|Orlando circa 1996 couldn't hold Shaq, but the Magic hope to keep their star center this time. (Getty Images)|
The push is on in Orlando to persuade Dwight Howard to stay, and at the center of it this week was Rich DeVos. The respected, 85-year-old Magic owner sent a strong message to his All-Star center by making a rare trip from Michigan to visit the Magic locker room in a wheelchair.
This powerful image, DeVos at Amway Center for the Magic's 102-89 victory over the Heat on Wednesday night, was the symbolic backdrop for a night he hoped would serve as a reminder to Howard that he's where he belongs -- where he should stay.
"We love him, and he respects us, so we talk," DeVos told reporters Wednesday night. "When you've lived as long as I've lived, you see things from a bigger lens, and you try and share that with the young guys, including being patient. ... You have to move in life, but the loyalty you develop in a community is always remembered. But if you leave, you don't pick it up in the next town. It's not an add-on, you know, because you lose what you had."
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This has become a collision of conflicting personal crusades: Howard, who has the itch for greener pastures, a bigger stage and global marketing opportunities, is being pulled hard in those directions. For DeVos, it is about more than that. It's about leaving the franchise he built, and the palatial arena that was built for it -- built for Howard -- in good standing. And it's about avenging a perceived misstep that contributed to the Magic's original franchise center leaving for the same things Howard is seeking.
Way back when, in the summer of 1996, DeVos had a conversation with Shaquille O'Neal, who like Howard had been making noise about leaving for a bigger market. DeVos told O'Neal that he wanted him to stay, but that he was not going to overpay. If O'Neal wanted to be in Orlando, DeVos wanted it to be for reasons other than money. He wanted O'Neal to pick Orlando first, to proclaim his loyalty to the Magic. All Shaq had to do was say the word, and DeVos would've paid up.
But Shaq being Shaq, and having one giant foot out the door already, he saw this as a convenient excuse to step with the other foot too. Years later, in his own revisionist history, O'Neal would complain about DeVos low-balling him. Did DeVos' tough stance, the negotiating acumen of a shrewd businessman trying to protect his investment, directly result in O'Neal leaving? For all practical matters, no -- O'Neal almost certainly was leaving anyway. But you can grasp how important this is to DeVos, how badly he wants to avoid a repeat.
"We want to win," DeVos said. "We all want to win, OK? You can't change anything until he says he's going to stay."
And by change anything, DeVos means a trade that would give Howard a second All-Star in Orlando, the piece he needs to win a championship there. (In my humble view, Steve Nash would do the trick.) But such a move can't be made blindly. Just as any team trading for Howard by March 15 needs assurances that he'll re-sign there in the summer, so do the Magic need Howard's word that if they pony up to help him, he'll return the favor by committing to them.
Which brings us to the latest: What does Howard really want -- and not want -- and what is Orlando going to do about it?
Recent reporting about Howard's negative views on the Lakers were over the top, and Kobe Bryant denies warning Howard that if he were traded to the Lakers, it would never be Howard's team as long as No. 24 was still lacing them up. I asked Bryant directly about this, and he said, "I didn't say any of that ___. Why would I need to say that? That's childish stuff."
As for whether Kobe and Dwight have connected in some fashion, at least through an intermediary, it's clear they have. What was said in those conversations is "none of your business," I was told by someone privy to them. But the Kobe-said/Dwight-said aspect of this is merely a diversion from the real issues: Will the Magic buckle under the pressure and trade him by the deadline, and what does Howard really think about playing for the Lakers?
While Howard's camp has not officially removed the Lakers from his three-team list, which also includes the Nets and Mavericks, a person with knowledge of the All-Star center's thinking told me he has some serious reservations about whether following Shaq's path out of Orlando and forming an alliance with Kobe would be a good idea.
"Could Dwight's star shine as brightly as possible in L.A. because Kobe's there?" the person said. "Dwight would not be the main star on that team until Kobe retired. That is something that is a negative for Dwight."
The idea of following in the footsteps of Shaq, who already has made a cottage industry of accusing Howard of stealing everything from him, also gives Howard pause, another person familiar with his thinking said.
"Dwight is very sensitive to people thinking that he is duplicating Shaq," the person said.
So that leaves Dallas and Brooklyn, with Brooklyn the clear leader in the clubhouse if 1) Orlando doesn't trade him by the deadline; and 2) Howard opts out and is willing to sign with the Nets outright as a free agent, thus leaving about $30 million on the table.
"To go rebuild a team around Deron [Williams] and Dwight holds some sway," one of the people close to Howard said. "[Mikhail] Prokhorov definitely offers worldwide marketing opportunities. Going to Dallas and playing with Dirk [Nowitzki], who's not an egomaniac -- that could make sense. Going to L.A. with Kobe? I just don't see it."
