Weekly Countdown: NBA déjà vu

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5. Introducing Dwight Howard in the role of Hakeem Olajuwon, circa 1985-86. Though he would lead the Rockets to a pair of championships in the latter half of his 18-year career, Olajuwon, throughout the 1980s, was a secondary star to Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, Isiah Thomas and Michael Jordan.

Isn't that how Howard has been viewed -- as being one level below LeBron James, Kobe Bryant and Dwyane Wade?

Both Olajuwon and Howard were 23 when they drove their teams surprisingly to the NBA Finals. At this stage, Howard will hope that he deviates from the Dream's track, for Olajuwon spent the next seven years losing in the preliminary rounds of the playoffs (including one season when his Rockets failed to make the playoffs). Olajuwon then exploited Jordan's brief retirement from the Bulls to win his back-to-back titles, in addition to a league MVP award in 1993-94.

The trick for Howard is going to be overcoming the presence of Kobe and/or LeBron. Will Howard -- like Olajuwon -- have to wait until his 30s to return to and win a Finals? To get there, he must develop the same kind of low-post footwork that enabled Olajuwon to respond to the variety of defenses aimed his way, and the Magic must continue to develop a formula that will not only make the most of Howard's talents but also create the inside-out teamwork that can nullify the great one-on-one talents of Kobe and LeBron. Their current formula worked against the Cavaliers this postseason, but Cleveland will surely improve its roster over the next two years with the goal of beating Orlando.

4. Chris Paul as Isiah Thomas, 1985-86. When Thomas was 24, his young Pistons appeared to be headed in reverse: One year after a second-round series in which they took the Celtics to six games, the Pistons were drummed out of the first round 3-1 by the Hawks.

Paul can surely relate: Now 24 himself, Paul and the Hornets -- who appeared so promising while challenging San Antonio in the conference semifinals last year -- were humiliated in a 4-1 opening-round loss to the Nuggets. Paul is filling the role created by Thomas two decades ago as the league's tiniest and toughest fighter. Much like Isiah, the 6-foot Paul must try to compete harder than Kobe or LeBron to overcome his size.

The cost of winning was excruciating for Thomas, whose high-strung competitive nature cost him friendships among his fellow stars. So far, Paul has succeeded in protecting his relationships with LeBron and other stars separate from his desire to kill their teams.

More to the point is this issue: Will Paul find championship success -- as Thomas did -- by staying with the same franchise throughout his career? The answer, unfortunately, is no.

3. Dwyane Wade as Larry Bird, 1982-83. That was the year when the Bucks upset the 26-year-old Bird in the first round. Afterward, he took responsibility for the loss and vowed to work harder over the summer, and the next season he led the Celtics to an NBA Finals victory over Magic's Lakers.

Though Wade, too, is coming off a disappointing first-round playoff loss to Atlanta, his career with Miami has followed a different track than Bird's. Now 27, Wade has led the Heat to its lone championship with a virtuoso performance in the Finals. Since the quick breakup of that veteran 2005-06 Miami team, Wade hasn't enjoyed anything like the roster support that Bird received from Kevin McHale, Robert Parish and Dennis Johnson. And, of course, Wade is 5 inches shorter than Bird while playing a more athletic, above-the-rim style than Bird ever could imagine.

But other similarities are strong. With his three championships, Bird went down as the No. 3 star of his generation behind Jordan (six) and Magic (five). Unless Pat Riley can quickly surround Wade with a couple of All-Stars, it appears that Wade is headed for the same destiny behind Kobe and LeBron -- which is nothing to be ashamed of. The fear is that his all-out style will shorten his career, much as Bird's similar approach forced him to retire with back problems at age 35 while sidelining him from 142 games over his last four seasons. In terms of charisma and his relative status at the top of the league, Wade is his generation's Bird.

2. LeBron James as Magic Johnson, 1984-85. It is no easy thing to compare James to one player because he does so many things at a high level. But in his approach he is closest to Magic. LeBron views himself as a creative playmaker more so than a finisher. In terms of height, passing skills and vision for the game, he is his generation's Magic. Those attributes are augmented by athleticism and scoring skills that Magic neither had nor needed on his great Lakers teams.

