Posted Mar 8 2010 1:40PM
Every March, after the heat of the trade deadline and buyout season cools, and the madness of college basketball heats up, we tend to throw our attention and focus to brackets on the one hand, and the chances of the NBA's elite to win the championship on the other. Have the Nuggets closed the gap on the Lakers? Can the Spurs make one last push? Is Boston falling too far behind Cleveland and Orlando?
And there, bobbing past us, on the surface but sinking, are the league's flotsam, not warranting more than a passing glance as the rush to coronate Kevin Durant as the Next Big Thing begins. We don't look at the also-rans, who don't have a postseason to look forward to -- or, at the least, a summer with a willing owner and copious cap space. For the teams that are struggling to make ends meet, or make their roster title-ready, this may be the worst time of the year. There are still six weeks of basketball, but what is there to play for?
They are the NBA's Tales of Woe: teams that are stuck, either in the mediocrity of the present or the cruel tease of things to come. Yes, Durant and the Thunder are league darlings at the moment, all youth and fun and playmaking. Yes, OKC was 20-62 in its last season in Seattle, and 23-59 last season. But such incredible turnarounds are the exception, not the rule. More often than not, teams that get caught in the league's middle stay there, year after year, never bad enough to get a franchise changer in the Draft, never good enough to be intriguing to potential free agents.
It should be noted: No one thing or person is responsible for these teams' current states. And every team is one great Draft or trade away from getting right back toward the top. But Bill Parcells' truism about your being what your record says you are is as true in the NBA as the NFL, or any other team sport. Ball don't lie. Film don't lie. Standings don't lie. Fans aren't stupid.
In alphabetical order, not order of wretchedness:
1. DETROIT PISTONS
CURRENTLY: 22-41, fourth place, Central Division, 26.5 games behind Cleveland
HOW THEY GOT HERE: Fired coach Flip Saunders in 2008; hired Michael Curry in 2008; traded Chauncey Billups for Allen Iverson in 2008; death of owner Bill Davidson in 2009; implosion of local economy, injuries to Rip Hamilton, Tayshaun Prince
GROWTH OPPORTUNITIES: G Ben Gordon, rookie Fs Jonas Jerebko and Austin Daye, third-year G Rodney Stuckey, coach John Kuester
Only the Spurs had a longer run at the top in recent years than Detroit, which made six straight Eastern Conference finals between 2002 and 2008. But now team president Joe Dumars has to rebuild. The Pistons could have been players in the Summer of 2010. With Iverson's $23 million coming off the cap last summer, Detroit could have opted to roll over its room and taken place alongside New York, New Jersey, Miami, Chicago and the Clippers in vying for the league's elite free agents. But Dumars opted to strike last summer, when there was far less competition, for Gordon and Bucks forward Charlie Villaneuva, laying out around $90 million combined for the duo, and said that Gordon was amenable to coming off the bench so that Hamilton could continue starting. But both Hamilton and Gordon have been injured for much of the season, eliminating the Pistons' depth, and now Detroit is locked into this roster for at least another year.
The March, 2009 death of "Mr. D" -- Bill Davidson, the beloved owner, at 86 -- has left some decisions in limbo. His widow, Karen, has assumed control of the team, but is entertaining offers to sell, which always creates uncertainty about how aggressive a team can be in re-shaping its roster. Add to this the devastating impact the recession has had on Detroit -- the jobless rate in the Detroit-Warren-Livonia metropolitan area in December of 2009 was 14.9 percent, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics -- and what was the league's top attendance in six of seven seasons through 2009 (including 259 straight sellouts) has dropped to eighth.
But Dumars hopes his team's stay among the NBA's dregs is short-lived.
"We're going to have a good pick," he said. "We'll defnintely be in the trade market. And we plan to be in the midlevel free-agent range. We would love to add some frontcourt presence (this summer). We just feel like we have to add a big to our team. That's what's missing. In two of those three ways -- Draft, trades and free agency -- we feel like there's a possibility that we can get a big. Obviously, it's not going to be at the mid-level."
Dumars wouldn't say, but it's clear that he'll have to use Prince, with an expiring contract for 2010-11, along with a couple of his young pieces, as his primary bait to find that big man. Hamilton, with two years left on his contract, will be harder to move. But if he has to stay in Detroit while the team is retrofitted, there's no better example of how to handle that with class than his team's president of basketball operations, who taught Grant Hill and others how to be pros as the last man standing from the 1989-90 title teams.
OUTLOOK: Dumars built a championship team through shrewd free agent signings and trades, and has always been able to find top-flight coaching to go with an excellent staff, including the league's most innovative athletic trainer, Arnie Kander. He certainly deserves more than a year to try and do it again.
2. GOLDEN STATE WARRIORS
CURRENTLY: 17-45, fifth place, Pacific, 28 games behind Lakers
HOW THEY GOT HERE: Acquired F Brandan Wright in 2007 after a trade with the Bobcats on Draft night; lost G Baron Davis to Clippers in free agency in 2008; fired general manager Chris Mullin in 2009; traded G Jamal Crawford in 2009 to Hawks; traded G Stephen Jackson in 2009 to Bobcats; season-ending injury to F Anthony Randolph
GROWTH OPPORTUNITIES: Rookie G Stephen Curry, Randolph, incredible fan base, a new owner, maybe?
My, my, my, as Lt. Philip Gerard said early in the old TV series, The Fugitive, what a mess.
