Howard Excited for Fresh Start in Atlanta
After establishing himself as one of the NBA’s premier players during his stint with the Orlando Magic, Dwight Howard’s time in the NBA has been a bit rocky ever since. Over the last four seasons with the Los Angeles Lakers and Houston Rockets, Howard has dealt with various injuries, on-court chemistry issues with teammates and a reduced role.
Most notably, Howard struggled to adjust to teammates like Kobe Bryant and James Harden. The Lakers were one of the teams on Howard’s wish list when he decided to force a trade from the Magic, but his time in L.A. didn’t go as planned as he clashed with Bryant and head coach Mike D’Antoni.
Howard’s move to the Rockets was expected to give Harden the help he needed to compete for a championship. But as Howard left the Rockets this offseason, the center’s relationship with Harden didn’t end on the best of terms. Howard even mentioned over the summer that their relationship wasn’t good enough for the team to be successful.
His decision to sign elsewhere this summer didn’t come as a surprise to many. Howard inked a three-year, $70.5 million deal with the Atlanta Hawks over the offseason in a move that will bring Howard back to his hometown. Signing with the Hawks can be seen as a new chapter for Howard, one that will presumably allow him to return to playing at a high level without any distractions.
“It’s another chapter in my life,” Howard said Sunday night in Orlando. “There will always be good chapters and bad chapters, but I think I’ve already got those bad chapters out of the way. Everything else will be up from here. Atlanta is great; it’s my hometown. My family has been great, my friends have been great and the team, for the most part, everybody is amazing.”
Watching Howard interact with friends, family and fans in a city that he once played for indicates that he is in a much better place in his life after having many ups and downs over the past few years. Howard flashed that vintage smile that was so popular during the positive times while playing for the Magic, and he seemed genuinely happy to be back interacting with old friends.
It seems as though signing with the Hawks can only be a positive for Howard. Atlanta has formed an outstanding infrastructure that starts with the front office and goes down to the players. Mike Budenholzer is one of the most respected head coaches in the league and has helped the Hawks qualify for the playoffs in an Eastern-Conference-high nine straight seasons.
Howard echoed those statements to reporters prior to a 105-98 win over the Magic on Sunday. Howard was held out of the game for rest but offered high praise for his new team. He called Budenholzer an unbelievable human being and said the Hawks are an organization that really cares about what’s best for their players.
“I really couldn’t be happier with how Dwight has integrated himself into our program – his willingness to work [and] his willingness to be open to coaching,” Budenholzer said. “He’s added a lot of positive energy and he’s got a big personality that I think our team has welcomed. It just feels like it’s a great opportunity for us and him. We’re just looking forward to growing together.”
While Howard didn’t appear in Sunday’s game, he’s turned in a strong preseason thus far. He said that he’s feeling great heading into the season, and it’s showing on the court. Through three games, Howard is averaging 15.7 points, eight rebounds, 1.7 blocks and one assist per game. He turned in a monster game last Monday against the Cleveland Cavaliers, recording 26 points, eight rebounds, two blocks, two assists and one steal.
The Hawks are hoping Howard can step into the lineup and take Al Horford’s place in the paint. While it’s safe to say that Howard is far removed from his dominating days with the Magic, he still has shown that he can be among the best centers in the league when healthy. His numbers dipped a bit last season with the Rockets – he averaged 13.7 points, 11.8 rebounds and 1.6 blocks per game – but Howard’s role with the team diminished down the stretch of the season.
Based on how things have played out so far during the preseason, it seems like Howard will have a big role with the Hawks this year. Coach Budenholzer’s teams have performed well on defense under his watch, finishing 14th in defensive efficiency during the 2013-14 season, seventh in 2014-15 and second last season. Adding a three-time Defensive Player of the Year in Howard can only help bolster the defensive unit.
“He adds another layer to our defense, being a guy who can block shots,” Paul Millsap said. “He’s athletic enough to switch the pick-and-rolls and move on the pick-and-rolls. We look forward to that. We look forward to having a big body under the basket, altering shots and making guys work for twos.”
The Hawks have generally avoided making huge roster changes. When you have a nine-year playoff streak, you tend to stick with the same core group and value continuity. However, with Horford joining the Boston Celtics via free agency and Jeff Teague being traded away to the Indiana Pacers, the Hawks will enter this season with a much different look. With much of the Eastern Conference improving over the summer, it remains to be seen where exactly the Hawks fit into the playoff picture.
