The decline of Dwight Howard is one of the NBA's most compelling developments. The onetime self-proclaimed "Superman" was for years a physical freak, the model of how a center was built and how a center defended.
Now 30, Howard is slowing down, bothered by years of back and knee issues. He doesn't have the offensive effectiveness of past years and his durability has waned. So, what happens when physically gifted players lose a step, are no longer able to soar as they once did or defend above the rim?
Former NBA star and current NBA TV analyst Chris Webber, who was a superb athlete coming out of Michigan two decades ago and played until he was 34, offered his thoughts on Howard.
"I wouldn't just say this for Dwight, I'd say this for all players, me personally, I learned it from Karl Malone. You cannot stay in this game without skill," Webber said. "Because after five years in this league you will no longer be the most athletic at your position. It's impossible. That's including injuries. You have to have more skill, you have to create value for those times you're on the court."
Webber said there are ways to compensate for a decline in athleticism by using intelligence.
"You have to maybe help defensively a little bit earlier since you can't go up and get the blocked shot," he said. "Some guys start taking charges or some guys just get out [farther] on the floor since they can't move laterally anymore, maybe develop an 8-foot jump shot. You can learn how to make a move without dribbling because now you can't just dribble by everybody anymore.
"You have to think the game through and just be that much more efficient. You won't get the number of looks you have anymore. Mentally, you have to change and hopefully your skill set will allow that. If not, the game will pass you by."
|Field goals attempted||4.9||7||6.4|
|Field goals attempted||8.3||11.7||11.0|
|Field goal percentage||.589||.596||.584|
Perhaps the biggest adjustment for any NBA player is the deterioration of physical skills. For some it's sudden, for others it's gradual. The result is never easy to digest.
"It's especially tough, for me going to Philly, a place that had a different [playing] style, that means you have to learn all over again," Webber said. "If you're Tim [Duncan], he's one of the greatest players to have ever played this game, but because he's allowed to age in a system.
"Let's say with a Dwight Howard, his numbers are still incredible but you need a system around him that allows him to do that and those not just be wasted numbers. That can be wasted numbers on a team that doesn't suit his system."
The Rockets are one of the league's more confounding teams, with a record hovering near .500 after reaching the West finals last season.
"Houston is the most disappointing team that we have in the league, more disappointing than the Philadelphia 76ers, and I don't know if anybody can thrive in that system," Webber said. "I definitely know it's tough to age when the system does not include your age in the system.
"If I'm [Howard], I'm trying to offensive rebound a little bit more. If I'm him, I'm running right down the middle of the lane on a secondary break, posting up in the middle, and turning for a jump hook because you're going to foul me. I'm going to put myself in positions where you have to get me the ball, and when I get the ball I'd be stupid to pass it back out. There's ways, and he's one of the best big men in the game still. He should be the second-most-targeted player on that team."
Webber had the acting bug
Chris Webber has been in the spotlight since his prep days at Detroit Country Day. He also had cameos in the 1990s detective series "New York Undercover," as well as in "Everybody Hates Chris."
There is an interesting story behind his appearance on "New York Undercover." The episode, which aired in April 1996, was filmed when Webber was dealing with a dislocated left shoulder, an injury that limited him to 15 games for the Bullets in 1995-96.
Webber played a troubled former basketball star who lies to protect his younger brother, a top college prospect, who had committed a murder.
"When I was acting I couldn't move my arm because I had just moved it out of the sling, so I just kept my hand in my pocket," Webber said. "I have been asked to act a lot over time and I always thought I was working for the [NBA] championship and I could wait. But during that downtime, I just wanted to take advantage of it. It was a great show back then, a hip-hop type of show with detective work, and at the time I thought it was something that would be really cool.
"I loved the fact that I would have a starring role and not have to play basketball. It was a lot of fun."
Webber said he was intrigued by the story line, which detailed the recruitment of his brother, who was trying to escape perils of the projects by earning a college scholarship. Former Knick Anthony Mason, who was in the middle of his NBA career, played a college recruiter.
"It was very interesting, the recruiters coming into the projects," Webber said. "I was very familiar with it. The story really played a big role in how they asked me."