Some day, someone will figure out the combination to the lock that is Golden State's almost uninterrupted period of ineptness, and then, man, will it be fun to go back to the Bay for some meaningful ball. There aren't three other NBA cities more loved by players than San Francisco and Oakland; there aren't three other NBA cities with more loyal fans than the Warriors. Inexplicably, in spite of the horrendous product on the floor, the Warriors are still in the top half of the league in attendance -- where they've been every season since 2006.
But until then -- or, perhaps, until coach Don Nelson breaks Lenny Wilkens's record for coaching victories -- Golden State limps on. To be fair, the Warriors have been limping most of the season, with Randolph lost for the season in January with torn ligaments and an avulsion fracture in his left ankle, and guard Anthony Morrow just back from a sprained knee, and Vlad Radmanovic out indefinitely with an Achilles' injury, and Raja Bell never healthy after coming from Charlotte in the Jackson trade.
Meanwhile, Andris Biedrins, who got a $60 million extension in 2008, suddenly has Acute Dudleyitis at the foul line, and is threatening to break the league's all-time record for lowest free-throw percentage in a season with 20 or more attempts. This has earned him Nelson's wrath and made Bierdins a shell of the player who looked like an up-and-coming center just two seasons ago.
And rumors abound that vilified owner Chris Cohan will, sooner or later, sell the team to billionaire Larry Ellison, the oracle of, um, Oracle. But the problem hasn't been that Cohan isn't willing to spend; it's what he's spent his millions on.
The Warriors won't be spending this summer -- they're capped out, and even if they weren't, nobody on the elite list of free agents is coming anywhere near them. To fix this, they have to start dealing.
"We'll explore the (trade) market," general manager Larry Riley said last week. "We'll do everything we can. I'm not sure we can make the trade we want, but we're going to try like the dickens to make one."
Riley won't show his hand, but it's clear Golden State is planning to build around Curry, who's brought his deadeye shooting touch from college (a robust 41 percent from 3-point range) while learning how to run an NBA team. The bait for bringing in the big man Golden State desperately needs to play alongside Randolph next season will surely be some combination of Monta Ellis (10th in the league in combined points, rebounds and assists per game) and Corey Maggette (whose remaining $30.7 million the Warriors have been trying to excise from their books for almost a year).
As for Nelson, who'll turn 70 in May, Riley -- Nelson's close friend, brought to Golden State by Nelson three years ago -- will only say, "he's our coach, and he's under contract for the next year. I've seen him coach, and I know what he can do."
OUTLOOK: The Warriors will almost certainly have to move Ellis, whom a lot of teams like, even at $11 million a year through 2014. There will be too many teams that lose out on the LeBron-Wade-Bosh Sweepstakes this summer, and they'll need to make a big move to placate their fans. Golden State should be a trading destination for a lot of teams. But Nelson is the elephant in the room. Would Riley get rid of his good friend in order to provide the necessary housecleaning the franchise desperately needs?
3. INDIANA PACERS
CURRENTLY: 20-43, fifth place, Central, 28.5 games behind Cleveland
HOW THEY GOT HERE: Traded Jermaine O'Neal to Toronto for G T.J. Ford in 2008; traded 2008 first-round pick (Jerryd Bayless) and F Ike Diogu to Portland for G Jarrett Jack and F Josh McRoberts; long-term injuries to F Mike Dunleavy; losing Jack to Toronto via free agency in 2009
GROWTH OPPORTUNITIES: F Danny Granger, second-year C Roy Hibbert, rookie F Tyler Hansbrough, 2011 cap room
It's not that trading the oft-injured O'Neal was wrong, but the Pacers did so believing that Ford was going to be the long-term solution, and that Jack would be his backup. Because of that, the Pacers felt comfortable letting Jamaal Tinsley sit out the last two months of the 2008 season after several transgressions, and reached a buyout settlement with him last summer. But Ford never won over coach Jim O'Brien, and quickly fell out of favor (he's only played in 44 games this season). Ford was so unhappy this season and was reportedly doing a dance in front of teammates at the trade deadline when Indiana got close to dealing him to Charlotte for D.J. Augustin. And the Pacers wouldn't match the four-year, $20 million offer sheet the Raptors put on Jack, leaving them back at square one -- no point guard.
Long-term injuries to Dunleavy, veteran center Jeff Foster and others have also put Indiana behind the eight ball. Which is why the Pacers are trying to preach patience with their fans.
Like Milwaukee, Indiana is looking to 2011 as the year it can be a free-agent player, in a much less crowded field. The Pacers will rid themselves of $40 million in combined salaries (Troy Murphy, Dunleavy, Jeff Foster, Solomon Jones and Ford) that summer, with only Granger and guards Dahntay Jones and A.J. Price under non-option contracts. Some of the Pacers' potential room may get tied up in extensions for Hansbrough and Hibbert, but Indy will still have plenty of space to make a deal.
Even though co-owner Mel Simon died last year, the family is still running the show, and continuity is one of the hallmarks of Indiana's ownership. Team president Larry Bird has the job for as long as he wants, recently receiving a strong vote of confidence from Pacers Sports and Entertainment president Jim Morris (and Morris, being a smart man, I'm sure, knows that saying anything less about Mr. Bird would be folly.)
OUTLOOK: Expect the Pacers to do whatever they have to this summer to try to land Augustin from Charlotte. If that doesn't happen, Indiana has enough enticing parts to find the point guard it needs. (And doesn't Minnesota have, like, eight point guards on its roster?) That should be the only thing on GM David Morway's to-do list.