In addition to Howard, the team also added veteran Jarrett Jack to the roster to provide some depth at point guard behind Dennis Schroder, who will replace Teague as the team’s starting floor general. With so many veterans on the team that have won at a high level, it seems reasonable to believe the Hawks can continue to compete for a high playoff seed.
For Howard, returning to a place in which he’s personally comfortable seems like it’ll help his play on the court. He seems to be as happy as he’s been in awhile and looks to be the same player we saw in Orlando – the upbeat guy who gets along with everyone. Don’t be surprised to see Howard deliver a strong bounce-back campaign and send a reminder to the NBA that he’s still among the best centers in the game.
Millsap Returns with Strong Performance Against Magic
When Hawks power forward Paul Millsap underwent a preventative procedure to reduce swelling in his right knee in late September, the news came as a bit of a surprise since it was taking place so close to the start of the season.
The team deemed the procedure to be the best course of action to treat Millsap’s knee. The All-Star forward has stayed pretty close to the initial timetable to return, as it originally called for the big man to miss two preseason games and he ultimately missed four games.
While Hawks head coach Mike Budenholzer opted to rest several starters Sunday night in Orlando including Dwight Howard, Kent Bazemore and Dennis Schroder, Millsap returned to the court for the first time this preseason.
In 19 minutes of action against the Magic, Millsap recorded 19 points (on 7-12 shooting), nine rebounds and seven assists. In a game in which his minutes were limited and many expected him to just knock off the rust, Millsap looked like he’s already in midseason form.
“We think he’s pretty good; we’ll probably keep him,” Budenholzer joked after Millsap’s impressive performance. “He’s such a unique and gifted player. I think the seven assists is probably what stands out to me as much as anything. He’s just a playmaker. He finds guys. He just feels things that I think are on another level. He had a good practice. It was good to see him now get out and do it in a game.”
Budenholzer said that the plan with Millsap is to continue monitoring his status through game situations and practices. He played in 19 minutes on Sunday night and will continue to increase his minutes incrementally each game. The biggest objective for Millsap moving forward will be getting his conditioning back.
“My body feels great,” Millsap said. “I was just getting my wind up. That’s going to take a few games. You can’t simulate that type of style in practice or [by] running on the treadmill. It’s good to be out there playing games. We still have two more preseason games to get ready.
“You have to get on the floor in game-like situations with the starters. We got two more games to do that. Hopefully, we can get out there and get our chemistry down and get ready for the regular season.”
As Budenholzer pointed out, the biggest takeaway from Millsap’s performance was his seven assists. It was surely an encouraging sign for the team that he was able to find his teammates like that in his first game back in action. It also shows his chemistry with his teammates is there, despite not yet playing during the preseason.
“[I’m] just taking my time, especially with these younger guys cutting to the basket and moving without the basketball,” Millsap said. “I think our offense was in pretty good sync tonight – guys moving without the basketball, setting screens for each other, just sharing the basketball. I think that’s what we’re all about. It just so happened to be me tonight, but any other night it could be anyone else.”
Last season, the 31-year-old averaged 17.1 points, nine rebounds, 3.3 assists, 1.8 steals and 1.7 blocks while earning his third-straight All-Star nod.
NBA Daily: Checking In With Terrance Ferguson
Oklahoma City Thunder rookie Terrance Ferguson talks to Basketball Insiders about learning from his teammates, earning minutes and being mentally tough.
Before he reached the NBA, the Oklahoma City Thunder’s Terrance Ferguson was once often referred to as a man of mystery. After changing course on two different programs in a two-month span, Ferguson ditched the typical one-and-done collegiate season for an adventure on the other side of the planet. But even after the Thunder selected Ferguson with the No. 21 overall pick in last year’s draft — the questions still lingered. How would a teenager with one season overseas adjust to the world’s most physical basketball league?
Not many rookies can contribute to a 40-plus win squad out in the cutthroat Western Conference so quickly — but down the stretch, here Ferguson is doing just that. With the Thunder locked in a tight playoff battle with six others teams, the 19-year-old’s hard-working personality has fit alongside the roster’s three perennial All-Stars — Russell Westbrook, Paul George and Carmelo Anthony. And although his rookie season has come with some growing pains, Ferguson is earning meaningful minutes and making the most of them.