Aware of Howard's world view and the Magic's aversion to trading him, league front-office sources believe the Nets can get Howard in the summer without having to trade for him. Why would they absorb Hedo Turkoglu's contract and surrender assets if they don't have to? The aforementioned $30 million, to some degree, has been overstated. The difference is one year and 3 percent smaller raises under the new collective bargaining agreement, money that a 26-year-old superstar can make up with marketing dollars and, barring injury, his next contract.
Dallas? A reassessment of the Mavs' cap situation after they signed Vince Carter reveals that they will not be able to clear enough room for two max players, as in Williams and Howard. The most room Dallas could possibly have is $29.4 million, according to league salary sheets. To do it, they would have to: 1) amnesty Brendan Haywood; 2) trade Shawn Marion; 3) waive Brandan Wright and Sean Williams; and 4), the kicker, trade Lamar Odom and Carter by March 15 for expiring contracts. Even then, they would be about $3 million shy of offering Howard and Williams max deals.
So Howard will almost certainly still be with Orlando when he and his city host All-Star weekend in two weeks. The Magic, and DeVos, hope he's there beyond that -- beyond March 15 and long after July 1. It's a collision of conflicting crusades and agendas, a high-drama game of chicken that will end very badly for someone -- perhaps many people -- as we enter the crucial weeks that will decide his future.
Which brings us to the rest of this week's Postups.
• I'm not big on All-Star snubs. The fan voting is as imperfect as it gets, and mistakes that are made there often put the coaches in a predicament as they fill out the rosters with reserves. Is Carmelo Anthony having an All-Star season? No, but he's Carmelo Anthony, one of the most popular players in the NBA. So the fans send him. I'm not getting worked up about that.
As for snubs among the reserves picked by the coaches, let me say that not one of the players selected Thursday doesn't deserve it. (Even Dirk Nowitzki, who has missed games and isn't playing up to his All-Star standards. At this stage in his Hall of Fame career, he deserves not to be penalized by the rushed selection process in the shortened season.)
But if we must talk snubs, the biggest to me were in the East: Josh Smith (Hawks) and Tyson Chandler (Knicks). Do you realize the Knicks, who haven't played a lick of defense in years, are 10th in defensive efficiency (points allowed per 100 possessions)? That's all Chandler. A great case could be made for Danny Granger, but Roy Hibbert also was deserving and the East needed a backup center. As of now, Anthony is the only starter known to be in danger of missing the game due to injury, so either Smith or Granger probably will get his due as the commissioner's injury replacement.
• The following analysis from Lakers coach Mike Brown is sure to get some attention. Brown, who coached LeBron James in Cleveland, was asked Thursday to weigh in on the Kobe-LeBron debate. (Remember that one?) With all the challenges Bryant has withstood from James, Dwyane Wade and others who have tried to push past him, seems to me No. 24 has held up pretty well.
Coach Brown, your thoughts?
"I think it starts when you look at championship rings," Brown said. "The guys who have multiple rings are the ones you mention when you start talking about people's legacies. They should be mentioned first, because there are a lot of great players out there that I believe can put up great numbers and do great things, especially on a team where you don't win. It's a different type of pressure that you go through. To have five of them, and to have the possibility of getting more -- six or seven or eight -- it's like, 'Whoa.' And that right there by itself is what puts you in a different category.
"If we're just talking about talent, or pure talent alone, yeah, there are other guys out there that have a high talent level," Brown said. "Are they to the level of Kobe's? In different aspects of the game. If you're talking about who's the most talented passer, LeBron or Kobe, well, LeBron is. Who's the more talented midrange scorer? Kobe is. Who's the better attacker? Dwyane Wade is. So they all do different things, I think, better than each other. But at the end of the day, when it comes to combining talent and skill with the most important thing, which is winning, I don't know how you don't give [Kobe] the edge."
Good, reasoned analysis and pretty much how anyone who knows basketball would answer the question. However, pardon me while I brace myself for the deluge of breathless tweets and blog posts proclaiming, "Mike Brown disses LeBron! Says Kobe is better! LeBron responds on Twitter! And Kendrick Perkins calls everybody gutless!"
Moving along ...
