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NBA Sunday: Dwight Howard Still Searching

Seven years after leading the Orlando Magic to the Finals, have we already seen the best of Dwight Howard?

Moke Hamilton

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Dwight Howard Still Searching

As the final minute on the clock ticked away, the fans in attendance were singing in unison.

The buzzer sounded.

The upset was complete.

In the end, it took all of only six games for Dwight Howard and his Orlando Magic to shock the NBA world. As LeBron James, Mo Williams, Zydrunas Ilgauskus and the rest of the 66-win Cleveland Cavaliers wondered what had become of their championship journey—as they wondered how and why it had ended so abruptly—Howard untucked his white jersey, found the game ball and walked around the court with his signature smile on full display.

The 23-year-old had just earned his third consecutive All-Star berth, and at that moment, as he embraced Hedo Turkoglu, Rashard Lewis and Rafer Alston, he knew that he was leading his team to the franchise’s first NBA Finals berth since 1995.

Bigger and better things seemed to be in store for Howard, Stan Van Gundy and the Magic team that had improbably used a blitzkrieg of three-point shots and stifling interior defense to send James home empty handed.

And back then—almost seven years ago—it was impossible to imagine that we had already seen Dwight Howard at his finest moment.

* * * * *

“I’m just looking forward to the challenge of playing in a tough Western conference and seeing what we’re made of,” Dwight Howard said.

“I think last year, we had an unbelievable season.”

And as we sit and watch and listen to Howard on October 1—the day he begins a championship journey for the 12th time in his career—he is obviously wiser and obviously a little bit older than his 2009 self.

His appearance, his tone and his humbled demeanor are all indicative of a universal truth about life in the National Basketball Association: moments often define careers.

It seems like just yesterday that Courtney Lee missed that critical layup at the buzzer of Game 2 of the 2009 NBA Finals. And as Howard addressed the media in Houston last week—almost seven years later—we can all only imagine how different life would be for him and his legacy if that shot had fallen.

Could Howard have found a way to lead his Magic past Kobe Bryant?

Would he ever have had an epic falling out with Van Gundy?

Would he have ultimately sought greener pastures?

We can never know for certain, but we could all certainly make an educated guess.

As Howard begins his 12th season, he is closing in on his 30th birthday now. The once lanky and scrawny kid is long gone. The wildcard that the Magic selected with the first overall pick back in 2004—the high school kid that the franchise opted to make its cornerstone over Emeka Okafor—is no longer here. What we see before us, instead, is just another player who has failed to live up to the mighty potential that we once saw in him.

Immaturity, indecision, injury—three words that, over the years, have come to define Howard quite well. InsideDwightHowardWhen the Lakers paid a king’s random for what ultimately ended up being just 76 games of a less-than-stellar version of Howard, general manager Mitch Kupchak did so believing that he was acquiring the league’s most dominant force. Since then, Howard has been anything but.

For general manager Daryl Morey, the decision to roll the dice on Howard was an easy one to make. Although James Harden had risen up to become one of the more improbable success stories this league had seen in some time, it takes three to tango in the mighty Western Conference. Despite what seemed to be a diminution in effectiveness, Howard still seemed to be the perfect complement to Harden. In flashes, that has seemed to hold true.

The truth, however, is that Harden was able to capably lead the Rockets toward the top of the Western Conference last season despite only having Howard for 41 games during the regular season. That the team was able to surprisingly find a recipe of success without Howard is a testament to Harden’s greatness as a player, his supporting cast’s ability to win basketball games and coach Kevin McHale’s chops as a game planner.

As we watch Howard and see only flashes of his 23-year-old self—as we watch him and see him appearing to be a step slower and his timing slightly off—we can only wonder what he and Harden could have produced had they been paired at the right time.

Certainly, it is that hope and those lofty expectations that Howard will carry into the regular season. Together, Morey and McHale know that a fully healthy Dwight Howard can help to carry the Rockets to heights not seen by the franchise in more than 20 years.

