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Dwight Howard prepared to do ‘whatever’ 76ers ask for chance to win title in Philly



Fresh off winning his first NBA title with the Los Angeles Lakers, Dwight Howard said Wednesday that he’s willing to do whatever he’s asked to do in order to win another with his new team, the Philadelphia 76ers.

“Winning the championship was everything, and it made me realize I could have the best stats in the world and it don’t mean nothing,” Howard said in his introductory Zoom call after signing a one-year deal for the minimum with Philadelphia in free agency. “Because here it was, I won a championship and there was games where I didn’t score a bucket, or get a field goal, or get minutes in a game. What really matters is just holding up that trophy.

“That would be my message to everybody on the team: what are you willing to give up to get that trophy? Sometimes you got to give up everything. Sometimes your role and what’s required of you [is] to give up the things you want to do the most. For me, I would have loved to be the guy to score all the points and rebounds, but my team needed me for a specific purpose, and that was to provide the spirit and energy on and off the court.

“I think I did a pretty good job at it, and whatever this team asks me to do, I’m willing to do it.”

After trading Al Horford to the Oklahoma City Thunder on draft night to better balance out the roster, Sixers president of basketball operations Daryl Morey said that he was going to have coach Doc Rivers go into free agency and try to sell the best candidates available to come to Philadelphia and backup the team’s star center, Joel Embiid.

According to Howard, Rivers did exactly that, calling Howard shortly after free agency began at 6 p.m. Friday and telling him the Sixers wanted to sign him.

Howard said that ultimately was what pushed him to decide to join the Sixers.

“The reason why I was super locked in on being here in Philly is that Doc was the only coach that called me during this free agency process. He was the first one to call me and he said we want you. We want you on our team. And then Daryl called. I said this is where I need to be right now. This is where my journey is calling me. To Philly. I’m super happy that Doc called me, that he gave me the opportunity, and I told him yes. I told him I would come.”

Howard’s Hall of Fame career has taken a circuitous route over the past several seasons, as he went from playing for the Orlando Magic for the first seven seasons of his career to playing for six different teams — the Lakers, Houston Rockets, Atlanta Hawks, Charlotte Hornets, Washington Wizards and then the Lakers again — over the past eight seasons.

Now he’s off to Philadelphia, where he will play behind Embiid — who has arguably taken over the mantle long-held by Howard as the NBA’s best center. And, between the combination of Embiid and Simmons, plus the talent that surrounds them, Howard is hopeful that he can be part of a second straight championship-winning team this season.

“There’s a lot of things,” Howard said, when asked why he thinks the Sixers can win a title. “You have two great young stars in Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid, I’m going to start there. Those guys, to me I watched when Joel lost [to the Toronto Raptors in the Eastern Conference semifinals in 2019] and how bad it hurt, he just cried, and I know what that feels like. I’ve been in that moment before where it’s like, ‘Man, I gave everything I had. I put it all on the line and I came up short.’ It doesn’t sit well with you, it stays with you for a really long time. So with him I know he has a fire inside of him, and we’ve all seen glimpses of it all year, and I think this is the year where it’s about being focused. I see focus in him, I see focus in Ben, and that’s where it starts with our two best players.

“Then you look at the rest of the guys on our team, they’ve all been hungry, they just never knew how to win. And I think by adding a guy like Danny Green and myself, we just fresh off of winning a championship, and I think we all know what it takes to really get to the next level. And I think this is a really great opportunity. You have a coach always talking about winning, how important it is to win, and you have some players who just want it. I think this year with the focus this team will have and the drive that we have to be successful, this will be our year.”

Howard, who was eating a lunch of baked chicken, sweet potato fries and corn during his Zoom call, was also asked specifically about Embiid’s personality, and if it possible to both be lighthearted — as Howard also was early in his career — and win at the highest level.

He pushed back strongly on the point, saying that he thinks Embiid puts in the work requisite to be good, and that the other stuff doesn’t matter because of it.

“I don’t see what he’s doing as being goofy,” Howard said. “He puts in the work. I think people, they twist things around when they see people laughing and joking and having a good time and they say they’re not serious, or they’re not focused enough. It’s just a time and a place for everything.

“I think the things Joel does is great. It makes other opponents upset, it keeps him locked in and the team plays better. Now will there be times when we all have to be a little bit more serious? Yes. And that’s something we’ll all have to learn together. How to be in certain situations. But I don’t think that’s a part of sacrifice. I think that’s a part of just understanding time and place.

“And I think that will be good for me to help show some of the younger guys because I have been in that position before where people thought I wasn’t focused or that I was playing too much. Maybe for the people on the outside it did look like I was playing around too much. So it’s just finding ways to do things right for the team, and I think we’ll do that this year.”

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Sources — NBA moving toward expanded rosters amid coronavirus pandemic



Amid thinning rosters in the darkest days of the coronavirus pandemic, the NBA is progressing toward an expansion of regular-season rosters, sources tell ESPN.

The NBA and National Basketball Players Association must still agree on the details of granting teams an additional two-way roster spot for the balance of the regular season, but those talks are expected to soon culminate with an agreement and deeper roster options for teams struggling with COVID-19 issues, sources said.

NBA general managers have been enthusiastic in support of additional roster options this season, a broad sentiment that was shared with league office executives in a virtual meeting of NBA general managers Friday, sources said.

In this shortened, 72-game season, two-way roster spots allow players to be active for 50 games — and players’ eligibility is based upon three years or less of playing service.

The NBA was already allowing two slots for two-way contracts this season, paying players a flat salary of $450,000. The NBA allows for 15 roster spots for traditional league contracts, and adding another full roster spot instead of a two-way would cause teams to run into salary-cap issues.