• Not only do the Lakers intend to take a look at Gilbert Arenas whenever he holds a workout in his attempt to reignite his career, the team also has Bryant's blessing to sign him, two people familiar with the situation told CBSSports.com. Perhaps just as important, Arenas, 30, has Bryant's personal stamp of approval. Bryant reached out to Arenas recently through an intermediary to let him know he's on board with Arenas joining the Lakers. It isn't clear whether Arenas will show Lakers GM Mitch Kupchak what he needs to see to take a chance on the three-time All-Star, but one person with knowledge of the team's strategy said the Lakers may not have the complete answer until they see Arenas in actual game action. Bryant has reached out to other players this way, most notably Metta World Peace -- back when his name was Ron Artest and the Lakers signed him in 2009.
• In leading the Knicks to a three-game "Linning" streak heading into Friday night's game against the Lakers, Jeremy Lin has been at the center of a pop culture, social media explosion since his 25-point, seven-assist performance off the bench last Saturday against the Nets. Lin has gained more than 60,000 Twitter followers in less than a week, and according to the NBA, his followers on Sina (the Chinese equivalent of Twitter) have grown from 190,000 to 250,000. ESPN is hosting a viewing party in Taiwan for the Lakers-Knicks game with dancers and a DJ. Over the past seven days, four of the top 10 videos on the NBA section of Sina.com feature Lin, totaling more than 3.3 million page views.
Viewership of live NBA games in China already was up 39 percent this season before Linsanity began. Last season, NBA.com/China accounted for 4.7 billion page views and 1.7 billion live video streams. The NBA is the most followed sports league in China, with more than 41 million followers across all social media platforms, the league said. So yes, if Lin's surprising and sudden success continues, this is not only going to go well for the Knicks, but for the NBA business as a whole. And now that Lin, who often mentions God and religion in interviews, has confirmed that he's inspired by Tim Tebow, imagine the jobs that will be created when Twitter and Sina need to build new servers to handle the onslaught. It turns out that Lin is as good at directing social media traffic as he is at directing traffic on the court.
• One guy who has yet to be infected by Linsanity: Bryant, who is either a fantastic actor or was genuinely puzzled when peppered with questions about the Knicks' new point guard after L.A. beat Boston 88-87 in overtime Thursday night. "I don't know what he's done," Bryant said. "I have no idea what you guys are talking about. I'll look at the tape though."
When asked by a (somewhat foolish) reporter if he'd consider guarding Lin if he started having "one of those nights," Bryant chuckled and said under his breath, "Je-sus Christ."
• Pretty cool moment for Celtics coach Doc Rivers, who watched his son Austin make the game-winning 3-pointer as Duke beat North Carolina in Chapel Hill on Wednesday night. "That was a lot of fun for me as a parent," Rivers said. "It's fun when you can see your kid play and have fun and you don't have to worry about calling a timeout." Rivers, of course, had considered taking a year off from coaching to devote all of his time to watching Austin, but decided after the Celtics lost to the Heat in the Eastern Conference semifinals that he would be back and signed a five-year, $35 million extension. But the real payoff came Wednesday night. "I was just nervous," said Rivers, who was too caught up in the moment to worry about whether Austin would go for the quick two or try to win it with a three. "Listen, I'm a parent. I was just like, 'I don't care what you do, just do it well.'" And that he did.
• Rivers on Paul Pierce being selected to his 10th All-Star Game as a reserve Thursday night: "People questioned him [early in the season] because they saw him move, and he wasn't healthy. And they assumed that was age instead of health." It was a particularly difficult year for All-Star selections due to the timing of the voting and reserve selections, 25 games or so into the season. "I just think it's too soon," Rivers said. "I was home watching TV last week when they announced the starters, and I was floored. I didn't even know they'd started the voting yet. Seriously, I didn't know. I think we could've waited at least another week before doing the subs."
• The Lakers' Pau Gasol said he was "sad" he wasn't selected as an All-Star reserve, but was proud of his brother Marc -- and seemed puzzled when asked if he was upset that his brother made it and he didn't. "I'm happy for him," Gasol said. "I'm happy, it makes me proud. I'm sorry I didn't make it, but it is what it is."
• Bryant moving into fifth place on the NBA's career scoring list this week, passing former teammate and nemesis Shaquille O'Neal, would've been a special accomplishment regardless of the venue. But it was especially meaningful to Bryant in his hometown.
"When he comes back to Philadelphia, he really wants to bring his best game," said Sonny Hill, a longtime Bryant family friend and founder of the city's famous Sonny Hill League. "Because he wants to show the people here that he is from Philadelphia. I have the privilege and understanding of him beyond basketball. I understand what his motives are all about. I understand why the drive is so strong. So when we look at him, it would be not so much the fact that he's passing another milestone. I think it's that he's passing a milestone in his city."
Of course, Philly being Philly, Bryant was booed viciously during introductions. But the crowd acknowledged his accomplishment when he eclipsed O'Neal in the second quarter of the Lakers' 95-90 loss Monday night.