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Magic forget the details, make their moves

Dwight Howard and the Orlando Magic discovered they had no chance to win, and while they weren’t defending, they also couldn’t score, as Rashard Lewis and Vince Carter had declined and no longer could truly create. So enter Gilbert Arenas, who looks maybe 90 percent back to where he was before multiple knee surgeries.

Dwight Howard has power, and the word in Orlando was that he made it pretty clear to management it was either he or Vince Carter, reports Sam Smith. Bye, bye, Vince.

The contents of this page have not been reviewed or endorsed by the Chicago Bulls. All opinions expressed by Sam Smith are solely his own and do not reflect the opinions of the Chicago Bulls or its Basketball Operations staff, parent company, partners, or sponsors. His sources are not known to the Bulls and he has no special access to information beyond the access and privileges that go along with being an NBA accredited member of the media.

Sam Smith Mailbag

The big news in the NBA last week, of course, was the three teams involved in the major deals involving some of the best known and highest paid players in the NBA, the likes of Vince Carter, Rashard Lewis, Gilbert Arenas, Jason Richardson and Hedo Turkoglu.

The principal player in this was the Orlando Magic, because unlike the Washington Wizards—who got Lewis for Arenas—and the Phoenix Suns—who got Marcin Gortat, Mickael Pietrus and Carter for Turkoglu and Richardson—the Magic is the only one playing for a title, or hoping to do so.

The Wizards made out well because they dumped Arenas a year after his gun arrest when it seemed impossible and opened the way for John Wall to, health permitting, which is becoming a concern (Greg Oden, anyone?), develop. Plus, Washington saves $30 million down the road with Arenas’ contract longer than Lewis’. The Suns did well because they got a starting center in Gortat and in a non-pressurized situation like Phoenix, Carter will be good. We’ve seen this before. They will get better and should now make the playoffs.

Orlando may get worse, but it’s a deal they had to do because they were done. It is somewhat novel, though, as the players seemed to be giving up, so they fired the players instead of the coach.

Coach Stan Van Gundy has been begging for defensive effort and basically getting little to the point even Dwight Howard singled out Carter and Lewis for criticism.

“Our wings got to do a better job not allowing their man just to get to the rim every play,” Howard said after a loss in Denver. “It puts a lot of pressure on the bigs. It’s hard for the big guys to really help like we want when a guy takes one dribble and he’s at the rim. It’s very tough. I like blocking shots, but if a guy is one dribble in and the ball’s up, and I’m over on the other side, I can’t fly over there. I don’t have a cape in real life.”

But he has power, and the word in Orlando was that Howard made it pretty clear to management it was either he or Vince. Bye, bye, Vince.

Yes, there’s the view that Howard can be a free agent in 2012 and the Magic had to begin sucking up like the Cavs did with LeBron, though you see where that got them. But general manager Otis Smith made some huge mistakes, like the signing of Lewis for four times what he was ready to sign for in then Seattle and the acquisition of Carter, that he had to correct. Give him credit for that. And while everyone suggests they’ll be the next LeBron or Carmelo Anthony this season, where are all these guys going? Pretty soon Chicago and New York and already Miami will be capped out for years, especially with a new labor agreement. Yes, Orlando already boasts losing one of the great players in league history, Shaquille O’Neal, for nothing. So they are experienced in this.

Money, meanwhile, is little issue there as much as urgency. Owner Rich DeVos has been ill and trying to win as soon as possible has been a quiet goal of the organization.

They have also taken a big personnel risk, mostly named Arenas. While Smith is close with him from years ago in Golden State, one coach who’s had Arenas said, “Otis may love him, but Stan has to sit by him on the bench. I can’t believe he wanted that.”

My guess is Van Gundy did based on the collapse of the team of late, and especially beginning to lose sight of the Miami Heat on the Florida horizon. Howard and the Magic’s reign seemed over.

This Magic is 16-10, has lost six of its last seven and is 3-6 against opponents with .500 records or better. That’s right. When they fell behind the Bulls, they obviously panicked.

The problems are obvious: Arenas is a wildcard, though he can score. Howard now has no backup, and he’s awfully foul prone. Van Gundy screams about defense, and they basically are undersized at every position now but center. Is Malik Allen the backup center? What, Turkoglu can only play in Orlando? As the Raptors and Suns basically said he was done. Or disinterested, at best. Is Richardson now the defensive perimeter answer to defend James or Wade? Or Ray Allen or Paul Pierce?

But the point was, at least for now, to forget the details. The Magic discovered they had no chance to win, and while they weren’t defending, they also couldn’t score, as Lewis and Carter had declined and no longer could truly create. So enter Arenas, who does look maybe 90 percent back to where he was before multiple knee surgeries. In taking former Suns and Arenas, the Magic is saying they’ll run with you and see if you can stop them, which was sort of their strength when they got to the Finals a few years back. Maybe they can be what the Knicks are trying, but with more talent.