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Despite COVID-related postponements, NBA trainers, executives don’t see shutdown ahead



Despite nine COVID-related postponements since Sunday, team health officials, team executives and sources around the NBA familiar with its health and safety protocols say that, while the situation remains fluid, they don’t expect it to warrant a shutdown of the league or moving back to a bubble.

The officials reaffirmed faith in the NBA’s protocols and say that issues were expected as the league navigates its first month outside a bubble, especially with cases spiking across the United States.

One Western Conference head athletic trainer, who spoke on the condition of anonymity about the events of the last week, said, “It’s just a reflection of what’s going on in every city. I mean, we’re doing lots of things, but we’re not living in a bubble [anymore].”

Other officials that ESPN spoke with in recent days emphasized that the situation remains incredibly fluid, but they also weren’t surprised by these issues or postponements. They also do not believed there were grave breakdowns in any one area — especially in its detailed protocols — that have led to more infections among players or staff.

All of the officials independently pointed to a number of key factors outside the NBA’s control, starting with predictions made by epidemiologists and infectious disease experts months ago about how these winter months were going to be America’s most difficult during the pandemic.

“All the stars are aligned in the wrong place as you go into the fall and winter season, with people congregating at home indoors,” Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, the country’s leading infectious-disease expert, told the Washington Post in October. “You could not possibly be positioned more poorly.”

Those predictions have come true — with a record numbers of deaths on several recent days. An average of nearly 250,000 new COVID-19 infections has been reported every day during the last week, according to date from John Hopkins University.

“I don’t know how you can live in the public and not reflect, health-wise, what’s going on in the public,” the Western Conference head athletic trainer said.

Further, team health officials pointed to other sports, such as the NFL or college football and college basketball, and how they all faced COVID-related issues in their own seasons outside a bubble, which drove home the reality that the NBA would face its own challenges as it prepared to do the same, as NBA Commissioner Adam Silver acknowledged before the season.

But a key talking point referenced was the fact that the NBA is coming off a season in a bubble — held at Walt Disney World in Orlando — in which there were no positive player cases. The bubble’s success, these officials said, created a double-edged sword that gave the league and its protocols significant credibility but perhaps a sheen of unrealistic invincibility. The summer months also were less dire in terms of cases and death as the current situation.

“Nobody wanting to go back to a long bubble period of play has put us in this position,” said one Western Conference general manager. “It is doable but suboptimal.”

The NBA enhanced its protocols by introducing new restrictions this week that were agreed upon by the player’s union and will last for at least the next two weeks. Some of those restrictions include prohibiting non-team guests in road hotel rooms and requiring players to wear masks on the bench at all times.

There is the hope that these stricter protocols will help carry teams through the current nationwide surge and thus won’t need to be in place all season, team health sources said.

In a memo to teams Wednesday, which was first reported by ESPN’s Tim Bontemps, the NBA introduced what may prove to be another layer of protection with regards to testing. Already, players and most team staff are tested twice a day — a rapid-test and a polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test — but the league outlined plans for a potential third PCR test that would occur only on game days with local providers in all 28 NBA cities. The game-day test would serve as a backup option for any issues transporting or receiving results of other tests and help ensure that everyone is clear to participate in that day’s game.

The NBA didn’t announce the second half of its season principally so they could accommodate any postponed or canceled games tied to COVID, a nod to internal expectations that issues would likely occur, as Silver has previously reiterated.

In a Dec. 21 conference call with reporters, Silver mentioned that the league has “prepared for all contingencies,” but in talks with team health officials and league sources familiar with the health and safety protocols, another bubble was seen more as an absolute last resort that all involved parties would seek to avoid at all costs.

In terms of what it would take to suspend a season, the only issue that these officials mentioned was a scenario in which it was found that players were transmitting the virus to each other during games. But the NBA has yet to find evidence of such a scenario, league sources say.

In its contract tracing program, the NBA uses CDC guidelines to define “close contact” — and through Second Spectrum tracking data, the league has found that players who play 30-to-40 minutes a night aren’t typically within six feet of other players for more than five or six minutes during a game, which would fall outside the CDC-defined terms of “close contact.”

For now, several team health officials and indeed league officials say that even if the protocols in place are sound, the season will be imperfect.

“This is essentially a moving bubble that gets popped every now and then,” said one Western Conference athletic training official.

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James Harden thanks Houston Rockets, fans in Instagram post



Newly acquired Brooklyn Nets forward James Harden took to social media on Friday to thank the city of Houston and the Rockets, saying he was “indebted” to the franchise.

“Houston you welcomed me with no guarantees. Took a leap of faith and it changed my life and the lives of my family forever,” Harden wrote in an Instagram post which also featured a highlight video of some of Harden’s more memorable moments in a Rockets uniform.

“This organization, this city has given me everything I could ask for and more. Before the scoring titles long before MVP you believed. For that I am forever indebted. I gave my mind body and soul in hopes of bringing the glory to the city. I fell short and for that I am forever indebted. It’s far from a good bye as I pay all my debts.”

Harden was traded from the Rockets to the Nets on Thursday as part of a blockbuster four-team trade that also involved the Pacers and Cavaliers. The deal reunites Harden with former Oklahoma City teammate Kevin Durant in Brooklyn and positions the Nets, who also have All-Star guard Kyrie Irving, as title contenders in the Eastern Conference.

Harden, who was unable to get the Rockets past the Western Conference finals, had remained quiet through months of reports that he was unhappy in Houston. First-year Rockets head coach Stephen Silas called the drama surrounding Harden an “all-around messed up situation.”

ESPN’s Malika Andrews, Adrian Wojnarowski, Bobby Marks and The Associated Press all contributed to this report.

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