince and with Bynum that would make a nice exchange for Brand.
-- There was the story last week from the Orlando Sentinel of Dwight Howard meeting with coach Stan Van Gundy to advise Van Gundy to be a bit more positive. "I think, as a team, there was a lot of negativity and it's not like Stan's a negative guy," Howard said. "But it's like there's always some clashes and focusing so much on our mistakes. Instead of bringing each other down, we have to pull each other up. That's the only thing I wanted from coach." Van Gundy, for his part, went along and said his comments were "draining the enthusiasm" from his team and would ease off. But this really was all about was Howard not scoring enough for Howard’s tastes. You’ll remember Howard condemned Van Gundy in the playoff series with Boston for not getting the ball enough. Howard has a huge desire, like most young players, to score a lot and be considered in that elite group of players. Howard feels it more than most with his outsized personality and self proclaimed “Superman” identity. Howard is a great talent, so defenses generally take to forming a circle around him and letting the Magic shoot outside. As a result, Howard is averaging 17.4 points and supposedly isn’t all that happy about that.
-- Though there’s that talk of the Knicks trying to rehabilitate Eddy Curry to trade him, you begin to wonder if that’s what they are up to in Washington with Gilbert Arenas. Arenas certainly appears healthy and can score. But his continuing erratic behavior has to be a major contributor to the Wizards being one of the big early season disappointments. To review: Arenas first said he would be a serious facilitator and pass and not shoot. "I'm sitting there concentrating on getting assists—averaging eight assists, averaging nine assists—because I want to be labeled a 'point guard.' You see the players out there, Chris Paul averaging 20 [points] and 10 [assists], and you know they consider him the best point guard,” Arenas told the Washington Post. “So you put that in your mind, like, 'Man, in this system I can average 20 and 10. Let me go average 20 and 10.'” Then he refused to shoot for entire quarters even with the defense dropping off him. Then he said he didn’t need to talk or blog anymore because it was becoming too much silliness and went on strike until the league fined him. Then Arenas said he needed to return to being the so called get hot quick Hibachi scorer with the accompanying histrionics. All the while, as usual, playing little defense and utterly confusing his teammates about which Arenas they’d see on any given day. "Everyone wants the fun guy back," Arenas said after a loss to the Pistons. "They feel with the fun guy, everyone gets to be looser." Clearly, it’s a mess with blowout losses to the Thunder and Spurs last week. After that loss to the Spurs Saturday, coach Flip Saunders promised lineup changes as Arenas proclaimed teammates have hidden agendas, i.e., free agency and selfishness. Yet, Arenas has attempted 64 more shots than anyone on the team. Yes, Arenas is back after missing almost two seasons, and it’s a new coach, though both Eddie Jordan and Saunders are offensive minded. And it is early, as we so often hear. But the Wizards have a load of scorers and end up standing around trying to figure out what Arenas is up to next. The Wizards have hung onto Gilbert through a lot, though you’d have to wonder at some point if they all are exhausted by the act and perhaps it’s time for a change. Certainly, Arenas has shown he can be an All Star talent and a rare commodity if he did come on the market.
-- Joe Johnson finally may be getting his due with the hot Hawks this season, and it may result in getting a lot more this summer. There’s some thought that the so called Free Agent Big Three of LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh could stay put. If that occurs there will be teams with money looking to spend it. The Pistons thought they’d get a head start in the summer of 2009 and ended up with Charlie Villanueva and Ben Gordon. Good players, but hardly franchise changers. Even if one or two of those Big Three stay home, there will be teams looking to spend money. It might have benefitted Detroit to hang onto its money and wait until 2010, but teams never do that. The fan anxiety is generally too great. If I were the Knicks and it seems unlikely any top free agent would want to go there next summer, I’d wait until 2011 when Eddy Curry and Jared Jeffries come off the books and make a full court press on Carmelo Anthony, who seems like a prime candidate to seek big city lights after being something of an afterthought in Denver. Meanwhile, guys like Amar’s Stoudemire and Johnson could hit it big this summer with teams snubbed by the Big Three. Portland coach Nate McMillan told the Oregonian last week after Johnson lit up his team for 18 in the fourth quarter: "He's an All-Star, a guy very similar to Brandon (Roy). You put the ball in his hands late and let him make plays.” And George Karl said: “I don’t think people look at him like a Wade or Kobe Bryant, but I do. He’s one of the most complete players.”