The Magic, in essence, are saying, “We can’t compete with the Lakers. But if we can get out of the East, that’s enough.” And Eastern teams always have had difficulty with the Suns’ type relentless scoring style, especially if you have talent.

Teams had been singling Howard and staying home on the perimeter guys who basically lived off Howard’s doubles. Now, they’ll go into pick-and-roll more with Howard, try to beat you off the dribble and drive and pitch. Hey, maybe it works. They know the other way wasn’t. When you have a chance to win or when you have something going, you do everything you can to take advantage. No matter the reasons, Orlando is taking its best shot and you have to like that.

Collins has Sixers on their way

-- He’s doing it again, and why not? He always does. Doug Collins comes to a team. They had been average, not very good or attentive on defense. They struggle some, and then they buy in. They have to. And then they get much better. Like the Bulls in 1986, the Pistons in 1995 and the Wizards in 2001. Each team improved dramatically, and the 76ers, with 27 wins last season, are on the way.

The 76ers, who are in Chicago to play the Bulls Tuesday, are 11-16, but they have won eight of their last 11 and have done it with defense. Last season, they were one of the poorest, laziest defensive teams with, essentially, the same personnel, and a better shot blocker. They were 22nd in field goal defense and 30th against three point shooters. This season, they are tied for third behind the Heat and Pacers in field goal defense (the Bulls are sixth) and second behind Miami in three point defense. They are ninth in fewest points allowed, one ahead of the Bulls, and have given up 100 points once in their last 12 games, a one point loss to the Celtics. Otherwise, in that stretch they have held the Lakers, Heat, Magic, Hornets, Hawks and Trail Blazers all under 100. Now, you’d have to say they are a better defensive team than the Bulls.

“The defense have been very good,” Collins concedes happily. “Guys are playing hard. It’s a competitive group. Jodie Meeks has changed the team (with his shooting at two guard). Spencer Hawes has gotten into shape. Elton (Brand) has been good (so engaged again he was suspended for one flagrant foul and threw down Blake Griffin for another). Andre (Iguodala) is getting into the swing of things. Lou (Williams) and Thaddeus (Young) are playing well off the bench. And there are some games we should have won for sure.”

Perhaps no one has taken such brutal losses—a Kevin Garnett lob at the buzzer, a mental breakdown fouling John Wall for a three pointer on a 40 foot throw—but they only got tougher.

“Our guys are in a good frame of mind,” said Collins. “They like what we do, are upbeat and enjoy being in the gym.”

And so does Collins.

Meanwhile, everyone continues to ask: How could he give up that great TNT broadcasting job, where he may have been the best in the business, to endure coaching again, especially with a rebuilding team?

“I’m a coach at heart,” Collins says. “When I was broadcasting I was coaching. I felt I was coaching both teams, bringing analysis and strategy to the telecast so people could enjoy the broadcast better. I knew I was going to coach again. I wanted to do it one more time.”

It almost was with the Bulls two years ago, and there was some talk when Vinny Del Negro was let go. Collins made no secret of his love for Chicago, and said Philadelphia was the only other place because he started his playing career there and his daughter lives there that he would consider.

“(Wife) Kathy and I are comfortable in the city,” Collins said. “I saw young pieces here, a chance to return the franchise to respectability. It’s also an hour flight to Raleigh/Durham (where son Chris is an assistant at Duke). I felt it’s where we were supposed to be.”

Carmelo expects to sign extension if traded

-- When Carmelo Anthony was in New York last week and the Nuggets lost due to still another one of those bogus flopping calls the NBA continues to sanction, Anthony mentioned something interesting. He said he expected to sign the extension if he is traded and doesn’t want to risk going into free agency after the new labor deal and likely a smaller contract. As I’ve written, I still believe he’ll end up with the Knicks, but given that scenario, the Bulls have to consider themselves still in the hunt. I have heard Anthony is warming again to the idea of the Bulls after he initially was angered the Bulls wouldn’t deal Joakim Noah for him. You know how these guys see it: “They think Joakim Noah is better than me!” No, that wasn’t the point, but with Noah with an extension and now out hurt, Anthony may well be more receptive again. Which is why perhaps the Bulls have to give pause about trading for a shooting guard or center or moving that 2012 Bobcats pick. Maybe they can put together a deal for Anthony, say Taj Gibson, several draft picks, and Luol Deng, or a separate move for Deng to get something else for Denver? It’s a long, long shot, and maybe they should move on. Though some in Denver’s media are urging the team to trade Anthony for multiple draft picks, a version of the NFL Hershel Walker trade of seven draft picks. But what if Anthony does want his extension, which means a trade, and the Knicks have no draft picks? That lessens the Knicks’ chances. This notion they can get a draft pick, probably low first round, is hardly appealing. And the Nets, well, are in New Jersey. And with Boozer, Noah and Rose, if Anthony really wants to win where should he be trying to leverage a deal? Someone who knows Anthony well told me one issue is Anthony always has and still believes he’s a better player than LeBron James and resents all the attention. After all, when they came into the NBA together in 2003 he had the championship and it was supposed to be the next Magic/Bird era. LeBron became Magic without the success and Anthony became… Bernard King. So there is some sense Anthony will push for where he can beat LeBron. It’s hard to see that being New York, though the wife, the talk continues to be, desires Broadway.

