The saga of Orlando center Dwight Howard is over, at least for the rest of the season. The league’s best rebounder, who’s been the subject of trade rumors all year long, agreed to waive his opt-out rights just before the trade deadline on Thursday afternoon. Howard will still be eligible for free agency after the 2013 season and we can undoubtedly do this all over again, but for now it’s about basketball in Orlando. It’s a great thing for the Magic, who have solidified the #3 spot in the East since the All-Star break and has to be given at least a puncher’s chance of upending Chicago or Miami in the playoffs (though beating both, as it would take to get to the Finals, is a huge longshot). But it’s an even better thing for basketball fans. This has been the most tiring drama display I can recall seeing in sports.
Unlike a lot of dramas, this one wasn’t media-driven. Howard brought it all on himself, constantly calling attention to himself with talk of where he’d like to be play and be willing to be traded. ESPN’s Tony Kornheiser summed it up best earlier this week when asked by co-host Michael Wilbon what a likely outcome of the whole scenario was. “Me putting a pitchfork in my head, that’s a likely outcome,” Kornheiser told the audience of Pardon The Interruption. Yes, it really was that tiresome. Now we can just focus on whether Howard, point guard Jameer Nelson and the rest of Orlando can gain steam as we head to the playoffs at the end of April.
Howard staying in Orlando was the one move that really affected the top of the standings in either conference. The bigger moves came by teams looking to push their way into the field. Houston is locked in a tough fight for survival in the West, up two games to make it. But they lost point guard Kyle Lowry and without a move, Kevin McHale’s team would have withered on the vine in the ruthlessly competitive West. The Rockets acquired veteran Derek Fisher from the Los Angeles Lakers and big man Marcus Camby from Portland. The guess here is that the vets—especially Fisher, who was a true “knows how to win” kind of player as Kobe’s foil in LA, help the Rockets make the playoffs.
Houston’s situation becomes stronger when you consider the horrible luck that Minnesota, the most likely team to come from the outside and take a playoff berth, ran into. Point guard Ricky Rubio, the brilliant passer who turned the Timberwolves into the team Indiana Pacers GM and former Boston Celtics legend Larry Bird called his favorite to watch, was lost for the season with an ACL injury. Minnesota still has Kevin Love and Derrick Williams, but if they make the playoffs now it won’t be at Houston’s expense. It would be at Denver’s, who’s currently tied with the Rockets for the final two berths, but traded center Nene Hilario to Washington. I don’t see how the Nuggets really upgraded themselves, so from here it looks like the Rockets will get at least the #7 spot (Dallas is a ½ game ahead at #6, and then there’s a bit of jump to #5 where the Clippers are sitting). The final spot is anyone’s guess between wounded Minnesota, decimated Denver, undermanned Utah or aging Phoenix. I’m pulling for the Wolves and they can make it without Rubio, but their chances of giving Oklahoma City a serious run for their money are gone thanks to the injury.
The Lin-Sanity craze is gone in New York, as the Knicks fell apart as soon as Carmelo Anthony came back in the lineup. Some will see cause-and-effect. Others will correctly point out that of lot of the Knicks’ wins with Lin came against weaker teams and Melo’s return coincided with the schedule getting tougher. Whatever the reason it cost Mike D’Antoni the coaching job and assistant Mike Woodson is the interim man. New York has slipped behind Milwaukee for the final playoff berth. Woodson did a decent job in Atlanta, and as one who had a nice college career playing for Bob Knight’s Indiana teams in the early 1980s, I respect him and wish him well. But he didn’t have to deal with egos in Atlanta getting in the way of a team concept. We’re still wondering if Melo and Amare Stoudamire can really buy into such an idea.
While New York burns, Milwaukee’s making some moves. The Bucks traded injured center Andrew Bogut to Golden State and got prolific scoring guard Monta Ellis in return. Milwaukee will be very small in the backcourt with Brandon Jennings joining Ellis, and no one will accuse them of being a lockdown defensive unit, but with that backcourt and Drew Gooden and Ersan Ilyasova up front, they can beat out the Knicks and make the playoff. The precondition to that is New York must stay dysfunctional, but that’s a reasonable bet, and if nothing else, the #8 seed is no longer the Knicks’ worst-case scenario.
And in the season-long battle between Chicago and Miami for the top seed in the East and the best record in the NBA, the Bulls got a big home win on Wednesday night over the Heat. I had a chance to watch that game before the flood of NCAA Tournament action began the following afternoon, and ESPN analyst Jon Barry was spot-on in ripping Miami’s intensity on a night when Derrick Rose was not in uniform. That the Bulls can keep the best record in the game while still making sure Rose gets rest for his groin and back is a tribute to the team’s depth and the coaching of Tom Thibodeau. Miami’s still only two back in the loss column, but we have to note they are also behind Oklahoma City, something that could be decisive if a LeBron-Durant Finals awaits.