“I think it’s my work ethic, I come in every day with the same mentality,” Ferguson said. “I work my butt off — inside the game, being physical. Even though I’m a skinny guy, as everyone can see, I’m still everywhere on the floor being physical. I think [the coaching staff] really likes that, especially on the defensive end.”
Skinny or not, Ferguson is one of the league’s youngest players, so the 6-foot-7 guard has plenty of room to grow — literally. But for now, he’s playing an integral role on an Oklahoma City team looking to protect its high postseason seed. Late January brought the unfortunate season-ending injury to Andre Roberson — an All-Defensive Second Team honoree in 2016-17 — so the Thunder have needed both new and old players to step up in bigger roles.
While those candidates included the three-point shooting Alex Abrines, veteran Raymond Felton and the newly-acquired Corey Brewer, Ferguson’s recent rise in the rotation has arguably been the most interesting development. Since the calendar flipped to January, Ferguson has featured in almost all of the Thunder’s games, tallying just two DNP-CDs and one missed contest following a concussion. This steady diet of opportunity comes as a stark contrast to the 15 games in which he received no playing time, spanning from the season’s opening tip to the new year.
Of course, playing time is not always indicative of success, but Ferguson himself isn’t surprised that he’s carved out a crucial role ahead of the playoffs.
“Not really, it’s all up to coach’s decision,” Ferguson told Basketball Insiders. “I’m just here playing my part, staying ready at all times and some minutes came, so I’mma take them and play to the best of my ability.”
Back in October, Basketball Insiders’ own Joel Brigham spoke to Ferguson about his unconventional path to NBA and the choice to spend a year grinding with the Adelaide 36ers, an Australian outfit. In the land down under, Ferguson averaged just 15 minutes a night, considerably less than he would’ve likely received as a highly-recruited prospect here in America. Some five months later, Ferguson’s early-season stance on the move still stands out.
“I’m living the dream now, right? I must have done the right thing,” Ferguson said.
Today, it’s hard to disagree with Ferguson’s decisions considering that they’re currently paying off. In 2009, Brandon Jennings became the first to skip college and play in Europe before being drafted, with Emmanuel Mudiay most notably following in his footsteps six years later. While those two point guards both were selected in the top ten of their draft classes — at No. 10 and No. 7, respectively — it still remains the road far less traveled.
Considered raw by most pre-draft evaluations, an early expectation was that Ferguson would spend much of the season with the Oklahoma City Blue, the Thunder’s G-League affiliate. Instead, Ferguson has played in only three games with the Blue, where he has averaged a commendable 14.7 points, four rebounds and 1.3 steals per game.
But as of late, the Thunder have found somebody that’ll always work hard, learn from others and do the little things that don’t show up in the box score.
“I’ve learned a lot more from when I first started,” Ferguson told Basketball Insiders. “I got great teammates — I got Nick Collison, I got Russ, PG, Melo, so just picking their brains. I got Corey now, so just the work ethic they put in, just picking their brains each and every day about what I can do better, watching game film, it’s a lot of things.”
When he was drafted, Ferguson had a reputation as a skyscraping leaper with the athleticism to become an elite perimeter defender. Although his current averages with the Thunder understate his innate potential, Ferguson knows he can contribute without scoring — even noting that he can make up for it “on the other side of the court.” Playing defense and competing hard every night, he has slowly made a name for himself.
And while Ferguson has tallied far more single-digit scoring outings than his 24-point breakout performance in early January, he’s earned the trust of head coach Billy Donovan and his veteran teammates, which is something the rookie will never take for granted.
“Coach believes in me and that means a lot to me,” Ferguson said. “But my teammates believe in me, so I’m not gonna let them down. I’m gonna go out every day and play my hardest, compete and try to get the win each and every night.”
One might assume that his year abroad in Australia helped to mentally mold him into the high-flying, hard-nosed rookie we see today. Ferguson, however, contends that he’s had that edge from the very beginning.
“I’ve been mentally tough, it wasn’t overseas that did that,” Ferguson told Basketball Insiders. “I had to be mentally tough just to go over there — so I’ve always had that mentality, the [desire] to just dominate, play to the best of my ability and compete.”
And now he’s doing just that in the NBA.
Is Kyrie Irving’s Second Opinion a Cause for Concern?
