Back when the NBA trade deadline was approaching, and ridiculous rumors were circulating throughout the media like so many wishful thoughts, someone floated the idea that the Sixers might be able to acquire Orlando’s Dwight Howard for a package that perhaps included Andre Iguodala and an autographed Dr. J jersey.
It’s too bad it didn’t happen, even if it was all crazy speculation. Howard may be at the forefront of the league’s toxic new trend, in which star players who have never won anything of note hold franchises hostage, demand the ouster of coaches and generally wreak havoc with the whole operation, but it’s better to have a marketable player whining like a little kid than a bunch of marginally talented players bitching about the coach–and sinking ever deeper into mediocrity.
Granted, Howard’s 2011-12 season has been truly epic in terms of creating mayhem. He began the year with a classic bit of diva behavior, letting it be known throughout the land that he wanted the Magic to trade him and that if the team refused, he would opt out of his contract at the end of the year and go elsewhere. After weeks of that spectacle, Howard finally announced he would stay in Mousetown and play for the team next season, ensuring another several months of will-he-or-won’t-he baloney.
Last week, Howard played another card, telling management that he wanted coach Stan Van Gundy fired. This is nothing new in NBA annals. Magic Johnson had Paul Westhead canned after the Lakers won the 1980 NBA championship, and Michael Jordan was allegedly behind Doug Collins’ ouster in Chicago back in ’89. Just this season, Carmelo Anthony was reportedly the engine behind the Knicks’ decision to get rid of Mike D’Antoni. So, Howard isn’t breaking new ground here. What he is doing is continuing to make the NBA less and less palatable.
As long as star players can turn entire franchises inside out, the league is going to be more difficult to follow and enjoy. The NBA keeps trying to help teams hold onto their top players by allowing them to offer fatter contracts to their own stars than rivals can in free agency, but it doesn’t work. As soon as players sense that things could be better somewhere else, they agitate for a trade by making it known they will leave as soon as possible. Last year, Denver spent half the season worrying about Anthony before dishing him to the Knicks. This year, it was Howard in Orlando and Deron Williams in Jersey. (He stuck around but is almost certainly gone this summer.) Players now want to team up with their pals in attractive cities, hoping to win a championship as part of an all-star unit. Well, here’s a bold prediction that will absolutely come true: Neither Howard nor Anthony will ever win an NBA title. They’re too selfish, and in the case of Howard not polished enough offensively to carry the load.
Those two are part of the league’s growing collection of “stars” who gain great acclaim because of their potential, not their performance. Granted, each has put up some big numbers, but Anthony is one of the league’s biggest ball-stopping hogs, and Howard has refused to diversify his offensive game beyond the dunk.
Still, after hearing what has been going on in Sixerland the past week, when the team has basically stopped playing and runs the risk of descending into the lowest level of NBA hell–the late Lottery–perhaps some high-end antics would be appreciated. At least when Allen Iverson, perhaps the ultimate example of a player who refused to do what was necessary to win it all, was around, the Sixers were relevant. Watching the Sixers try to win with a Three Musketeers approach in a league that demands individual excellence was fun at first; now, it is just frustrating. The worst thing an NBA team can be is mediocre. Either it has to be a contender or be so horrible that it can hope for real help in the Lottery. The Sixers have little shot now at anything other than a first-round playoff defeat. Should they continue their slide and be replaced in the post-season tourney by surging Milwaukee, they have little hope of grabbing any of this Draft’s top players. In other words, barring a remarkable turn of events during the off-season, the Sixers are headed for the same kind of trouble next year.
As Phoenix Suns president Lon Babby told me in early March, “This is the only business in the world where one model for succeeding is getting really bad. The way to get better is to get worse.”
Meanwhile, Collins is trying to hold this team together, even as his younger players complain about his carping. Just remember what I reported an NBA general manager said before last season, when the Sixers hired Collins: “He’s a prima donna. He’s high maintenance, and he will drive everybody crazy.” It seems that is already happening. Of course, if Thaddeus Young, Evan Turner and Nik Vucevic are the ones complaining about Collins, it shouldn’t be a problem. They have accomplished little. If it’s Iguodala, Jrue Holiday and Elton Brand getting cranky, that could be a bigger problem.
Then again, think about it. None of those three players is good enough to be in a position to demand anything. Between them, they have one playoff series win. One. And they have just three combined All-Star appearances. Unlike Orlando, which is petrified of losing Howard and becoming irrelevant, even if he is behaving like a child, the Sixers should have no such fears. If somebody is unhappy with Collins, ship him to Toronto or Sacramento for pennies on the dollar. Then, work on acquiring someone who can create some interest around here. Let’s hope Orlando owner Rich DeVos has the strength of character to do the same thing with Howard, instead of acquiescing to his demands and firing Van Gundy–which he will almost certainly do.
It doesn’t matter whether that player is a seven-foot infant like Howard or someone committed to winning. Just find someone the fans want to see and get him. It will result in drama, a near-guaranteed hostage situation and other extraneous trouble, but that’s how it goes in the NBA these days. Relevance has its price, and the Sixers need to pay it.
It sure beats finishing behind the Bucks.
- If T.O., Chad Ochocrazy or DeSean Jackson did the football equivalent of what Eldrick Woods did Friday on the 16th hole at Augusta, they would have been excoriated for their immature behavior. When Woods threw his club to the ground and kicked it after yet another bad shot, he was “frustrated.” No, he is a frontrunner with little composure who can’t deal with the fact that his atrophying skills won’t get him to 19 major championships. Whoever considered him a favorite at this year’s Masters is the same person who thinks a mid-major basketball team could beat Kentucky after knocking off Manhattan in its first game. Golf desperately wants Woods to play well, because selling Bubba Watson isn’t easy. But Woods can’t handle clawing his way through the fray. He has become ordinary, and his childish outbursts shouldn’t be tolerated.
- After three games, it looks like pitching and defense can only get a team so far. And the “defense” part of that equation doesn’t look so good right now for the home team. The Phillies won’t be this anemic all year, but it’s obvious GM Ruben Amaro will need to work some more trade-deadline magic if the team is going to make a post-season run this year. The Phils lack pop, and it doesn’t matter how good their starting pitching is. They need more.
- As first-round playoff series go, it doesn’t get much better than the Flyers and Penguins. If Ilya Bryzgalov is sharp, the Flyers can definitely win. Since the Rangers will likely be waiting in the second round, fans should invest themselves heavily in beating Pittsburgh and celebrate enthusiastically, since further playoff success might be hard to come by.