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Tim Duncan, Dwight Howard, Shaq and "The Last Great Center"

It's all about those grey jerseys
It's all about those grey jerseys
Ronald Martinez

Dwight Howard: The Most Confounding Player of Our Time

First off, let me be perfectly clear: I'd love nothing more than for the Lakers to re-sign Howard for a bajillion dollars. The guy is not a franchise player. Nobody will ever win squat with him as their main guy. His offensive game is too limited, he's too immature, too whiny, petulant, disingenuous to the extreme and without a speck of accountability. Nothing is ever his fault, no foul call against him is ever warranted, every layup he concedes or turnover he commits is because someone else failed him.

I want Howard to be a Laker forever the way I want Jerry Jones to run the Cowboys and Tony Romo to be their quarterback forever. It's like a security blanket knowing "No matter what else happens, I don't have to worry about these guys."

Howard's a guy who can't shoot, can't make a free throw and can be suckered all too easily into losing his cool with the refs. He's a dope who still hasn't figured out after eight years that it's not the brightest idea to block shots into the stands when a simple tap can start a fast break instead, and he goaltends way too many as well. We get it, nimrod, you're tall and can jump. You won the genetic lottery. Whee.

Watching Howard's limited, one-dimensional game made me realize something: Tim Duncan is the Last Great Center. The guy who can do it all at both ends, serving as both a defensive/rebounding/shot-blocking hub on one side and a guy who can score with power and finesse from inside and out on the other. He can put points up facing the basket and from the post while at the same time being able to pass out of double teams expertly and hit his free throws like a forward.

It's why, even at 37, Duncan still dominates. Sure, the diet and training regimen and "medical advancements" all help, but more than anything it's his combination of athleticism (which maybe a dozen other bigs in the game have), offensive technique (only Brook Lopez and maybe Marc Gasol, to a lesser extent) and veteran wisdom. Who else his size can score in as many ways as Duncan does?

I remember in my teens we had The Admiral, but also Hakeem Olajuwon and Patrick Ewing. Heck we had guys like Brad Daugherty, Rik Smits, Dikembe Mutombo and Alonzo Mourning. They'd all be "The Best Center In The League" right now. Duncan came on, an elite player from day one, but he was tagged as "Power Forward" because he was drafted to the same team as David Robinson.

But a couple of years before Duncan came Shaq, and his overwhelming one-dimensional physical brutality changed everything. He was so big, so strong and such a marketing boon for the league that all of a sudden he completely redefined what it meant to be a superstar center. All of a sudden all the finesse and skill was taken out of the position. Either you were a 280-pound behemoth who could only muscle people out of the way and dunk, or you were a 220-pound string bean who better learn how to shoot from the elbow extended because you are now a "power forward." The back-to-the-basket post game went the way of the dodo, thanks to brontosaurus-brained Shaq, the most overrated, most fortunate superstar in NBA history.

It amused me Sunday night when the "Inside the NBA" crew were giving their postmortem on the '12-13 Lakers and Shaq took the opportunity to criticize Howard's offensive game, which to me was like watching Magic Johnson criticize Reggie Miller's broadcasting. Shaq, in arrogant denial as always, seemed oblivious to the fact that he got called for just as many offensive fouls in his playing days as Howard gets whistled for (and the refs ignored that 75-pound swinging left elbow at people's heads quite a bit) and that he, too, was pretty much a coin flip at the line.

The difference between the two men is that A) Shaq had three inches and 40-pounds of brute force on Howard, B) he played with Kobe in his prime, back when Bryant could guard people, C) he had a better supporting cast with the Lakers than Howard ever had with Orlando or the current Lakers and D) he had a better coach. Even with all those advantages, Shaq only won one legit title, and was the beneficiary of some lucky breaks for three others.

What O'Neal had during his Lakers heydays was perfect timing, with their three-peat coming in that window before Ginobili and Parker broke out for the Spurs and the East was a complete sham. Even then, only the 2001 Lakers were true champions. Both in 2000 and 2002 they needed referee help to beat also-ran Portland and Sacramento teams that had no go-to alpha dog to win games down the stretch, much like the current Nuggets. Shaq also won a ring with the '06 Heat, who were again on the favorable side of the refs. And by the time that series wound down, he was a spectator down the stretch, 'Zo Mourning's backup. Check the plus/minus numbers on that one some time, it's hilarious.

You'll forgive me if I'm not down the false narrative of Shaq "as the most dominant big man ever." It's not even close. Not only do I think Duncan, historically is a much better player, but I think Olajuwon and Robinson are too. Heck, I think Ewing even has an argument. Shaq was too one-dimensional to be truly great and shared many of Howard's detrimental personality traits, from loafing in the regular season to not working hard enough (or caring enough) about free throws, to being a phony and a coach killer. I was appalled Tuesday night, watching him chuckle at this clip they showed on "Inside the NBA" over and over. The idiot still doesn't seem to understand how close he came to pulling a Kermit Washington (fast forward to 2:00 mark). Even worse, Miller wasn't even facing him! If Shaq didn't miss that punch, the way we view him historically would've been radically different and he surely would've faced a long suspension and maybe even legal trouble. I also was never a fan of jackassery like this, and don't understand why it's celebrated.

