Posted Jan 30 2012 7:14AM - Updated Jan 30 2012 5:49PM
They have seen this before in Philadelphia.
They saw it when Pat Croce rappelled down the scoreboard of what was then called the First Union Center, when Allen Iverson was young and Larry Brown was dealin' out his coaching genius, and Dikembe Mutombo was wagging his finger, and the 76ers were the hot ticket in town. They saw it when Charles Barkley was young and dunking at the Spectrum.They saw it when the Doctor and McGinnis and a young guard named Doug Collins brought their fathers and mothers out of their seats a generation ago.
New is not new when you're a city that's been waiting 30 years for another ring.
But for all of its bluster and tough-guy stance, Philly is a town with a soft spot. It's a sucker, really, for anyone who exhibits true passion and who knows his or her way around town. It's why people loved Eagles like Chuck Bednarik and Brian Dawkins, but didn't wholly embrace Donovan McNabb. They love gritty guys like Jimmy Rollins and can't be bothered by standoffish guys like Pat Burrell. Iverson generated a love from fans long past his greatest effectiveness because he really did play every game like it was his last. LB was nuts in a lot of ways, but you knew he really cared, would give anything to win and play basketball the right way.
So, Adam Aron has them at hello.
"Our job was to reconnect the city with this team," Aron said Saturday.
Aron is the new CEO and co-owner of the 76ers -- it says so on his Twitter handle (@SixersCEOAdam). He does not own the majority share in the team -- that belongs to Joshua Harris, who brought Aron and a dozen other partners in last June to officially buy the Sixers from Comcast-Spectacor, the franchise's previous owners. The group is a 21st century Who's Who of Philly movers and shakers -- those who were born there, like Aron and megastar actor/rapper Will Smith; those who went to school there, like Harris and co-managing owner David Blitzer, who are both Wharton graduates; and those who made a fortune there, like Michael Rubin, who founded the company GSI Commerce in nearby King of Prussia and sold it for a cool $2.3 billion to eBay.
They are the Tipping Point, Wiz Wit. And Aron spreads the cheese.
He is everywhere at what is now called Wells Fargo Center, handing out his cards, shaking hands with fans, taking notes, Tweeting his heart out, making converts, as he says, one handshake at a time. And he is slowly trying to revive a fan base that has fallen off severely in the years since Iverson's due date came and went, and the life went out of the franchise. It happened slowly -- Croce's energy disappeared when he tried to buy the team outright from former chair Ed Snider, who pushed Croce out. Brown left for the next leg of his peripatetic coaching journey. Iverson was traded to Denver. And the Sixers faded from the city's consciousness.
Their attendance plummeted from an average of 20,560 in 2001-02. It was 19,600 in '03, 17,800 in '05, 15,000 in '07, 14,200 in 2010. Television ratings were on a 10-year slide as well. The Sixers made the playoffs occasionally under a series of coaches, from Jim O'Brien to Mo Cheeks to interim coach Tony DiLeo, who came down from the front office to replace Cheeks in 2008. But with the Phillies becoming a World Series contender and champion, and the Eagles a perennial playoff team, and the Flyers always having a rabid fan base bigger than theirs, and the Big Five -- if not as dominant as in the '70s or '80s, still a factor -- the Sixers had a brand problem.
"When we bought the team, we knew the 76ers had attendance issues," Aron said. "And we thought that the fifth-largest city in the United States, as a sports-crazy town, could certainly support a team in each of the four major professional sports. I spent the first 20 years of my life in Philadelphia, and when I was a kid here, this was a four-team sports town all the way. I used to watch Wilt Chamberlain and Hal Greer play at the old Civic Center. And Billy Cunningham. But in recent years -- I guess ever since Allen Iverson left the team -- it's been trending toward a three-sports town, and, oh yeah, the Sixers play here, too."
Slowly, the new owners are changing the narrative. It helps that Collins, still beloved here, brought his no-nonsense, embracing style to town last season, and quickly turned a team of underachievers into a winning, exciting team that made the playoffs last year and which has picked up where it left off, blowing out to the Atlantic Division lead and a 10-2 record at home. But Aron has done more than his part as well. The 76ers have sold more than $1 million in ticket sales each of the last three weeks, and are on pace for ticket sales this season -- in 33 home games -- to exceed ticket sales last season in 41 home games.
The Sixers say they are selling 4,000 tickets a day. They're up to 23rd in average attendance, at 14,614 per game, and if that doesn't sound impressive, they were 29th two weeks ago. The announced attendance Saturday against the lowly Pistons was 18,710, though it looked like there were a couple thousand fewer in the stands -- though 16,000 to see a bad Detroit team on a Saturday would still be pretty good. They had a walkup crowd at Wells Fargo of 2,600 on Jan. 10 -- a Tuesday -- to see the Kings, a development so stunning they had to scramble to find enough ticket sellers to handle the rush. Television ratings on Comcast SportsNet are up to an average 2.5 rating locally, up from a 1.6 average rating last season. And Aron has been the face of the work that has gone into saturating the local media, fan base, corporate crowd and anyone who'd listen that this is a team worth supporting.