The only question we have now is whether or not Howard—this 30 year old version of him—has already shown us the best of him.

* * * * *

“I’m really looking forward to an unbelievable season,” Howard said to the assembled media in Houston.

“If we stay healthy, we focus everyday in practice on getting better, we have a great shot at winning the championship.”

Howard downplayed the questions about his impending free agency and the salary cap increases that will be forthcoming over the next two years.

Here and now, all that matters to Howard is becoming a better leader and having what he expects will be an unbelievable season. Although he may not have said so directly, like Chris Paul, Howard seems to know that he doesn’t have forever in this league. Howard himself believes that he can play 10 more years, but as he looks around, he sees the league getting younger, faster and more skilled. It cannot be lost upon Howard that, at this point, many would cite Blake Griffin, DeMarcus Cousins and Anthony Davis as being better big men than him. It also cannot be lost upon him that the defending champion Golden State Warriors seem to have youth on their side. The San Antonio Spurs have ensured that their championship window will remain ajar with Kawhi Leonard and LaMarcus Aldridge on board, and the Los Angeles Clippers—the team that the Rockets shocked last season—will be out for blood.

Howard seems to know that tomorrow is no longer promised.

“As the years go by, you don’t take any moment for granted,” he said. “I remember coming into the league and now, I’m 30 and it’s like man, this is my 12th season. Now, I’m seeing guys that are 20 and 21 and they’re just coming in, so I don’t take any moment for granted.”

Nor should he.

Almost seven years after Howard made his first and only trip to the NBA Finals, the hope for everyone affiliated with the Rockets organization is that we have not already seen Howard at his finest moment.

Sure, they have lost some talent, but with Ty Lawson sharing playmaking duties with Harden, and Howard feeling the best he has felt in a long time, he cannot help but to show his excitement for the coming season when asked about the front office acquiring Lawson.

“For me, he’s great,” Howard said. “A guy coming off the pick-and-roll, just throwing it up. He can penetrate and get to the basket and score. He just adds a dynamic to our team that I think we needed. I think it’s great for us.”

What would also be great for Harden, McHale and everyone that roots for the Rockets would be for Howard to turn back the clock.

Once upon a time, Dwight Howard seemed to have the keys to the NBA in his hands. No amount of weight seemed too great for his mighty shoulders. The unfortunate fact, though, is that in the National Basketball Association, if you find yourself still searching for something seven years after it was last seen, you are likely searching in vain.

Quietly, as he has escaped the same criticism as some of his peers—LeBron James, Chris Paul and Carmelo Anthony immediately come to mind—I am here to remind you that we once believed that Dwight Howard was on his way to immortal greatness, as well.

If his journey ended here and now, what would you say about him? What would you remember about him? Would you call him a disappointment? Would you label him as yet another player who was ultimately unable to fulfill the expectations we had?

It is difficult to argue with his accolades. Howard has been named the NBA Defensive Player of the Year thrice. He had led the league in rebounding five times and blocks two times. He has been named to the All-Star team eight times, the All-NBA first team five times and the All-Defensive first time four times.

Still, in it all, what Howard will ultimately be measured against and remembered by is the number zero—the amount of times he had been able to lead a team to the promise land. Fair or not, that is the mandate for Goliath, especially after he once seemed to have the NBA world at his feet.

And as Howard walked off of the podium having officially begun the 2015-16 title chase—closing in on his 30th birthday, with the weight of expectations and the lost opportunity of those 2009 NBA Finals driving him—he hopes that this can finally be his year.

In Houston, the ascent has begun, but with the Western Conference getting tougher by the day, it is only with the 2009 version of Howard that there will be sustained flight. Toward the celestials, the wiser Howard hopes he can help steer this Rocket ship.

With James Harden serving as captain and Howard hoping to simply be an effective co-pilot, here and now, the countdown begins.