Magic was always surrounded by Hall of Fame talent -- Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, James Worthy and Bob McAdoo toward the end of his career -- while James has yet to play with a teammate anywhere close to that level; Byron Scott was a more effective player for the Lakers than anyone who has yet teamed with James in Cleveland. The fear of losing James to free agency in 2010 has led to discussions of trading for Shaquille O'Neal in the last year of his contract, which would then enable Cleveland to apply cap space in pursuit of a max complementary star like Joe Johnson next summer.

Whether James re-signs in Cleveland or joins the Knicks next summer, this much I can guarantee you: He will succeed in recruiting a star like Johnson or Chris Bosh to come play with him. Players throughout the NBA are drawn to LeBron. He has gone out of his way to be accessible and accepted by his fellow Cavaliers in Cleveland, and before the last All-Star Game he bought Steuben Glass crystal keepsakes that were inscribed for each of his Eastern Conference teammates. In his relationships with other players on and off the court, he is very much like Magic.

In the 1984 Finals, Magic was renamed (briefly) as Tragic Johnson after the Lakers' surprising loss to Bird's Celtics, and he devoted himself to learning from those mistakes to reclaim the championship the following year on Boston's home floor. While James shares in Magic's showmanship and the way he carries himself, he was in such a funk following Cleveland's surprising conference finals loss to Orlando that he didn't shake hands to congratulate the Magic players or give an interview after Game 6. It's hard to see how James could have done anything more statistically while producing 35.3 points, 7.3 assists and 9.1 rebounds per game in the Orlando series, and yet there surely are lessons for him to apply from that loss.

James has been on the verge of winning it all for the last three years. When he is teamed with Johnson, Bosh or someone of that high standard, his Magic-like skills will flourish and the championships will come.

1. Kobe Bryant as Michael Jordan, 1990-91. Following the season when Jordan won his first championship, against Magic's Lakers, all of the criticisms -- that he was too much the scorer, too demanding and too self-absorbed -- vanished. So it is now for Bryant, who led the Lakers in both scoring and assists in the Finals while erasing the lifelong complaint that he didn't have it in him to relate to teammates in a meaningful way.

We've been making comparisons of behavior and drive between Jordan and Bryant for a decade now, so there's no need here to revisit what everyone knows. But here's the interesting dynamic: Jordan, who played three seasons in college, was 33 when he won his fourth championship. Bryant, who jumped from high school to the NBA, has won four and he will be 31 going into next season. Does Kobe have two or three more titles in him?

This is the kind of race Bryant always imagined for himself, taking on the record of the champion against whom he has always been measured. No one should think that Bryant will relax now that he has proved he can win without Shaq. The goal has always been much greater than that.

4. Yes, Kobe is great. But let's be honest, this was an inferior Finals matchup. Compare the Magic to the Celtics of the '80s, the Knicks, Pistons, Rockets and Jazz of the '90s, or even the Celtics of '08, and you get a distinct feeling that the degree of difficulty for this title was a little lower than MJ's six or Kareem's and Magic's five. One wonders how this Lakers team would have fared against a healthy Yao Ming or a Spurs team with a healthy Manu Ginobili, especially because Kobe seemed to lose his closing magic as the playoffs wore on. Still, Kobe has earned the right to be on the same plane as Tim Duncan and Shaq. -- Ed Finn, San Francisco

Kobe is the definite second fiddle on three of his title teams, yet is mentioned in the same breath as MJ, et al. A better comparison would be to Scottie Pippen, who won six as a second fiddle. If Kobe can win two more as The Man for the Lakers, then, yeah, maybe move him into Duncan's range. Until then, he doesn't belong up there with the other players on your list of star NBA champions.-- Rusty, Cincinnati

Why isn't Scottie Pippen on your list of modern NBA champions? If your reason is "second banana," then Kobe should count as one title (instead of four) and Shaq should count as three (instead of four).-- Miguel, Manila, Philippines

The Pippen comparisons don't work because Pippen never led a team to the championship as Bryant did this season with the Lakers. Even when he was the No. 2 option to Shaq, Bryant was one of the best in the league at creating his own shot, and no one over the last decade has made more big plays in the last minute than Bryant. To watch him over the years was to realize that he was in a different class than Pippen, and this championship provided the last word on the subject.