MJ as a Knick? Say it ain’t so

-- Nice place to visit, but I wouldn’t want to live there? That’s what New Yorkers always hear, and it came up again last week when LeBron James finally came to New York, to beat and not join the Knicks. New York is heaving in confusion of late with baseball player Cliff Lee rejecting the Yankees, though the history of the NBA is that players never wanting to come to New York. The New York tabloids skewered James as a chicken, and I have to say that picture of a chicken with a LeBron head was hilarious. But Reggie Miller elected to stay in Indiana when he was a free agent and could have gone to New York, Isiah Thomas retired instead of taking a trade to the Knicks and little known was the Knicks’ pursuit of Michael Jordan, apparently with the league’s blessing. It was in 1996 as the Bulls and Jordan were negotiating what would be his $30 million one-year deal. Jordan wanted two years for $55 million, and the Bulls were balking, though eventually they would pay him $63 million for two years. So the Knicks, with the league apparently looking the other way, hatched a plan to pay Jordan millions on the side as ITT was a part owner of the team then and owned Sheraton Hotels. They would cook up some big time endorsement deals, sort of the college “student/athlete” version of the job you don’t go to. But Jordan also didn’t want to play in the World’s Smelliest and Filthiest Arena, so he re-signed with the Bulls. … The Nets did have a nice win Sunday over the Hawks, who continue to give the Bulls hope that the Bulls can be a top four team in the East, though winning the Central assures that as well. And even without Joakim Noah and failing the Clippers’ challenge the Bulls should be able to hang on there, Derrick Rose willing. As for the Nets, their trade last week obviously was aimed less at this season (or next) than increasing their potential package for Carmelo Anthony. So how appealing would that 2012 Charlotte pick the Bulls hold be? Want a Jordan Farmar or Anthony Morrow, the latter now hurt? Shouldn’t be too tough to get.

Magic calls the Pistons ‘soft’

-- Once past the 20-game mark of the season, teams begin to realize whether they have it or not, as we could see from the Orlando trade. And when there’s little hope, as the Cavs’ J.J. Hickson, once viewed too valuable to trade for Amar’e Stoudemire, offered when benched for Antawn Jamison, "Oh, so he's blaming it on the bench?" Obviously talking about coach Byron Scott, Hickson then added: "He's the head coach. He gets paid to make decisions to put players in.”… Magic Johnson was back home last week and told the Detroit Free Press of the Pistons: "Too many individuals. You have to get back to what made them great, and that's defense and rebounding. What we see now is a team that's soft. People from Detroit and Michigan can accept losing, but not the way they're losing." Richard Hamilton has been a huge distraction, complaining no one knows his role while playing one-one-one until he generally gets himself thrown out of games for complaining, Tayshaun Prince rarely gives up the ball as he tries to inflate his numbers so he can be traded, Ben Wallace predictably chimed in with the not knowing his role thing (now we know Ben has to know his because he only can do one thing, and not well anymore), and the old timers have been just trying to destroy the rest of the team. Fortunately, Hamilton and Rodney Stuckey were out Sunday, so Ben Gordon finally got to start and basically won the game over the Hornets with the three to send it into overtime and 25 points. I’m not a big fan of that plus/minus stat, but Tracy McGrady had to start, and, the traffic cone, as he’s known in Detroit, was the only starter with a minus. You assume the Pistons would just love to dump all of them and let their kids along with Gordon and Charlie Villanueva play, the few whom Magic can see care. … I loved Pacers coach Jim O’Brien when he was in Chicago the other night and was asked if he thinks about changing his starting lineup. “Every day,” O’Brien said. I get a kick out of O’Brien, who when asked about Darren Collison saying it was tough adjusting to the offense. “That’s why they call it the big leagues,” O’Brien scolded.