4. MINNESOTA TIMBERWOLVES
CURRENTLY: 14-49, fifth place, Northwest, 28 games behind division leader Denver
HOW THEY GOT HERE: Traded Kevin Garnett in 2007 to Boston; fired coach Dwane Casey in 2007, traded Gs Randy Foye and Mike Miller in 2009 to Washington; selected Ricky Rubio in 2009 (a gamble not because of Rubio's talent, but because Wolves have to wait two years for him)
GROWTH OPPORTUNITIES: Rookie G Jonny Flynn, Fs Al Jefferson (sixth season) and Kevin Love (second), 2010 cap space, three 2010 first-round picks (possibly) and Rubio's expected arrival for the 2011-12 season
David Kahn, the Wolves' first-year vice president of basketball operations, doesn't know why he should be included on a list of executives trying to rebuild a broken franchise.
"I haven't built anything," he protested. "...We have the second-worst record in the league. We're the easiest night in the (Western) conference. We're it."
True, Minnesota has spent the first year of Kahn's tenure tearing down the old roster, amassing assets and trying to change the culture of losing under first-year coach Kurt Rambis. The changing the losing part hasn't gone so well, after a 1-15 start, but Kahn is trying to show that improving is a two-way street; the Wolves have upgraded the team's weight room and lounge, and have tried to be innovative with their players in areas like nutrition education.
"I do believe that, based on NBA standards, the Timberwolves had fallen behind the curve a little bit," Kahn said.
Minnesota expects to have between $10 million and $12 million in cap space this summer, but won't sign a free agent just for the sake of signing one. Kahn thinks that Al Jefferson and Kevin Love have proven they can play together, but that the duo will only survive long-term with more big bodies on the roster.
"They can't just be one and two," Kahn said. "The third piece has to be someone with some significant size. We need to add somebody to the team along with Kevin and Al. That's how it can work. If you say, over 82 games, can Al and Kevin work, with each of them playing 35, 38 minutes a game? No. We're just too short. We're hurt in our rim-protecting ability and we're hurt in our transition-defense ability."
In the meantime, the Wolves could have three first-rounders (they already have their own, and Utah's, and, probably, Charlotte's, unless the Bobcats fall apart down the stretch and fail to make the playoffs). They have to wait another year before Rubio's buyout with FC Barcelona gets low enough for him to come over. They've tried to placate their fans by slashing season ticket prices for fans who sign up this month by 50 percent -- and, considering the Wolves' record, their current 25th spot in league attendance this season is cause for optimism.
"The building is more alive," Kahn said. "It's an exciting venue for people to play in. It creates a level of excitement when the building is full, and in a very small way, it can accelerate the growth of our players if they can play in front of larger crowds."
OUTLOOK: Maybe Kahn is right, and he can hold onto both Love and Jefferson. But what if the Lakers were to offer, say, Andrew Bynum for Jefferson -- or, for that matter, Love, the former UCLA star? It might be too hard to resist. And with those extra picks, Minnesota has great flexibility in potential trades. But the Wolves have already bitten the bullet and committed to the long slog of rebuilding; they might as well keep it going forward another summer, try to add a young veteran or two (maybe taking a look at current tax payers like Utah and Orlando that might want to shed some salary) and wait and see what Rubio brings to the table.
5. PHILADELPHIA 76ERS
CURRENTLY: 23-39, 17.5 games behind division leader Boston
HOW THEY GOT HERE: Gave six-year, $64 million extension for center Samuel Dalembert in 2005; signed free agent Elton Brand in 2008; fired coach Mo Cheeks in 2008; departure of free agent guard Andre Miller to Portland in 2009
GROWTH OPPORTUNITIES: Rookie G Jrue Holiday, G Lou Williams, third-year F Thaddeus Young, second-year F Marreese Speights
Sometimes, you're sitting there holding a couple of lovely ladies, thinking about what you're going to spend your stacks of high society on, and some mechanic next to you flops the nut straight. (Poker jargon! Right out of Rounders. How'd I do?)
Anyway, two years ago, the Sixers looked like they were on the verge of something. They had a distinct style of play that was entertaining and winning; they had some really good young pieces in Andre Iguodala, Young and Williams, and they had a ton of cap room available to them in the summer of '08. A winning hand. But things have gone south ever since, and now Philly is stuck in neutral, their style a mess, their coach befuddled, and their one hope for drawing some interest -- the return of Allen Iverson -- on ice for the rest of the season.
"We just have not played consistent basketball," team president and general manager Ed Stefanski said last week.
Part of the reason is Stefanski's decision, upon inheriting all that cap room, to use it on free agent forward Elton Brand, and then doubling down on cementing this roster in place by giving Iguodala an $80 million extension weeks later. At first glance -- and, now, today, as I glance at the Sixers yet again -- Brand's low-post, halfcourt style seems anathema to the up-and-down way that Philly made the playoffs in consecutive seasons under Cheeks, who was let go after a was-it-that-bad 9-14 start last season. But Stefanski gave Brand $80 million, and Brand promptly got injured and missed most of the season with a torn labrum in his shoulder.
The Sixers then showed little interest in spending more money to retain their most important player, Miller, who made the fast break go. So off Miller went to Portland, while Philly gave the ball to Williams, who'd never shown point guard skills. But new coach Eddie Jordan thought Williams would do just fine in his Princeton-based attack, and with Brand healthy, at least Philly would have all its pieces in order. But it hasn't worked. The Sixers are in the bottom third of the league in scoring, and are in the bottom half defensively -- an area Stefanski says has to be improved this summer.