Moke Hamilton is a Deputy Editor and Columnist for Basketball Insiders.

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Looking Toward The Draft: Power Forwards

Basketball Insiders continues their NBA Draft watch, this time with the power forwards.

David Yapkowitz

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We got some updated NBA draft news this week when the league announced that several key dates have been pushed back including the draft, the start of free agency and the beginning of the 2020-21 season.

The 2020 draft was originally scheduled for Oct. 16, but it will now likely occur sometime in November. Obviously, with the COVID-19 pandemic still wildly out of control in the United States, all of these potential deadlines are fluid and subject to change.

With that said, we’re continuing our position by position breakdown here at Basketball Insiders of some of the top 2020 draft prospects. We looked at the point guards and shooting guards last week, and this week we’re covering the small forwards and power forwards.

The power forward crop, like the draft overall, doesn’t appear to be as strong as recent years, that doesn’t mean there aren’t potential contributors and high-level NBA players available, as well as one who might just turn out to be a star-caliber player.

Onyeka Okongwu, USC – 19 years old

Okongwu is the player who just might develop into a star on some level. He was actually underrated in high school and was snubbed for a McDonald’s All-American selection his senior year. He established himself early on at USC as the team’s best player as a freshman and now appears to have turned some heads.

He’s been mentioned as a lottery pick and in some mock drafts, he’s top 4-5. He possesses a great all-around skill-set; he can score in the post, he can put the ball on the floor and attack and he can shoot. But perhaps his biggest attribute is his versatility on the defensive end. He’s got quick feet and mobility and can guard multiple positions.

Okongwu might actually play center in the NBA, especially in small-ball lineups, but he’s mostly played power forward and so he’ll probably see time there in the league. His skill-set fits perfectly with today’s game.

Obi Toppin, Dayton – 22 years old

Toppin is one of the older players in the draft, and in recent history, players that age tend to slip on draft boards. In Toppin’s case, it looks like the reverse might actually be true. He’s been projected as a lottery pick, and even going in the top 3.

He’s an incredibly athletic player who thrives in the open court. He looks like he’ll do well in an up-tempo offensive system that has capable playmakers who can find him in transition. He’s extremely active around the rim and he can finish strong. A decent shooter too, something he’ll need at the next level.

Toppin has the physical tools to be an effective defensive player, but that’s where the questions marks on him have been. In the NBA, he’s likely going to have to play and guard multiple positions. Whether or not he can adapt to that likely will answer the question as to what his ceiling can be.

Precious Achiuwa, Memphis – 20 years old

Achiuwa is another intriguing prospect. this writer actually got to watch him play in person while he was in high school and he was very impressive. He looked like a man among boys. He’s projected to be a late lottery pick.

He has an NBA-ready body and he’s got some toughness around the rim and in the paint. He was a double-double threat during his one season at Memphis and his knack for rebounding is something that should translate to the NBA. He’s a very good defender too, in particular, as a rim protector. He’s very quick and has the ability to guard multiple positions.

One of the main knocks on Achiuwa is his shooting ability. He didn’t shoot that well in college and power forwards being able to space the floor is almost a requirement in today’s NBA game. It’s something he can certainly work on and improve on though.

Honorable Mentions:
Paul Reed, DePaul – 21 years old
Xavier Tillman, Michigan State – 21 years old
Killian Tillie, Gonzaga – 22 years old

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Looking Toward the Draft: Small Forwards

Basketball Insiders’ examination of the 2020 draft class continues with a look at the small forwards.

Drew Maresca

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It was announced on Wednesday that the NBA Draft would be delayed from Oct. 16 to Nov. 18. The rationale is that the extra month gives the league and its players association more time to negotiate changes to the CBA. It also grants teams additional time to procure information on prospects and allows the NBA to establish regional virtual combines. But nothing is set in stone.