-- Look for Raja Bell to be one of the big trading deadline names assuming he comes back healthy by them from wrist surgery. He’s in the final season of his relatively modest $5.2 million deal and the Spurs, for one, tried desperately to acquire him before the deal with the Warriors involving Stephen Jackson. … Bobcats coach Larry Brown made it clear early he wasn’t taking Iverson back, though Brown has lobbied teams hard to take on Iverson. You wonder, though, as Brown now has been singling out his point guards, Ray Felton and D.J. Augustine, as the biggest playing issues with the team. This may be the overall problem for the Bobcats, though: Upon acquiring Jackson, one local columnist said Jackson is the best player the franchise ever has had. But the writer did have a good line in quoting Jackson saying he admired Michael Jordan. The writer then observed that would help if Jackson and GM Jordan ever were in Charlotte the same time. Ouch. They’re getting chippy on Tobacco Road. And we thought they ran everything by Dean first. … Dallas’ Dirk Nowitzki at 31 is off to a career year start averaging 26.9 per game with already a 29-point fourth quarter over Utah. But quietly a key in Dallas winning its last five ahs been Drew Gooden, averaging 13.2 points and 11.4 rebounds in that stretch. … The Suns have lost 16 straight times in games broadcast by TNT.
-- Staying in school isn’t so bad. OK, the Bucks Brandon Jennings is turning into a star with no college and a year in Europe after high school. But with injuries, the Jazz have relied heavily on Wisconsin’s Wesley Mathews and VCU’s Eric Maynor and both have done well. Both are four year college players like the Bulls Taj Gibson, another surprise, in large part, because he came into the NBA ready to play and experienced. "They are more ready than the normal rookie who comes into the league today," said Jazz assistant Phil Johnson said. "So that's a vote, in my opinion, for staying in college." … My preseason prediction was after the teams played in Utah Thanksgiving Day, the Bulls would have Carlos Boozer. It doesn’t look like that will happen as Boozer seems to have regained his form, averaging 18.3 points and 11 rebounds, if not the total love of the community after his desire to be traded. "If we lose a game, it's his fault," coach Jerry Sloan told Utah media. "That's the way a lot of people already programmed that in to start with. Everything that he did had to be magnified. Everybody's going to jump on him, waiting for him to make a mistake. That's the way life is. You have to fight through that." Said Deron Williams: "He's getting back to the old Booz before he was hurt." In case you were wondering “booze” came into the language in the 1840 presidential race when the then Whigs party was trying to humanize candidate William Henry Harrison by suggesting he was from a log cabin. He wasn’t, but they didn’t have TV then. A Philadelphia distiller named E.C. Booz began putting whiskey in bottles shaped like log cabins in honor of Harrison and booze and liquor soon became synonymous. Harrison died soon after taking office and was replaced by John Tyler. In case you were wondering.
-- The outrage of the week was Clippers broadcasters Ralph Lawler and Mike Smith suspended a game for an allegedly insensitive discussion involving Grizzlies center Hamed Haddadi from Iran. Apparently Smith and later Lawler pronounced Haddadi as an “Eye-ranian” and that was deemed offensive. Though I recall former president George Bush pronouncing it that way as well. Lawler and Smith do one of the best broadcasts in the NBA, injecting humor and insight. Hey, Lawler’s been doing Clippers’ game for decades. If he still has enthusiasm he should be saluted. Instead, I think he’s owed an apology from the cable station and the team for not standing up for him and we should all feel shame for the level of political correctness and inability to take a joke that we apparently continue to accept.