He also says he hasn't talked about next season with Iverson, but there's no way the Sixers are going to re-do that decision.
"When he came here," Stefanski said, "we needed a spark in the worst way, and he gave it to us on the court. And he showed some of the young guys what it takes to play in the league. He had his knee drained four times just to get out there."
But Philly needs more than toughness to get out of this fix. It needs more talent, a coherent philosophy and has to hope that Holiday will become a big-time point sooner rather than later.
OUTLOOK: With no one interested in the final three years and $51 million of Brand's contract, Stefanski will have to go the trade route to improve the roster, and also have to decide if Jordan, who's ripped his players in recent weeks for lack of energy and passion, is the guy who can generate said energy and passion. The Sixers sniffed around while Phoenix was shopping Amar'e Stoudemire, but didn't want to part with Iguodala on a gamble that they could convince Stoudemire to stay. That might change this summer. And Philly has other enticing pieces: rising expiring contracts for Dalembert, guards Willie Green and Jason Kapono and forward Jason Smith. Tax-leery teams could bite. For Stefanski's sake, they had better.
Saturday, the future of the NBA -- one possible future, anyway -- was on display at MIT, where Rockets GM Daryl Morey had his fourth annual MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference in front of a capacity crowd. What began as an offshoot of the MBA program that Morey helped develop while he taught at MIT last decade has now become an ESPN-sponsored, must-attend event for the NBA's Moneyball crowd -- a growing subsection of teams that crunch the numbers in every way possible to find a statistical edge.
Sloan doesn't just look at numbers, or how people get numbers: panelists look at every financial aspect of pro sports and how it impacts the game on the floor, field or diamond. How are fans being serviced by new stadiums and arenas? How does a successful player's brand bring value to a city? What new stats are just waiting to be developed that can make a difference when evaluating a player's contribution to his team?
This year's panels included forward-thinking topics about performance enhancement ("Will Future Athletes be Formula One or NASCAR?"), social media marketing and the future of "storytelling" in journalism in our Twitter-dominated society, and provocative, self-correcting panels like "What Geeks Don't Get: The Limits of Moneyball."
Morey's work in unearthing proprietary information for the Rockets is the stuff of modern NBA legend, detailing hidden worth in players like Chuck Hayes and Shane Battier for what they bring defensively to the table. And while there are still skeptics ("people who haven't won anything, who think they have something to teach us," sniffed a Western Conference team executive Saturday), the trend line is moving toward guys like Morey and Mavericks owner Mark Cuban, who attended the Sloan conference again this year.
"I dont look for info from teams," Cuban e-mailed Sunday afternoon. "I look for info from outside sources who might take a different look at the NBA with fresh eyes. This year there was the value of the shot clock, advanced plus minus, omission bias from officials in all sports. All kinds of good things."
Those who would scoff at the new number-crunchers do so at their peril. Cuban's referee numbers were a signficant factor in the changes made by the league in recent years in its Referee Operations department (as was, to be complete, the Tim Donaghy scandal). The league put in an outside boss, as Cuban had been agitating for, in retired general Ronald Johnson to supervise the officials, instead of having a former referee in charge.
There is controversy in topics such as bias. Two University of Pennsylvania professors caused a storm in 2007 with a published study that claimed to prove that white NBA officials called more fouls against African-American players than white players because of unconscious racial bias. The league pushed back hard, claiming it could prove that its officials had no such bias. In the end, neither convinced the other that it was right or wrong.
This year, Cuban continued to argue that the league should take a leadership position in enhancing its current box score with other information that would be useful to teams. Because each team currently guards its proprietary data fiercely -- Morey won't disclose how many people work for him in Houston, or what those people are looking for; Cuban will never share his team's ranking and ratings of officials, for example -- knowing whether your numbers actually work is a daunting process. It would be like an NFL team never "self-scouting" against itself to see what opponents are likely to do against it in future games.
But Cuban says the league could still help immensely by stepping in, even if it meant the Mavericks and other teams would then be competing with the league's numbers.
"I would love [for] the league to do analysis from a shared center rather than each team spending the money," Cuban said in the e-mail. "If not to the extent we currently do it (because not all teams are not into analytics), then expanding the box score and play by play data. Things like location of the foul rather than just two-shot foul. Or deflections. Things that are universally valuable."
(Last week's ranking in brackets)
1) Dallas  (43-21): Mavericks assured of 10th straight year at .500 or better -- which just happens to be how long Cubes has owned the team since buying it in 2000 from Ross Perot, Jr.
2) Cleveland  (49-15): LBJ breaks Z's team record for minutes played (21,597) at the age of 25, but Z announces he's coming back to re-claim the throne, starting March 22. Who else smells a steel cage match in the Flats?
3) Orlando  (44-20): If Vince plays like he did against the Lakers in the first half, the Magic will have something to say about the Eastern Conference championship.
4) L.A. Lakers  (46-18): First three-game losing streak of the Pau Gasol era after falling to Magic Sunday.
5) Denver  (42-21): Nuggets' realistic chances of beating West's elite may well depend on the medical staff's recommendation this week about what to do with Kenyon Martin's knee. Denver can't win without him.
6) Utah  (40-22): Wesley Matthews is shooting .465 from the floor since replacing the traded Ronnie Brewer in the starting lineup.