Still, draft prep must continue. This year’s draft class has more question marks than usual – which was complicated by the cancellation of the NCAA tournament (along with the NIT and a number of conference tournaments). There are incredibly skilled offensive players with limited offensive upside and jaw-droppingly talented defenders with incomplete offensive packages. But if (recent) history serves as a guide, there will be a few guys who make an immediate impact – and some of them very well could be small forwards.

The small forward position is key for the modern NBA. Want proof? Survey the league and you’ll find that most – if not all – contenders have an elite small forward – Milwaukee, Los Angeles (both), Boston, Miami, Toronto.

But the list of can’t miss small forward prospects feels smaller than usual. Scanning the numerous legitimate mock drafts (including our own by Steve Kyler), it becomes apparent that we lack a consensus on which small forwards will be selected (and in what order) after the top 3 or 4. Can any of them grow into a star? Maybe. Maybe not. But before we get too far ahead of ourselves, let’s identify what the top few bring to the table.

Deni Avdija, Israel – 19 years old

Avdija is a relatively well-rounded prospect who’s played professionally since he was 16. He boasts good height (6-foot-9) and uses it effectively to shoot over and pass around opposing defenses. Further, Avdija is an exceptional playmaker and he’s incredibly confident, enabling him to take chances many players would be apprehensive trying. Avdija is a high-IQ player. And what’s more, he’s a surprisingly strong defender. His height and above-average athleticism allow him to block shots, and he’s more physical than you’d expect him to be.

But there are drawbacks to Avdija, too. His main issue is around shooting. Avdija shot only 28% in the EuroLeague last season, and he shot only 60% from the free-throw line. Further, while he’s a decent athlete, he’ll struggle to secure a role in the NBA. He’s going to need to add speed to stay with modern wings, and he’ll also have to bulk up to bang with power forwards.

Still, Avdija’s upside is alluring. He’s only 19, and his smarts, confidence and grittiness should provide him cover for much of his rookie season. Avdija should be the first small forward off of the board.

Isaac Okoro, Auburn – 19 years old

Avdija might be the flashier name currently, but Okoro will give him a run for his money in terms of which small forward is first off the board. Okoro is built like a traditional NBA wing; he’s 6-foot-6 with good strength packed in his muscular frame (215 lbs). Okoro finishes well around the rim and he converts well through contact. He’s an exceptional athlete who excels catching the ball on the move. Like Avdija, Okoro has the poise and composure of a more experienced player. Also, like Avdija, Okoro looked the part of a high IQ player in his lone season at Auburn.

And while all that is great, the main allure of Okoro is his defense. He’s a fairly advanced defender given his age, and his athleticism and timing make him an effective weak side help defender.

While Okoro’s raw abilities are exquisite, his refined offensive skills leave something to be desired. Okoro shot 28 percent on three-point field goals and he struggled from the free-throw line (67.2 percent). His mid-range jump shot also needs work, and he struggles in isolation situations.

If Okoro can hone his offensive game, he could grow into an All-Star. He has the ability to guard multiple positions, and his strength and athleticism give him a leg up on most prospects. But even if he doesn’t become an All-Star, he possesses a fairly high floor given his defensive abilities — and the guy definitely fills the state sheet (12.9 points, 4.4 rebounds, 2.0 assists, .9 steals and .9 blocks). He has lockdown defender potential and he’ll put his stamp on the game beginning on night one.

Devin Vassell, Florida State – 20 years old

Vassell played two seasons at Florida State, but he came into his own in his Sophomore season. He averaged 12.7 points, 5.1 rebounds, 1.6 assists, 1.4 steals and 1.0 blocks per game. He shot a more than respectable 41.5% on three-point attempts, and he demonstrated a strong stroke from the free-throw line (73.8 percent) and on two-point field goal attempts (53.2).