Brown could be on his way out in Charlotte

-- The talk coming out of Charlotte has been that Larry Brown wants to quit, and it sure sounded like it as last week in being blown out by Memphis, Brown said, "Selfish at both ends. Acted like we didn't even care. No effort, no teamwork… Guys blaming it on the referees. I had to get on them at halftime, beg them to play. That’s not what I’m supposed to be doing.’’ Our old buddy, Tyrus Thomas, of course, is part of the problem and when Gerald Wallace went out last week, Brown started Dominic McGuire over Tyrus. Tyrus then played 16 minutes in the Friday loss to Atlanta. With the Bobcats hanging in six down with eight minutes left, Tyrus isolated on the right wing and then did one of those loopy drives across the lane, falling down and throwing up a wild miss as Atlanta went down and scored easily. Brown called time and removed Thomas for the rest of the game. … Though the word is Brown could outlast Minnesota’s Kurt Rambis as if things don’t turn there he is said to be the coach closest to the edge. … Flip Saunders to John Wall: “I was kind of kidding him. I told him, 'In the first 20 games, you missed more games than John Stockton missed in 20 years.” Stockton missed 20 games in 19 seasons. Wall has now been out 10 games. … Congratulations to Stan Albeck, the one-time Bulls coach and good guy who suffered a serious stroke 10 years ago, but still attends nearly every Spurs home game, on his recently celebrated 58th wedding anniversary with wife Phyllis. Seeing him is always one of the great delights of a trip to San Antonio.

NBA news and notes

-- Backup Mavs center Brendan Haywood with his six-year $52 million deal is now shooting 27 percent on free throws as he soon will be consulting Ben Wallace for instruction. … Speaking of bad centers, since their hot start, Emeka Okafor has scored in double figures in six of the Hornets’ last 16 games and six points or fewer in half those 16. He hasn’t had double figure rebounds in eight of the last 12. With two more years coming at a total of $25 million. No wonder they’ve gone bankrupt. … Yes, it was sad to hear of Yao’s latest setback, which probably means the end of his career. It sounded a lot like he expected it by telling reporters no one died. And he has had an eight-year All-Star career. The second pick in that 2002 draft, Jay Williams, wasn’t as fortunate. … Chris Paul is very good, but here’s why Derrick Rose is better. Paul has been pedestrian—for him at about 16 and 10—this season, and he explains, “Just about every night they’re either trapping, or they’ve got two or three people in the lane trying to cut me off. I take what the defense gives me.” Yes, you make the pass, but if no one can hit shots, which the Hornets haven’t after their 11-1 start, and the Bulls often don’t, you’ve got to take over. Paul really cannot as he’s not quite fully back from his injury, I’d say. Plus, point guards are going right at him as Paul is known to play the lanes for steals and it’s begun to compromise the initially strong Hornets defense. … I know Rose gets criticism for defensive play, but, for instance, watch Dwyane Wade sometime. These guys who get steals like Wade and Paul rarely defend their man or play a team defense, but freelance and give their man open shots all the time, Wade being among the most lax in that area. … Owner Michael Heisley said he is committed to keeping O.J. Mayo.

-- These numbers Kevin Love is putting up, now averaging 21.1 and 15.7, remind me of a latter day Jerry Lucas, as Love also can shoot the three. So we had this discussion in the media room the other night after watching Blake Griffin dunk all over the Bulls: Griffin or Love, both with bad teams, for the All-Star team. Which one? You figure Nowitzki, Pau Gasol, Kevin Durant and Maybe Lamar Odom get in first, or Carmelo Anthony. If one spot is left, I go for Griffin, but Love is making a heck of a case, though we know whom the fans would rather see. Can Love dunk? … You have to say things are tough for the Timberwolves as Darko Milicic, second in the league in blocks, was injured last week on the opening tip when he landed on the foot of LaMarcus Aldridge and left for the game. … It seems official that Brandon Roy has gone nuts as he basically demanded Andre Miller’s ouster and the team change its style of play to accommodate him despite his career sadly in deep decline because of serious and untreatable knee problems. Roy is shooting 35 percent this month with four of his last five games in single digits before he went out again to rest his knees. And he’s blasting the other guys? Also disappearing has been Nicholas Batum, once their prized untouchable three, who has two or zero points in three of his last five games. As one GM predicted about the Portland situation, it’s about to become a circular firing squad. … Monta Ellis has played the full 48 minutes in three of the last nine games. … Merrily firing away complete oblivious is Danny Granger with 33 more threes taken than free throws. You afraid to drive, fella? … With only $4 million of Vince Carter’s final $18.3 million for next season guaranteed, he could be on the move again before trade deadline. … And there, I got through the entire column without once mentioning the Lakers and Heat Christmas Day, though I’ve only heard it promoted 457 times already on SportsCenter.

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