Pippen was a highly versatile champion, and I don't think I'm denigrating him by saying that Bryant plays to a higher tier. If you were offered the choice of building a championship team around either Bryant or Pippen, most people would choose Bryant.

But Ed from San Francisco raises an interesting point. This year's postseason tournament -- as pointed out here many times -- was decimated by injuries to the Celtics (Kevin Garnett), Spurs (Ginobili), Rockets (Tracy McGrady and Yao) and Magic (Jameer Nelson). The only contender that didn't have a reasonable excuse was the Cavaliers. Even the Lakers had to go through the second half of the season without starting center Andrew Bynum, who, throughout the playoffs, was clearly diminished by his midseason knee injury. While they didn't face the toughest competition, the Lakers had to overcome challenges within their team and they should be recognized for that.

I have to disagree with Ed on the degree of difficulty of Jordan's six championships. Once the Bulls beat the defending champion Pistons in the 1991 playoffs, did they ever face another "great" team during their extended championship run? The point can be made that the Bulls prevented a lot of rival contenders from fulfilling themselves. But I've always thought those Bulls teams never had to deal with the kind of crowded landscape that challenged Magic's Lakers, Larry's Celtics or Isiah's Pistons. In the '80s, you also had Julius Erving's 76ers, Bob Lanier's Bucks and Dominique Wilkins' Hawks. It's never easy to win a championship, but let's say it was more difficult to prevail in the '80s than in the '90s.

3. Does this mean that we now need to start questioning how good Shaq was? Having won four NBA titles paired with the game's premier guards is nice, but what about the failures with Penny Hardaway (a stud in the league at the time) and Steve Nash? Everybody has said this Lakers team was not one for the ages, yet Kobe won. Do we now need to discuss that Shaq hasn't won with anything less than a Hall of Fame wingman? Or is Shaq just too likable?-- Ian Graham, Calgary, Canada

Shaq was MVP of all three of his NBA Finals with the Lakers, and at his peak he was the dominant force in basketball. There can be no revising either of those facts.

2. Would you put Derek Fisher in Robert Horry's class as an all-time great role player?-- Cooper, New Haven, Conn.

Fisher refused to put himself in that class, and he's right -- Horry won seven championships, which may earn him a place in the Hall of Fame someday. (I think it should.) Fisher will be remembered long beyond his retirement as a role player who shot better than most NBA stars when the biggest games were in doubt.

1. I've read your work for years, but I was surprised, and touched, to see your note of condolence to the family of Stephen T. Johns. His death does make this a sad day, but it's good to see him remembered in unexpected places. My heart goes out to his family, and to everyone who was at the museum that day. What a terrible tragedy. Thank you for noting it.-- Jonahan, Queens, N.Y.

Thank you for the note about the guard killed at the Holocaust Memorial. Although he may never have expected to face that situation, he was prepared for it, and when the moment came his actions without a doubt saved lives.-- Graham Powell, Fort Worth, Texas

Thank you for putting everything into perspective with the death of Mr. Johns. I didn't know him, but your story put it home of a guy doing his job and paying the ultimate sacrifice for others. Thank you.-- Tim Wade, Lakewood, Wash.

Thanks sincerely to all of you who wrote.

This is a draft dominated by small players, with an emphasis on point guards. Here are three of the stronger opinions I've heard while speaking with a variety of league GMs, scouts and coaches this week.

3. On Brandon Jennings. The 19-year-old was viewed as a top-five pick earlier this season, but now he may not go in the lottery. "He has been having pretty good workouts," an Eastern team executive said, "but I'm not a big fan."

Jennings spent this season -- the equivalent of his freshman year of college -- in Italy with the Euroleague club Lottomatica of Rome.

"It's a good idea to develop your game overseas," the executive said, "but the lesson is that he should have gone to another team."

In other words, Jennings might have done better to play for a smaller club that was practiced in developing young talent. Instead, he averaged only 17 minutes in 27 games for Rome in the Italian league.

"He still needs to learn the game," said the exec, repeating a concern I've heard from others around the league. "I think Sebastian Telfair is a good comparison to him."

2. On Stephen Curry. One trusted scout confides that the 6-foot-3 Davidson junior isn't explosive enough athletically or dominant enough physically to ultimately challenge the best point guards in the league.

