Weekly Countdown: NBA déjà vu
"A season for the ages," commissioner
Isn't that how Howard has been viewed -- as being one level below
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.
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.
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
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
Magic was always surrounded by Hall of Fame talent --
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
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.
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.
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 (
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
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.
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.
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.
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
"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
"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."
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
This time the Wizards are shopping their pick while asking teams to take on
"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
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.