Shane Rhodes breaks down the tough situation the Celtics are in with Kyrie Irving.
The Boston Celtics are in one awful predicament.
With a third of the roster out due to injury, Brad Stevens has been forced into the impossible task of maintaining Boston’s championship aspirations with some subpar talent; while they have performed admirably, the likes of Abdel Nader and Semi Ojeleye wouldn’t see the same run they are currently on with most contenders. Gordon Hayward has missed the entire season, save a few minutes on opening night. Kyrie Irving, Jaylen Brown, Marcus Smart and Daniel Theis are all currently out, some for the year and others not. Key contributors Al Horford, Marcus Morris and others have missed time as well.
It couldn’t get worse, could it?
Well, it may just have. Reports surfaced Tuesday that Irving, who had missed time this season — including the last four games — with left knee soreness, is seeking a second opinion after a lack of progress in his recovery.
My understanding is that Kyrie Irving is getting a 2nd opinion on his left knee, perhaps as soon as tomorrow. Bottom line: he needs the screws out. Knee is flaring up. He will either play thru it going forward or … he will get thee screws out and won’t play at all. Stay tuned.
— Tony Massarotti (@TonyMassarotti) March 20, 2018
With lack of progress on his ailing left knee, Celtics All-Star Kyrie Irving plans to travel for a second opinion later this week, league sources tell Yahoo.
— Shams Charania (@ShamsCharania) March 20, 2018
In the wake of the Isaiah Thomas fiasco and his ailing hip last Summer, an injury that lingered deep into this season, the Celtics will likely be more than cautious with Irving, whom they gave up a haul (the rights to the 2018 Brooklyn Nets first round pick, most notably), to acquire. But one can only wonder if these persistent issues — Irving’s left knee was surgically repaired after he sustained a fractured kneecap in 2015, and he reportedly threatened the Cleveland Cavaliers with surgery this offseason before his trade to Boston — are a cause for concern for general manager Danny Ainge and the Celtics.
The situation presents the Celtics with a quandary, to say the least.
Knee injuries aren’t exactly a death-knell, but fans need not look far for to see the devastating effect they can have on NBA players (e.g. Derrick Rose). They can snowball and, over time, even the best players will break down. Regardless of the severity, Irving’s knee issue presents problems both now and in the future.
The problems now are obvious: the Celtics, already down Gordon Hayward, cannot afford to lose Irving if they are at all interested in making a Finals run this season. Boston struggles mightily on the offensive end when Irving and his 24.4 points, 3.8 rebounds and 5.1 assists aren’t on the court. In a playoff atmosphere, especially, the team would sorely miss his scoring prowess.
Looking ahead, if Irving is dealing with these problems at the age of 25, what could the future hold for the All-Star guard? Knee issues, most lower body issues in general, are often of the chronic variety, and constant maintenance can wear on people, both mentally and physically.
Just a season separated from a likely super-max payday, will the Celtics want to commit big-money long-term to potentially damaged goods?
If there is a silver lining in it all, it is the fact that 20-year-old rookie Jayson Tatum must now shoulder the scoring load, something that should go a long way in building on the potential that made him the No. 3 overall pick last June. And, should Irving miss the remainder of this season, exposure to the fires of the playoffs should only temper the Celtics’ young roster. In the event that Irving’s absence isn’t prolonged, time like this could only serve to strengthen the roster around him.
Still, Ainge brought Irving to Boston for a reason: he was meant to lead the Celtics into battle, alongside Gordon Hayward and Al Horford, in their quest for a title. Obviously, he can’t do that from the bench. Without Irving at 100 percent, the Celtics are not a championship caliber squad, healthy Gordon Hayward or not. That fact alone will make Irving’s situation one to monitor going forward and for the foreseeable future.
NBA Daily: Houston Has It All
Deciphering whether Houston is a contender or pretender is tough, but they’re making it easy.
It is very easy to get caught up in the NBA regular-season hyperbole. The past is littered with a plethora of NBA teams that looked like world-beaters in the regular season only to pull up lame in the playoffs and emerge as a bunch of pretenders.
So when it comes to the Houston Rockets, it’s no surprise many pundits and fans of the game fall heavily on one side or the other. The 2017-18 Rockets are a polarizing squad in that respect. On one side of the fence, you have the folks that are struggling to get behind Houston until they see how the franchise performs in the playoffs under the brightest of lights and on the biggest of stages. On the other, folks that place a great deal of weight on the 82-game regular season and the ability to sustain consistency throughout the marathon.