Vassell is an extremely athletic leaper, who can rise up for a highlight dunk and sprint down the floor with ease. He has good body control and demonstrated a strong mid-range game, especially his step-back jump shot. But Vassell must generate more free throws through decisive moves to the hoop, which would be bolstered by a more muscular frame. Additionally, he must improve his ball-handling to get more from isolations.

Vassell will have an adjustment period in terms of scoring the ball at the next level. Fortunately, his defense and shooting should get him by. If he can bulk up and improve his handling, Vassell could grow into a serious player.

Aaron Nesmith, Vanderbilt – 20 years old

Nesmith probably has a lower floor than any of the other top small forward prospects given that he’ll be 21 by the draft. Still, he looked quite good in his Junior year, averaging 23 points, 4.9 rebounds and 1.4 steals per game on a scorching 52.2 percent shooting from deep. Nesmith is an incredibly gifted shooter who has impressive range. His ability to catch-and-shoot and create space with fakes makes him a promising prospect – for the right team.

Nesmith is a high IQ player who uses his smarts on the defensive end. He’s also quite strong, can get buckets in the open floor and demonstrates above average ball-handling skills, as long as he’s not taking the ball to the hoop.

But there are inherent limitations in Nesmith’s game. He’s doesn’t create for his teammates too effectively and he turns the ball over more frequently than one would like with. Further, Nesmith is plagued by robotic movements that limit his athleticism. His ball-handling breaks down when taking the ball to the rack – something he’ll certainly have to work on in the NBA if he wants to be a versatile scoring threat against the bigger and stronger competition.

Still, Nesmith’s positives give him an excellent chance at being selected in the first round. His range alone will intrigue teams in need of a shooter.

Honorable Mentions:

Saddiq Bey, Villanova – 21 years old

Jaden McDaniels, Washington – 19 years old

Robert Woodard II, Mississippi State – 20 years old

With the uncertainty around small forward prospects, expect to see a revolving door of names enter the discussion after the first four wing prospects are off the board prior to Nov. 16 – assuming the draft is held then. But regardless of how you have them ranked, all of the aforementioned prospects have question marks. But all have had far more time to improve than they would have in years’ past. Let’s hope that shows come next season.

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NBA

NBA Daily: Opposite Plotlines for Today’s Matchups

With the two matchups going on today, Matt John examines the two teams who could be in the most trouble because of one of their individual stars for opposite reasons.

Matt John

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The second round of the NBA playoffs was hyped up to be one of the most entertaining we’ve had in years. So far, they haven’t fallen short of expectations. We knew that Houston and Los Angeles’ battle of opposite philosophies would make for some twists and turns. We knew that Boston and Toronto would duke it out in an Atlantic Division showdown. We knew that Miami would push Milwaukee to new heights. We didn’t really know if the Nuggets would give the Clippers a good series, but the fact that they have so far has made an intense postseason all the more gripping.

Anyway, today we’re getting two games from two series in completely opposite places. The Lakers and the Rockets will face off for the series lead, while the HEAT will try to finish off the Bucks once and for all. Below, we’re going to focus on two teams who have an individual star that either may be more flawed than we thought or one that may not be as flawed as we thought.

Bucks vs. HEAT: Giannis is great and all, but…

We all pretty much knew this was going to be a good series. We did not expect this.

The buzz surrounding Bucks v. HEAT was that Miami was going to make Milwaukee earn every win they got in this series. If that was the plan, then Miami has failed miserably, because until Khris Middleton went supernova on them on Sunday, Milwaukee had come up terribly short.

Let’s first give Miami the credit that they are due and more. With Bam Adebayo and Jimmy Butler alone, Miami was going to be a tough matchup for Milwaukee – but to see the Bucks all but roll over in this series is an unpleasant sight. Acquiring Jae Crowder and Andre Iguodala has paid huge dividends and it’s showing. There are other factors involved, but Miami’s defensive efforts have limited Giannis to 21.8 points a game and that’s played a role in the HEAT being in the driver’s seat of this series.