"I disagree,'' a league executive said. "He is a great shooter with a lightning-quick release. He's not a great player, but I look at him as being like Mike Bibby on the Kings. This kid is a better player -- bigger and longer -- than Bibby was coming into the draft. Remember when Mike Bibby was with Vancouver [the Grizzlies], he wasn't a great player. But when he he got to a good team in Sacramento and he was playing with other good players, all of a sudden he became a star.

"There's nothing Mike Bibby can do that this guy can't do. I think if you put Curry on a good team, you'll see him become at least as good as Mike Bibby was with those Sacramento teams."

1. On Tyreke Evans. A few league experts believe the 6-5 freshman from Memphis could be the top point guard -- and the second-best player overall -- in the draft. "He isn't very explosive, he doesn't have the vertical hops that you see in guys like Dwyane Wade -- he's a very strong, low-to-the-ground diesel type," an NBA head coach said. "But Evans has got everything else: strength, good size, a 2-guard with point-guard skills. He has more positives than just about everyone but Blake Griffin."

Said another league evaluator: "I think he's probably the best guard in the draft. He's the most ready to play physically and he's exceptionally gifted, the top athlete among point guards in draft. He'll be a good point guard along the lines of Micheal Ray Richardson, the type of player who rebounds it and passes it, and he'll be able to get to the basket with anybody. The way the league is going with the perimeter wide open, he'll be a tough cover. People may question his shot, but he'll shoot it well enough that you'll have to guard him."

2. Dallas Mavericks. They're currently choosing at No. 22, but it would surprise no one to see the Mavericks trade for the No. 5 pick held by Washington. In 2004, the Mavs made a similar deal with the Wizards, sending them Antawn Jamison in exchange for the rights to Devin Harris at No. 5.

This time the Wizards are shopping their pick while asking teams to take on Etan Thomas.' salary.

"They're one team that will keep paying the luxury tax," a rival team president said of Dallas.

The Mavericks went into the summer promising to get longer and more athletic. If they were to trade up for No. 5, another team executive predicts Dallas would use the pick on the 6-10 Jordan Hill.

1. Portland Trail Blazers. They're picking No. 24, but no one expects them to stay put. Owner Paul Allen loves the draft, and GM Kevin Pritchard has made a winning habit of trading for -- and buying -- picks. Pritchard has a number of attractive young players on reasonable contracts -- such as Travis Outlaw, Sergio Rodriguez and Nicolas Batum -- who could be exchanged for a pick in the lottery. The Blazers need scoring on the wing and they could be in the market for a point guard, though Jerryd Bayless remains a contender to play more minutes at the point next season alongside Brandon Roy.

1. Bob Delaney. He missed working the NBA Finals for the first time in nine years while rehabbing upward of four hours daily to recover from a leg injury. He is expected to be back on the court for training camp next season, but in the meantime Delaney has been busy in other venues. His autiobiography, Covert: My Years Infiltrating the Mob, has been re-released in paperback, and the film rights have been optioned by a production company in Los Angeles. Ron Shelton (responsible for Bull Durham, White Men Can't Jump and Tin Cup) is writing the script and will direct the film.

In addition, Delaney is working with the Wounded Warrior Project in helping veterans returning from the Middle East to deal with post-traumatic stress. Delaney knows something about this: Having spent three years infiltrating the mob as an undercover New Jersey state trooper, he learned to overcome stress while launching his current career as a referee.

"The body does not know the theater,'' Delaney said. "It just knows the stress, whether you're doing undercover work as I was, or you're a soldier in Iraq, or you're a police officer who witnessed a horrible crime, or you're the victims of a horrible crime."

"I explain it as being like an earthquake. The earthquake is the main event, but it's the tremors and aftershocks that go on for days, weeks, months later -- they pose as much danger as the main event.''

Delaney was scheduled to share his story Friday at a Basketball Hall of Fame event attended by troopers from at least five Northeastern states.

"I went to basketball to get me through the feelings I was having,'' he said. "I tell people to find your passion, find something that gives you inner peace.''

That he finds inner peace from refereeing -- from being booed and second-guessed -- is yet another of the mysteries of life.