There’s a lot on the line for Kobe, LeBron, Melo and Dwight Howard


There’s always a lot on the line in the Conference Finals. But this year it seems like there is more at stake for the superstars still standing. Let’s start with…


Kobe Bryant has made it abundantly clear that his #1 priority is to win another title. This focus is not unusual for players that haven’t won a ring, but Kobe has three, so why is he so determined to win a fourth? Simply stated, for the sake of his own legacy, he has to win a title without Shaq.

If he fails, he will be viewed by history as a great player who won a few titles as Shaq’s sidekick. This is not the legacy that Kobe wants to leave. Barring a two- or three-peat, he’s not going to be able to catch Michael Jordan, but if he is able to win a ring this year — and he’s the first to admit that this is his best chance — then he’ll do it as “The Guy” on a championship team. There’s no Shaq wreaking havoc in the middle, just a collection of players deemed too soft (Pau Gasol, Lamar Odom) or too young (Andrew Bynum, Jordan Farmar, Trevor Ariza) that Kobe led to the Promised Land.

And the clock is ticking. Kevin Garnett could come back strong next season, LeBron is getting better by the year, and there are a few up-and-coming teams (Orlando, Houston, Portland, etc.) that are looking to knock Kobe off of his perch.

The time is now. Kobe’s window is closing, and he knows it.


By the time you read this, the Cavs might have already been eliminated from these playoffs. If so, expect columnists to come out of the woodwork across the country to once again pose the question — will LeBron stay?

Sorry Cavs fans, I know you thought you were in the clear, but if your team is unable to come back and win this series, it’s a valid question. LeBron and Co. had a great season, but it doesn’t mean much if they don’t make a Finals appearance. While a loss to the Lakers on the biggest of stages would be disappointing, it would be understandable. But being ousted by the Jameer Nelson-less Magic in the Conference Finals? This is not a scenario that LeBron saw coming. Not until now, anyway.

It would be one thing if LeBron was having a substandard series and could realistically put the blame on his own shoulders. If that were the case, he could convince himself that his supporting cast is strong enough to win an NBA championship. But LeBron has had a wonderful series, averaging 42.3 points, 7.3 assists, 7.3 rebounds, while shooting almost 51% from the field. Sure, his turnovers have been high (4.5 per game, up from 3.0 during the regular season), but with the way his supporting cast has played, he has to carry his team.

Removing LeBron’s hits and misses, the rest of the Cavs have shot a combined 41% from the field. Mo Williams, who was brought in to take the pressure off of the Cavs’ superstar, is shooting just over 32% in the series, and those are mostly good looks. Delonte West’s three-point accuracy is down from 40% in the regular season to 29% in the Conference Finals. In fact, the Cavs’ role player numbers are down across the board.

They’re playing like the future of the franchise depends on it. (And it might.)


Carmelo Anthony has had kind of a funny NBA career. He won a national championship as a freshman at Syracuse, but that’s overlooked because it wasn’t until this season that he was able to lead the Nuggets out of the first round of the playoffs, and even then more credit is given to Chauncey Billups for being “the perfect fit” in Denver. It’s easy to forget that, as a rookie, Anthony led a Nuggets team that won 17 games the previous year to a 43-win season and a sixth-place finish in the West. He’s known as one of the league’s best scorers, but people question his willingness to play defense and do the little things it takes to win.

Battling a bad back and ankle pain, Anthony has put those concerns to rest, at least for me. Until he makes a Finals appearance, he’s going to play in the shadow of ’03 classmates LeBron James and Dwyane Wade, who have both done more in the same amount of time in the league. Is Anthony a “franchise” player deserving of a max contract? I had my doubts before these playoffs, but the way he competed in the first two games of this series, posting 30+ points while guarding Kobe most of the time, he sure looked like a franchise player. There’s no telling what kind of toll those aforementioned injuries are having on his effectiveness, though it might explain why he was unable to stop the bleeding when the Lakers went on a 23-5 run in Game 5.

The jury is probably still out on Melo, but I’d be willing to build my franchise around him. Never underestimate a player who has something to prove.


Note: Even though it was his nickname in high school, after a few complaints, I won’t call him D-Ho anymore. This guy really needs a better nickname than “Superman.”

Players like Dwight Howard are a dying breed. He’s a true back-to-the-basket center in a league that has become more guard- and wing-oriented in recent years. At 23, he’s already the second-best center (at least) in the NBA, and I think most GMs would take him in a heartbeat over Yao Ming given the latter’s long injury history.

The only area where Howard suffers is in his profile around the league. No one argues that he’s one of the NBA’s true superstars, yet from a notoriety standpoint, he’s not in the same league as Kobe, LeBron or even D-Wade (with all of those T-Mobile commercials). Right now, he’s known as a physical freak who can dunk like a madman.

These Conference Finals have put Howard front and center on a national (basic cable) stage, but there are still times when he disappears. Everyone remembers his outstanding performance in the overtime of Game 4 (10 points and a key block on LeBron), but where was he in the fourth quarter when he only scored one point?

Howard’s issues aren’t new. As a big man in the post, he’s forced to rely on his teammates to give him the ball. In crunch time, it’s tougher for a post player to get the ball than it is for a wing due to the nature of the pass. Defenses will usually allow Kobe or LeBron catching the ball out near midcourt, but they’re going to fight a lot harder to keep Howard from getting the ball on the block. The other issue is his free throw accuracy (or lack thereof). Since he shoots under 60% from the charity stripe, teams would rather put him on the line down the stretch than let him go to work in the post. Howard’s game is all about power, so he’s not able to avoid fouls like Tim Duncan can or Hakeem Olajuwon could with their finesse post up games.

Still, if Howard and the Magic can put the Cavs away and make a Finals appearance, it’s going to be a big boost for his reputation around the league. He will become just as valuable as Wade and start to approach Kobe and LeBron in potential impact on the league (not to mention the positive effect it will have on his Q Score).

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