No. Duncan is the last of the graceful giants, the guys between 6-10 and 7-1 and 230-250 pounds who could run and jump and move like forwards but still had the fortitude and constitution and just enough meat on their bones to take the pounding in the post. Now everyone's either too muscle-bound and bulky and uncoordinated to do anything but dunk (looking at you, DeAndre Jordan) or too damn skinny a la Chris Bosh or Kevin Durant. Heck, Kevin Garnett came closer to playing center than those guys.

Enjoy Tim Duncan my friends. He's the last of his kind, even if he insists on being called a power forward.


What's David Stern Up To With These Zebras?

I admit, I was totally shocked at the officiating in the Lakers-Spurs series. Not only were the whistles not going against us at a laughable rate, but instead the refs seemed to be pro-Spurs, if anything. I mean, lets be honest. We were hammering the hell out of Howard. Really there were a bunch of no-calls the last two games where I thought the Spurs got away with one.

Maybe Stern is just playing the long con, realizing that the Lakers had no chance at an upset without Bryant and that if his refs were magnanimous with the Spurs now that we won't have as much cause for beef in the later rounds when they turn on us, or maybe the injury to Russell Westbrook changed everything. If Durant and the Thunder are gone and the Clips follow suit, who out West is more marketable than the Spurs? Surely we've got more household names than the Grizzlies, Nuggets or Warriors. And we're the team most likely to give the Heat a series. Maybe Stern sees that. Or maybe I'm just a crazy idiot.


Jason Collins: Friend of Dorothy

When I emerged from my sleep-induced stupor to the story of Collins coming out, I have to say I was a bit ambivalent about it. I can't help it, I'm a cynical, pragmatic, miserable bastard.

Obviously I'm thrilled for Collins. I'm glad that he had the bravery to reveal his true self and I was ecstatic about the overwhelming show of support from the NBA and the athletic community at large. Tony and Manu were among the many tweeters (though Tony's was fishy) and Pop had a classic "what's the big deal" attitude about it during the media scrum on Tuesday.

I also like that it was a "tough guy" like Collins who came out. Someone who's tall, African-American and has made a living giving hard fouls as opposed to someone like, well, Beno Udrih or even He Who Shall Not Be Named. I think things like that will help shatter stereotypes we have as a country.

That being said, I do wish it had been a better player. Not a star necessarily, but a solid starter in the league, somebody like, I don't know, Udonis Haslem or Rudy Gay (there's got to be people with that surname who are, in fact, homosexual, right?), somebody like that.

I am also curious about the timing, with Collins' age and contract status (free agent). He's been a back end of the roster guy for some time now and it was no given that he'd be on a team next year. I understand why he felt 2013 was the time to make the announcement and not sooner, but I do wish he was 27 in 2013 and not 34. I'd hate to think that he made the announcement for some publicity in the hopes that some market savvy team (i.e. the Mavericks) would sign him on.

Sure, there's the risk that just as many teams might shy away from Collins because of his announcement, fearing negative backlash from their fanbase or because behind the scenes their coach or their star player is against it or whatever. But at this point, if you're in Collins' position and your agent thinks nobody wanted you as of April 28, then what do you have to lose by telling the world you're gay on April 29?

Again, that's my cynical side talking. I just fear, that regardless of his motivation for coming out, he will be exploited by the media beyond his imagination, just like Tim Tebow. Say he signs with Dallas next year. SportsCenter will show a 45 second highlight of him sitting and clapping on the bench, maybe fouling somebody or pulling down a board in his three minutes of action, while the anchor on the voice-over says, "Dirk Nowitzki, not shown, had 28 and 9 as the Mavericks beat the Kings 100-92."

Shows like First Take will debate whether he's playing too much because he's gay or not enough because he's gay and he'll get way too much attention for a third-string center and I can see how something like that would be the dreaded "distraction in the locker room."

The notion of a gay player being unwelcome in the locker room because he'll come on to his teammates or check them out in the shower is beyond idiotic, but I do fear that the media will cause more harm than good in this situation and ruin everything. I'm looking forward to how the Collins story will play out and shaking my head about it at the same time.

It would be kinda neat to see him on the Spurs next year. We could use more media attention. Ironically, Pop, probably the most liberal coach in the league, would probably never let it happen just for that reason.


These Gray Uniforms They're Always Wearing Now

I hate 'em. Absolutely can't stand them. Hatehatehatehatehate. They're stupid and ugly. They're the James Harden's beard of uniforms. We look like a rec league team with them. I get it, you want to sell some merch and teams have third jerseys nowadays, but why are the Spurs wearing them so damn much? Can we play one freaking home came in the whites? Just one, to mix it up?

Tell me I'm not the only one who feels this way. I'm going crazy here.