As always, the truth is somewhere in the middle.
At the top of Houston’s lineup are two future Hall of Famers in James Harden and Chris Paul. The latter was a perennial star in his heyday and is still a top-tier talent in the league. Harden, on the other hand, is closing in on his first MVP award and had serious cases for winning the honors in prior seasons, as well. Both Harden and Paul are criticized for their past playoff failures.
Paul entered the league during the 2006 season and has been dogged by the ever looming fact that he’s never reached a Conference Finals. Harden has been to the NBA Finals but has been dogged for multiple playoff missteps and shaky performances that remain etched in everyone’s memory. But something about this season’s Rockets team (57-14) seems different as the duo closes in on 60 wins.
One way to measure the true greatness of a NBA team is evaluating how many ways the roster can win playing a variety of styles. From the eyeball test, Houston checks the boxes in this category. The team sustains leads during blowouts. They have an offense built to erase large deficits quickly. The team possesses the talent to employ an array of versatile lineups to withstand top heat from opposing teams. Head coach Mike D’Antoni has shown the ability to adjust on the fly during certain situations. Houston is seemingly comprised of a bunch of guys that are selfless and ready to sacrifice at this stage of their respective careers.
Time will tell on all of those aforementioned aspects, but the Rockets are built to compete and win now. On paper at least, the team fits the criteria.
Paul has a chance to go down as a top five point guard in NBA history .His court vision is unquestioned and his big men always seem to end up being in the top five of field goal percentage each season (i.e. Tyson Chandler, DeAndre Jordan and now Clint Capela). In years past, the Rockets faltered down the stretch of games because the entire system ran through Harden. But this year’s club has the luxury of taking some of the on-ball expectation away from Harden and by giving the rock to Paul who naturally thrives in this role the squad doesn’t take a step back on the floor.
This is going to be big for Houston which has seen Harden gassed late in playoff games from carrying the entire load.
Small Ball Ready
Presumably standing between the Rockets and an appearance in the NBA Finals are the Golden State Warriors. The Warriors turned the NBA upside down with their free-flowing offense, long range accuracy and the successful ability to push the pace while playing small ball.
At the height of Golden State’s success they employed the “death lineup” which places All-Star forward Draymond Green at center. In different variations this gives the Warriors five guys on the court who can dribble, drive, pass and shoot. Versatility is important and if you look at this year’s Rockets team they have the ability to match the death lineup with their own version. Veteran forward P.J. Tucker would be able to guard Green in this scenario at center or Houston could just rely on the athleticism of Capela.
When it comes to defense, the Rockets will never be confused for the bad boy Detroit Pistons of yesteryear, however, the team has an assortment of individually capable defenders on the roster. Paul has all defensive team honors hanging on his mantle during his time in the league. Small forward Trevor Ariza made his bones in the league by placing an emphasis on defense. Before Capela emerged as a double-digit scorer, he was relied on as a defensive spark off the bench. Luc Mbah a Moute has a reputation and consistent track record of being a very willing defender.
Shooting, Versatility and Experience
All of this success, leads to the variation D’Antoni can put out onto the floor. The versatility to go with a small ball lineup or a lineup heavily skewed toward defenders is a luxury amenity. Houston also features five guys with 125 or more three-pointers made this season with Harden, Eric Gordon, Ariza, Paul and Ryan Anderson leading the way. A sixth, Tucker, should join the +100 club before season’s end. Veteran Gerald Green has only played 30 games with the franchise but has already knocked down 76 attempts from distance.
Experience is key as well. This year’s Rockets team features only one player under 25, receiving 25 or more minutes per night in the rotation. Look at NBA history, title winning teams are full of veterans not second or third year players.
Again, the Rockets will never be confused with the late 80s or early 90s Pistons but the team has more than a few guys that don’t shy away from contact or physical play. The collection of Nene, Tucker, Green and Ariza have had more than their share of shoving matches when things get heated on the floor.
With the start of the NBA playoffs (April 14) under a month away, the Rockets continue to build momentum toward a title run. Will Harden and Paul’s playoff demons from the past emerge or is their first true shot at greatness with a complete team? These questions will soon be answered.