Webber's character was eventually stabbed in jail by a character played by Taye Diggs, who went on to television and film stardom.
"What's funny, that was Taye Diggs's first gig and he was nervous," Webber said. "I was asking him to help me out and he was telling me it was his first job. I always tease him when he gets awards, I got him started in acting. It was all the lessons that I gave him."
Despite players such as Shaquille O'Neal pursuing careers such as rap while they were playing, Webber said he wanted to wait until the conclusion of his career to pursue acting. But the time off because of the injury encouraged him to give it a try.
"I just wanted to really focus on basketball," Webber said. "I always thought the championship was possible and then I kind of do those other things, but over the years I've definitely taken acting classes. It's something you have to respect the craft.
"Basketball was different back then, Shaquille was one of the first guys that really came out and had a life outside of basketball. It was kind of taboo and he reopened the doors to do that stuff. At the time I was really trying to win the championship, even though that was going to be impossible in Washington."
Miami not as advertised
The Heat were projected to be the primary competition for the Cavaliers in the Eastern Conference but have been wildly inconsistent. They lost at home to the Pistons on Tuesday, blowing an 18-point, first-half lead. They have also lost at home to the Raptors and Wizards this month.
The question is whether the Heat can gather enough momentum to make a real run at Cleveland and the rest of the conference. They are relatively healthy with Dwyane Wade in fine form, averaging 18.5 points and shooting 45.1 percent from the field.
Hassan Whiteside has harnessed his emotions and is averaging 11.1 rebounds and a league-leading four blocked shots. Yet with 11 losses in their first 28 games, Miami doesn't resemble a title contender.
"Playoff team, yes. Contending team, no," said ABC analyst Jalen Rose. "They're not better than the Cleveland Cavaliers. They will not beat the Cleveland Cavaliers four times in 10 days. They, however, are among a few teams in the Eastern Conference that have an opportunity to fight for second with Atlanta."
Entering Saturday, 4½ games separated the second-seeded Hawks and 12th-seeded Knicks. After the Cavaliers, there appears to be no clear-cut No. 2. Miami, Toronto, Atlanta, and Chicago have all experienced pitfalls through the first two months.
"What's going to happen with Indiana, Toronto, Washington remains to be seen," Rose said. "Those squads have been up and down. But the Cleveland Cavaliers are clear cut the best team in the Eastern Conference. The Miami Heat, they just want to wake up and be in the playoffs healthy with Dwyane Wade playing the way he's playing. "
"Chris Bosh has shown flashes also. Whiteside continues to improve. Goran Dragic is going to be a key. Can he be as effective and as efficient as they need him to be? They're a definite, legitimate playoff team that's worth advancing, but beating the Cleveland Cavaliers, I don't see it."
Rose believes Heat coach Erik Spoelstra is one of the league's best.
"Erik Spoelstra doesn't get enough credit by the media, because everything that happens positive in Miami we give the credit to [team president] Pat Riley, and rightfully so," Rose said. "He's one of the all-time great puppet masters in the league. But seeing how [Spoelstra] has helped develop Whiteside into a player that's going to be looking for a major deal when his contract is up, how they're bringing along [Justise] Winslow in their lineup, I just really applaud the job he's done in Miami as a head coach."
Said fellow ABC analyst P.J. Carlesimo: "Cleveland, what they've done without Kyrie [Irving], they've clearly reestablished themselves as the best team. You have to think, if anything, they're going to get better. I love Miami. I think they don't get the credit for how good they are defensively. You see them all the time. They're quietly one of the best three defensive teams in the league. Very seldom do you hear people talking about that. I love their experience. I love all the things they bring to the table, that's going to make them dangerous.
"It's like Cleveland, and then you can put the next gap. Miami's right there. But I don't think realistically anybody can think, 'Well, we're ready to go. We're ready to go in Cleveland.' Nobody's shown they're that good yet."
Jennings eager to contribute
Overshadowed by the resurgence of the Pistons and the impressive seasons of Andre Drummond and Reggie Jackson is the return of Brandon Jennings, who has missed the last 11 months after tearing his left Achilles' tendon.