Speaking of Giannis Antetokounmpo, this series has not been a good look for the Defensive Player of the Year. Especially since it looks like his second consecutive MVP (presumably) is right around the corner. So, to see both him and Milwaukee, once an unstoppable force without an immovable object in sight, get stopped by a sturdy but not immovable squad is saddening.

Nearly a year ago, Basketball Insiders compared these current Bucks to the Dwight Howard-led Orlando Magic from the late-2000’s/early 2010’s. To oversimplify things, both were contenders led by a superstar with a rare physique that made them tough to stop. To put the superstar in the best position, they surrounded them with playmakers and three-point shooters.

While the teams’ roster constructions weren’t exactly the same, their strengths as a team certainly were. Now we’re seeing the Bucks’ flaws just as we did the Magic 10 years ago. If you have the personnel to make the lone superstar uncomfortable, the team doesn’t function as well.

Giannis is near impossible to stop, but the one major flaw is that if you take away his ability to drive and force him into a jumper, he loses his rhythm. Even if his shot is on – never a guarantee – his opponents will let him beat them that way until he makes them pay. Hardly any team can pick on this, but the HEAT are one of them, and now they’re one win away from their first Eastern Conference Finals since LeBron James took his talents out of South Beach.

This ultimately is what puts Antetokounmpo below the likes of LeBron James and Kawhi Leonard for now. Those guys are rare physical specimens like him, but their elite games don’t revolve entirely around their natural gifts as he does or Dwight did. At 25 years old, there’s plenty of time for him to change that and, for all we know, he will, but to see him struggle at a time when the conference was supposed to run through him has ignited tons of questions.

Milwaukee’s technically not out yet, but they’ve shown their mortality against Miami. If this really is it for them, then they’ve got to find a quick fix for this problem because if they don’t, then the unspeakable may happen.

Lakers vs. Rockets: Westbrook has been bad and all but…

Shaking off the rust and recovering from a balky knee would be tough for anyone. For Russell Westbrook, it’s killing his productivity and, in turn, the Rockets’ playoff chances. He’s averaging 15.6 points on 39/16/47 splits with a most recent 10-point, 4-of-15 effort from the field which included seven turnovers and air balling wide-open threes sticking out like a sore thumb.

It also doesn’t help that he’s playing the Lakers of all teams. When Westbrook has been in, the Lakers have taken advantage of his shortcomings offensively and it shows both on the court and the stat line.

Most of Westbrook’s damage is hurting Houston on the offensive end. With the All-Star guard in the game, Houston is minus-13.7 with him on the court, the worst offensive rating on the team. The 12 turnovers he’s coughed up in this series probably have something to do with that.

With Westbrook’s struggles and his predecessor Chris Paul coming off of his best individual season since 2016, this, of course, has led to many second-guessing the swap last summer. Or let’s rephrase that: People have been second-guessing that trade since the moment it was announced and, in light of recent events, they’re piling on now more than ever.

Maybe they’re right. Even after playing in the NBA for over a decade now, Westbrook still hasn’t proven that he can control himself enough to reach his potential as a team player. We’ve seen glimpses. On the other hand, Paul showed that he can still pick apart defenses while holding his own on that end.

But replacing Paul with Westbrook was Harden’s idea. He didn’t want to play with Paul anymore and chose to play with one of his closest friends. You may think that the better fit is what’s best for the team, but we’ve seen the damage that can happen when your team’s best players have friction with one another. It hurt Utah this season. It hurt Boston last season. It destroyed the Lakers back in 2013. There’s no telling what it could have done to Houston this season.

Besides, we know that as bad as Westbrook has been, he’s capable of being better. Not a knockdown shooter, not even an efficient scorer, but he has done better in the past when the focus was on him. The more days he takes to shake off the rust from his knee, the more optimistic the Rockets ought to be.

The Rockets have to take the glass-half-full on this one because they don’t really have a choice otherwise.

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