7) Atlanta  (40-22): Hawks on pace for a fifth straight season of regular-season improvement, but have fallen slightly off the pace behind division-leading Magic.
8) Phoenix  (40-25): Suns start brand new TNT jinx with come-from-ahead loss to Utah on Thursday.
9) Boston  (40-21): Can Finley, Nate lengthen the C's bench enough to make a difference in the playoffs?
10) Oklahoma City  (38-24): Thunder's combined victory totals last two seasons: 43. Wins this season: 38. Games remaining: 20.
11) Portland  (37-28): Camby misses game against Denver Sunday because of what he called a "freakish" injury to his foot in a scrimmage on Friday, when his foot became caught between the floor at the Blazers' practice facility and the basket support. Freakish? No, just Friday in Portland, where centers go to rehab -- again and again.
12) San Antonio  (36-24): Won four straight, but Tony Parker's broken hand kind of harshes the buzz, and the kids know what I'm saying.
13) Milwaukee [NR] (33-29): Let's just say GM John Hammond has had the hot hand lately: extending Andrew Bogut, drafting Brandon Jennings, signing Jerry Stackhouse, trading for John Salmons.
14) Toronto  (32-29): Raptors treaded water without Bosh in the lineup, and now Milwaukee has passed them in the playoff standings.
15) Chicago  (31-31): Thirteen of Bulls' last 20 against .500 or better teams.
Dallas (4-0): Mavs didn't exactly beat Murderers' Row this week, taking Charlotte, Minnesota, Sacramento and Chicago as they ran their consecutive win streak to 11 games. But they showed how incredibly deep they are. Rookie Roddy Beaubois stepped in for the injured Jason Terry (facial surgery) and ripped off 22 and 24 points in back-to-back starts; Beaubois averaged 21 for the week. Caron Butler shot 54 percent (32 of 59) from the floor. And Dirk Diggler averaged 26.8. Yawn.
New Orleans (0-3): CP3 close to returning, and not a moment too soon -- although Darren Collison has performed as well as anyone could expect from a rookie point.
Isn't Scott Skiles doing one of the best coaching jobs in the league this season?
In his second season with the Bucks, Skiles has Milwaukee about where he had Chicago in his second season there: vastly improved defensively and on its way to the postseason. In doing so, the Bucks have taken on the look and attitude of their coach: no-nonsense, tough, scrappy. Andrew Bogut has become a defensive force, while newly acquired guard John Salmons provided the Bucks with immediate help after Michael Redd went down for the season again with a torn ACL.
Milwaukee went 10-4 in February, Skiles was named Eastern Conference Coach of the Month, and after beating the LeBron-less Cavs on Saturday, the Bucks have won three in a row, nine of 10 and 15 of their last 19, rising to fifth place in the East, passing Toronto over the weekend.
"I guess the main factor would be that we didn't give up," Skiles said Friday.
The Bucks took advantage of home cooking, a favorable November schedule and rookie Brandon Jennings' explosive start to post an 8-3 record out of the gate. But Milwaukee knew there would be a reckoning when the tough teams came in, and it came fast: an 8-20 skid from December through mid-January, that culminated with a 1-5 Western road trip.
"The M.O. of our franchise over the past several years, anyway, has been to kind of get down, fall behind a little bit and then, boom, just cave, and that's it," Skiles said. "And the season's over by now, or before now, even. We were 18-25. But during that stretch, right near the end of that stretch, we started playing better. We took Dallas to the wire on the road, Houston to the wire on the road ... we got Jerry [Stackhouse], and he started to help, and we were able to finish strong before the break. So I guess to sum it all up is the fact that we didn't quit. We kept playing, played through it."
Skiles has been a major part of that.
"He's a guy that we respect, because every day, he brings it," Bogut said. "We have off days, and he's very, very fair in that sense, but when we practice, we practice hard. Not long. Shootarounds are focused. Film sessions are focused. I think guys have that respect for him. I think, no disrespect to the other coaches (before), but we had coaches that were kind of inexperienced in the NBA ... Skiles just brings that automatic toughness. Even just talking to him preseason, you kind of know that he's got that focus, he's got that glass face. He's not taking no [bleep]. He's not taking no crap. You better know you better bring it."
And the Bucks are doing this while Jennings goes through one of the worst prolonged slumps I've ever seen a good player go through. Usually, guys that struggle to shoot get some pine time, but Skiles has left Jennings out there, night after night, to fire away. Over a 30-game period through last Wednesday, Jennings had shot a horrific 126-403 (31.3 percent from the floor), and had shot better than 50 percent from the floor during that stretch twice.
"On a (personal note)," Jennings tweeted after going 2 for 12 Wednesday, "I suck. I'm done I'm not shooting no more, for a while. smh"
But Skiles has kept Jennings in the starting lineup and tried to keep his head up.
"One of the reasons we're not overly concerned about it," Skiles said, "is his first, I don't even remember what it was now, his first six or seven games, he was shooting 55 (percent). We didn't think he was a 55 percent shooter anyway. And we don't think he is what he is now. We think it's in the middle. We would be concerned if he wasn't working at it, if it was affecting other areas of his game. But his defense has been better as the year's gone on. He's a low-turnover player. He can steal balls. He sees everybody. He's picking up the NBA offense much better. He's improved in a lot of areas."