Jennings scored 11 points with 12 assists for Grand Rapids of the D-League last Saturday, and was on the active list and available on Tuesday against Miami and Wednesday against Atlanta but did not play. There was expected to be controversy when the Pistons acquired Jackson to be their point guard with Jennings still on the roster.
But Jennings was hurt and Jackson has taken over, meaning Jennings will likely be a reserve, regardless of how much he returns to form. He said he is willing to accept that role.
"Definitely just bring a lot of energy off the bench," Jennings said. "I think right now, the NBA, the lack of bench help is really lacking. Our starters are doing a good job of keeping us in the game and they're doing all they can, so my energy of me coming back, I think I'll be able to help.
"The bench is the thing I've been looking at all year, so seeing how I can fit in with the guys, I'm definitely going to bring a lot of energy and run more. I definitely don't like to run a lot of plays. I like to get out on the open floor and just run."
Jennings's game is predicated on speed, and several players in past years have been limited after tearing an Achilles', including the Lakers' Kobe Bryant. Jennings has been working on the court the past few weeks, but coach Stan Van Gundy said being a step slow at this stage of Jennings's recovery is understandable.
"He's got to get closer at least to his normal quickness," Van Gundy said. "It's getting better. It's still got a ways to go. I think you would [notice the difference] in terms of his quickness. What he needs to get is more up-and-down play, and it's been really hard. We've played so many games in so few days. We can't get him an hour. He needs to get more full-court stuff than we've been able to get him so far."
Jennings said the adjustment has been mostly mental.
"When I'm playing five-on-five, [the burst] is there," he said. "When I'm not, it's still like I go into a mood of I don't know if I can do it or not.
"Once I start playing I don't even think about [the injury]. Only time I think about it is when I'm not playing. If I'm just going through a workout I'll think about it more. But when I'm out there just hooping, I just play."
Recovery from a torn Achilles' is difficult. And the last barrier to overcome is fear of being reinjured.
"I'm 26," he said. "I'm having a lot of fun because of the fact I know it's close and I want to just play. I just want to hoop and see where it's at."
The Raptors received good news when big man Jonas Valanciunas was cleared to return to practice this past week. Toronto was 8-6 in the first 14 games Valanciunas missed, with home losses to Sacramento, Denver, and Phoenix. The Raptors have sorely missed Valanciunas's offense, but former Hornet Bismack Biyombo has averaged 11.4 rebounds and 1.7 blocks in December, picking up the defensive slack . . . The Rockets are 12-8 with J.B. Bickerstaff as coach, and it seems that the acquisition of Ty Lawson in the offseason was a mistake. GM Daryl Morey envisioned a scoring point guard blending well with MVP candidate James Harden, but Lawson is far short of the effective player he was during his best Denver days. He averaged 6.1 points and shot 34.9 percent from the field in his first 28 games, 17 coming off the bench. Lawson has a nonguaranteed $13 million owed next season, meaning he could be waived in the offseason with no repercussions. His player efficiency rating, 17.8 during his career, is 8.6 this season. The question is whether the past few years of alcohol-related off-court troubles have sapped Lawson of his prowess . . . While he was expected to make a sizable contribution in his second NBA season, Noah Vonleh is playing sparingly (14.8 minutes per game) despite starting 20 of 31 games for the Trail Blazers. Vonleh came to Portland in the Nicolas Batum deal and gave a strong summer league performance, but he is averaging just 3.2 points in giving up minutes to Ed Davis and Meyers Leonard . . . Look for teams to scour the D-League for players for 10-day contracts. Jan. 5 is the first day players can sign 10-day deals and also when players on nonguaranteed contracts become guaranteed if they remain on rosters. All 15 players on the Celtics roster have guaranteed contracts.
And the nominees are . . .
The Warriors had the best player and the best team of 2015. They also had a handful of performances to pick from as the league's most impressive in the calendar year. A look at who else could be considered for best individual game since Jan. 1:
Gary Washburn can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @GwashburnGlobe. Material from interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.