Skiles also has asked for more from Bogut, the former No. 1 overall pick who's always been a steady scorer in his five seasons, but who has picked up his work on the glass (tying a career best with 10.3 boards per game this season) and on defense, where Bogut is currently second in the league in blocked shots per game at 2.4.
"He instilled confidence in me in the offseason, when he said 'we're going down there to you,'" Bogut said. "'Good or bad, if you're making shots, you're missing shots, we're going to keep coming to you, so you need to suck it up as a pro. If you're missing five, six shots in a row, it's coming back to you the seventh time.' I think having that courage to put confidence in you is huge, especially for a guy like myself."
Crockett and Tubbs left; why couldn't Flash? From Michael Tucker:
Do you really think that Dwyane Wade could really leave Miami? I personally don't think he has anything to worry about. The team is ran by Pat Riley, an NBA legend who could easily convince some of the other max free agents to come to the Heat. Plus, it's Miami.
Short answer: yes, if he doesn't think Miami can build a championship-level team around him. We should know whether Riley can do that about a week into July. That's what makes this so intriguing; Cleveland is impassible as currently constructed -- as long as LeBron sticks around. If he stays, there's a much bigger chance that Wade leaves.
Get this man an umbrella; he's hearing the Thunder. From Josh Sheppard:
Hey this email is regarding the mvp race, first of all ima die hard laker fan and can't wait for kobe to win the finals mvp but this seasons award should belong to durant. The true meaning of the award is not who had the best season which would be lebron, it's for the most valuable which would clearly be durant. The thunder have made a huge leap and have a good chance to make noise in the playoffs in the tougher western conference while they were one of the worst teams in the league last year.
Durant will get a lot of third-place votes, but there's no way many voters will have him ahead of either Kobe or LeBron.
LeBron James (29.3 ppg, 9 rpg, 9 apg, .565 FG, .737 FT): Missed his first game of the season Saturday after turning his ankle against Detroit on Friday. Cavs scored 85 points on Saturday in Milwaukee. No coincidence.
Kobe Bryant (30.8 ppg, 4.5 rpg, 4.8 apg, .441 FG, .881 FT): Looked his best during the week on Sunday against Magic, when he almost brought the Lakers all the way back. But still under the weather, and under his normal lethal form.
Carmelo Anthony (27.8 ppg, 5.8 rpg, 4.8 apg, .519 FG, .743 FT): Got an IV this week to deal with fatigue, and if Kenyon Martin is out a while, the burden on Melo will be even larger.
Kevin Durant (29.3 ppg, 7.8 rpg, 2.3 apg, .446 FG, .907 FT): In tight race with LeBron for scoring title, but Durantula rightly more concerned with win total for Thunder, which continues to bring it defensively (third in field goal percentage allowed and top 10 in points allowed per 100 possessions).
Dirk Nowitzki (26.8 ppg, 8.8 rpg, 2.3 apg, .482 FG, .962 FT): He is unstoppable on the right side of the floor. Just forget it. The turnaround, or the two-man game, whatever the Mavs run over there, just ring up two for the Diggler and start back down the court. I will happily volunteer to cover a Dallas-Denver second round series.
Dropped out: Dwight Howard
8 -- Consecutive home losses for Memphis after Saturday's home loss to the Spurs -- which came almost immediately after the Grizzlies' franchise-record 11 straight wins at FedEx Forum.
319 -- Consecutive games the Knicks had made at least one 3-pointer, dating to 2006, before going 0-for-18 from behind the arc in Saturday's embarassing 113-93 home loss to the Nets -- a game in which New Jersey set season highs in points and largest lead during a game (20 points).
1,900 -- Franchise victories for the Suns after Saturday's win over Indiana, making Phoenix just the 10th franchise in league history to reach that milestone. (You may be surprised to know that both the Hawks and Kings franchises have more than 2,000 franchise wins, but remember that the Hawks have played uninterrupted in the NBA since 1950, when the franchise began as the Tri-Cities Hawks, and the Kings started play in 1949 as the Rochester Royals.
1) Many thanks to everyone who took part in "Hoops for St. Jude Week" this past week, from the coaches who wore St. Jude's pins on the sidelines, to the schools that had fundraisers, to those of you who bid on signed items from LeBron James, Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O'Neal, among others, to the players who took a leadership role in donating money per point this season: Shane Battier, Steve Blake, Rudy Gay, Pau Gasol, Danny Granger and Kevin Love. And to George Karl, who is donating $20,000 and continues to be a spokesperson for the cause while undergoing chemotherapy treatments for cancer.
I'm honored to play a small role in raising awareness for St. Jude's, the remarkable hospital in Memphis that is one of the leading pediatric cancer centers in the world--a hospital that, and it cannot be said enough, treats every child that comes in, regardless of the family's ability to pay. To do that, St. Jude's has to raise funds, which is where you, the players and the coaches come in. Thanks again. And you can continue to support the effort by visiting www.hoopsforstjude.org.
2) Phoenix's chances to move up in the standings down the stretch. The Suns should get Leandro Barbosa back soon, and with a favorable schedule the rest of the regular season, they stand a fighting chance to overtake Utah and get fourth place -- and home-court advantage -- in a first-round series.
3) That's pretty good leadership out of Paul Pierce. He didn't name names, but made it clear that too many Celtics were coasting through the regular season. Message received.
4) No problem with any of the choices at the Oscars this season, with the caveat that I didn't see most of the pictures -- but heard they were all pretty good. Want to go see The Hurt Locker, which won Best Picture. Talked with the real Leigh Anne Touhy, who loved Sandra Bullock's portrayal of her in The Blind Side, the story of Michael Oher and the family that took him in in Memphis -- the Touhys, which includes Sean Touhy, the Grizzlies' play-by-play guy. My man TK told me Jeff Bridges (Best Actor) was great in Crazy Heart. Happy for Mo'Nique (Best Supporting Actress Precious. I did see Christoph Waltz, who won Best Supporting Actor for Inglorious Basterds. One of 10 isn't bad...right?
5) HBO's Bird-Magic movie is outstanding. I thought I had seen every possible bit of footage over the years chronicaling their rivalry, but HBO dug up some tape from 1978, when Bird and Magic were second-stringers -- second-stringers! -- on the United States World Invitational Tournament team that barnstormed against international competition. One play shows, even then, a year before they met in the 1979 NCAA title game, the incredible, unspoken feel the two had for the game: Magic comes down the lane, draws the defenders, and throws a no-look pass behind his head to Bird, trailing behind him. Bird drives to the basket, where defenders converge on him, and he throws a no-look pass back to Magic, who lays the ball in. Unbelievable.
1) Yucch on Saturday, Knicks. Yucch.
3) I don't envy the Wizards. Because of the snowstorms in Washington which postponed their Feb. 6 game against Atlanta, they now have to play three games in three days this week, and that's after playing the Rockets on Tuesday. On Thursday comes the makeup date against the Hawks, followed by a Friday game at Detroit and a Saturday home game versus Orlando. Then Washingon flies to Utah, plays the Jazz Monday, then goes to Denver to complete a back-to-back against the Nuggets. That's six games in eight days in four cities.
4) One reason I've always respected Allen Iverson, even though all the drama in his life, is that he always spoke glowingly about his wife Tawanna, whom he's known since they were in high school. Unfortunately, she filed for divorce last week, adding to the burden AI is under with his daughter's illness. Continued good wishes to everyone in the Iverson family as you go through this very difficult time.
5) Okay, non-basketball segway. Bill Simmons is the Zeitgeist for millions of sports fans. I get that. I respect his following, his passion for basketball and his undeniable success as an Internet/podcast phenomenon. But Tiger Woods coming back to golf after his admission of extramarital affairs is not more difficult than Muhammad Ali coming back to boxing after being convicted of draft evasion in 1967, as Simmons has argued. It. Is. Not. There may be more media scrutiny today than there was in Ali's day, but no one has threatened to put a bullet in Tiger's head, or kill his family, or send him to prison for the rest of his life -- all daily occurrences in the life of Ali from 1966-70. And just because there's more media now doesn't mean that, say, TMZ is as important or influential as Walter Cronkite was when 27 million Americans tuned in nightly to the CBS Evening News.
And Simmons's idea that Black America in 1970 was a "massive group of people" that provided Ali support that Woods doesn't have, compared to the tens of millions of White Americans who detested Ali and wanted him jailed for refusing to serve in the military, is just ... laughable. Yes, most black people wanted Ali to beat Joe Frazier. But most white people, even by 1971, wanted Frazier to drive Ali's mandible through his nose. And there were more of them than there were of us. (This is why Frazier remains angry to this day that Ali, cruelly, defined Frazier as "the white man's champion,' when Frazier's life as the child of a South Carolina sharecropper was much closer to the experience of what most blacks had gone through than Ali's relatively middle-class life growing up in Louisville.)
Nor was there a singular "anti-war movement" rooting for Ali. Yes, Stokely Carmichael occasionally mentioned Ali in speeches about the liberation movement, but the movement was splintered between the college students who began staging large rallies on campus (the "teach-ins" of the mid-60s), the more radical Students for a Democratic Society, the Weathermen, etc. Among blacks, there was the splintered remains of Dr. King's nonviolent movement, and SNCC, and the Black Panthers -- and their "support" for Ali, such as it was, was still overshadowed by the prospect of Ali's going to prison.
As the great Dave Kindred writes in his seminal book about the relationship between Ali and Howard Cosell, Sound and Fury, Ali wasn't out of legal danger until June, 1971, three months after his fight with Joe Frazier and eight months after his comeback fight with Jerry Quarry, when Supreme Court Justice John Harlan reversed his original decision to affirm Ali's conviction for draft evasion -- a conviction that courts had upheld six times since 1967. Harlan's change of heart deadlocked the Court in a 4-4 vote (Justice Thurgood Marshall had recused himself from Ali's case for legal reasons), and soon after, Justice Potter Stewart forged a compromise in which the Court would acknowledge that Ali's objections to the draft for religious reasons were sincere enough to overturn his conviction.
Ali only became beloved in the 1980s, only after he became infirm, and engendered sympathy where there had once been vitriol. People may think Tiger Woods a cuckold and a fool, but no one wants to shoot him. Woods may be mortified and embarassed, but he isn't caught between White America and Black America, between the Nation of Islam's desires and his own, evolving interpretation of what his religion really meant and taught. Nor is anyone trying to drive his mandible through his nose. Different time.
6) Sorry to see this about Skip. Thought that was a great place for him after getting out of the Swamp.
7) Ninety-six teams in the NCAA Tournament is 31 too many. Could the NCAA's presidents leave some money on the table, just this once? Yeah, I know.
This week's Mr. Fifteen is Washington Wizards guard Shaun Livingston. The 24-year-old guard signed a 10-day contract with Washington late last month after being waived in December by Oklahoma City, his fourth NBA team in the past 14 months. Livingston has struggled to find a home after his pro career was permanently altered by the severe knee injury he suffered while with the Clippers in 2007. That gruesome injury -- complete tears of his ACL and PCL, a severe sprain of his MCL, a shattered patella and tibia-femoral joint -- was one of the worst on-court injuries ever suffered by a basketball player. It ended any hopes of Livingston's becoming the superstar that many projected he'd be when he came straight out of high school, and was the fourth pick overall in the 2004 Draft.
Livingston rehabbed tirelessly, but the Clippers declined to pick up their option on him in the summer of 2007. After a year out of action while he completed his rehab, Livingston was signed by the Heat in 2008. He played half a season in Miami before being dealt to Memphis in a complex deal that ended with Livingston being waived by the Grizzlies the same day. Oklahoma City picked him up in March of 2009 and he came to the Thunder's camp looking for a chance to back up Russell Westbrook. Instead, the Thunder acquired rookie Eric Maynor from Utah in December, and Livingston was released.
The Wizards are in flux after all of their trades, and Livingston might stick around the rest of the year as Washington takes a look at him behind starting point Randy Foye and backup Earl Boykins. Livingston has played in three games so far for the Wizards, totalling 22 minutes. But Livingston is sober enough to realize that he might just be making another pit stop as he looks for a team to give him that real opportunity.
Me: What are you hoping to get out of this while you're here?
Shaun Livingston: I think it's an opportunity to show not only this team, but the league, that I can still play the game of basketball. I've been known as a point guard. I can still do some of the things I once did before my injury. And just play hard, show effort. Obviously, with this team, just because of who they gave up and the injuries, we're not the most talented, but you want to see effort.
Me: So if someone asks, 'What can you still do?,' what do you tell them?
SL: I can still run the pick and roll. I can still make plays for others. I can still get in the lane and shoot over smaller guards. I can still post up smaller guards. I can still defend. I feel I'm able to defend, especially the more and more I get in shape. Those are the things, just my feel for the game, that's something that never goes away.
Me: The places you were at the last couple of years, was there one where you felt they were going to give you a fair shot?
SL: Oklahoma City. And they did. It was an opportunity for me, that I tried to make the most of. It didn't go as I might have planned, but what does? It's life, and life is about adjustments, adjusting to the situation. It was a good opportunity.
Me: Why didn't it work?
SL: I think what they were looking for, they liked a certain player in the Draft that they brought over, and they had to make it happen. I can't remember the kid's name, he played at VCU, he played for Utah ...
SL: Yeah, Maynor. I know they really liked him, and what he could bring to the table. It worked out, obviously, that way.
Me: Do you feel like there's this paragraph that proceeds you wherever you go: 'Shaun Livingston, who suffered the devastating knee injury ...'?
SL: No question. No question. I mean, that's just the reality of it. And the reality of it is, that's going to be with me my whole career, and even after my career. It's going to be the 'What if?' and it's going to be 'The guy that could've been.' But I came to that realization a long time ago, when I was laying in the hospital bed. So I'm saying a lot of people can't accept what happens to them. I've already accepted that. My job is to make the best out of what I have right now, and my opportunity. And I'm thankful for it, and try to make the most out of it.
Me: Do you still think, if you got the right opportunity, that you could be a lead guard in this league?
SL: I feel there's an opportunity for me to do that. I do. I feel confident that I would be able to do that. To me, it's more physical than anything. That's been my whole knock my whole career. It's not whether he can play; it's whether he can withhold the grind. It's something my body would have to allow me to do. If that was the case, I feel like I'm smart enough and I know the game well enough that I could still run an NBA basketball team.
Me: But you'd be cool with just playing regular?
SL: Of course. Whatever opportunity there is. Obviously, I've been out of this league. I've been cut. I've been through the trenches. So if there's an opportunity, I'm thankful. I'm happy to be playing. I appreciate it a lot more than before the injury, but I'm not necessarily content. I want to stick. That's a goal of mine, to make a home somewhere, make the most of it.
Me: Where will you be this summer?
SL: I don't know. I'll probably be in Chicago, L.A.
Me: You gonna work with Tim [Grover]?
SL: Yeah, I usually work with Tim. I didn't work with him last year. I know a bunch of guys was up there last year. I missed the runs last summer. But I go out to L.A. and get a little bit of run out there ... they have a newer facility out there called Hacks, that's Elton Brand, Corey Maggette. There's a lot of Clippers out there that went back. And one of the trainers out there trains Lamar Odom, so he brings a couple of the Lakers and kind of gets that thing going.
"There's a fit, and there's a chance to win it all, and those things are attractive."
-- Agent Henry Thomas, explaining why Michael Finley opted to sign with the Celtics for the rest of the season after being waived last week by the Spurs.
"We're a new organization so a lot of people don't know us. They probably just thought we were a college team."
-- Oklahoma City forward Kevin Durant, to the Oklahoman, after the Thunder walked three blocks from its practice gym in Santa Monica to its hotel before Friday's game against the Clippers without being accosted by anyone.
"When I jumped to block the shot, I looked down and saw that there was a hole in my knee."
-- Greg Oden, recalling to the Indianapolis Star his latest season-ending knee injury. Oden started light jogging this week for the first time since fracturing the patella in his left knee last December.
Longtime NBA reporter and columnist David Aldridge is an analyst for TNT. You can e-mail him here.
The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Turner Broadcasting.
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