"He's the hardest working guy I've ever been around in my entire life," Collins said, and he knows from hard workers.
"He sat on my couch in San Diego with (Collins' wife) Kathy and I, and he said 'It's my job to put butts in the seats,'" Collins said. "And I said 'It's my job to win games. And if we can win games, maybe we can both help each other.' I've never seen a guy work any harder to change an environment, to reach out, to always be around. And that's why I love him. He's a special guy."
Gladwell argues in his book The Tipping Point that there are certain types of people -- he calls them Collectors, Mavens and Salesmen -- who can promote an activity or a product simply by word of mouth. They know so many different sets of people from different walks of life that they can spread the word more effectively than an army of PR people. They make something "hot." Harris and his fellow owners may well be such people in Philly. Smith, the "Fresh Prince" who grew up in West Philly, brings the Hollywood crowd and media attention when he and his equally famous wife and co-owner, Jada Pinkett Smith, sit courtside. Harris and his Wharton Connectors know everyone in town -- or at least many of the people who have the kind of money to buy season tickets.
Aron, 57, who went to Harvard, went the corporate route -- Hyatt, United Airlines (he helped the naming rights deal for United Center in Chicago), Norweigian Cruise Lines, Vail Resorts. He's helped run companies where the experience of what you did was more important than anything. You don't take pictures and videos of your workplace; you take pictures and videos of your vacations. So he knows fans don't just want to watch a basketball game; they want to be entertained. (If this sounds like Mark Cuban Philosophy, that crossed my mind, too.)
"I think in Philadelphia, I don't think it's lack of interest," said Lara Price, the 76ers' longtime Senior VP of Business Operations. "You have to have that connection with them, and you have to have that interaction with them. And the thing I've noticed is that Adam has connected with them the way Pat did -- emotionally -- with them. And they feel like he's listening. And that's not to say we didn't listen before, because I've been with every ownership group. We listened ... but it's new. And combined with winning, it's kind of like lightning in a bottle."
Aron says the Wharton/Philly connection has helped -- the new ownership group's initial press conference in August was at the Palestra, and "that site wasn't picked by accident," Aron said -- but the underpinnings came from simple pledges they made to fans. They promised to put a winning team on the court. They would embrace the franchise's deep and winning heritage with multiple video presentations highlighting great players of the past. They would boost the fans' in-game experience -- from confetti and the "ringing" of the Liberty Bell after victories, to the Sixers' version of Milwaukee's Squad 6, The Revolutionaries -- "putting on a happening at the arena that you want to be at," Aron said. They would connect with fans via Twitter and other social media. They would increase the team's marketing efforts with a trio of television ads featuring Collins, the current team and the franchise's history, pointing out the 76ers had the third-most wins and the third-most playoffs appearances in NBA history -- but not to promote upcoming games.
They further tapped into the franchise's tradition by reviving the team's old fight song, "Here Come The Sixers," to be played during games ("I started singing on the bench," Collins said, "and I lost my focus"). Kate Smith 2.0 is Ayla Brown, a beautiful young woman who sings the national anthem live before every home game, with a synched performance of the anthem by the Philadelphia Orchestra playing on the scoreboard above her. (Aron heard Brown sing in Colorado but had to find her name on YouTube; a classical music afficianado, he wanted to have her backed up by one of the country's best orchestras.)
Lastly, critically, the owners slashed ticket prices throughout the building -- structurally, as opposed to one- or two-game giveaways -- by as much as 56 percent in some of the upper bowl rows. They created different prices in sections instead of one price for every seat from, say, Row A to Row Z. For example, in the 1,200 seats throughout the arena that are just off the court, off the baseline, prices were $101 per seat last season. This season, the first 10 rows are $109 per seat. But the next seven rows behind them are $89 per seat, and the next six rows behind those are $59 per seat. Instead of a family of four paying $404 dollars, as they would have done last season, no matter where they sat in those seats, it can pay as little as $236.
In response to fan input, the Sixers also cut online ticketing fees for its $10 tickets in the upper bowl from more than $8 per transaction to as little as $4 for a single ticket. And they waived the $2.50 the team had been charging fans to print their own tickets at home.
"I mean, it's not like people really couldn't afford $2.50," Aron said. "It's just the principle of the thing. Being charged to push the print button on your own computer, on your own printer, with your own ink and your own paper?"
(This is, still, a business, of course. Tickets for marquee opponents like the Heat and Lakers are on a separate tier, costing $5 or $10 more than the regular price. And the price of courtside seats, suites and boxes weren't cut.)
Under the previous regime, "We didn't really sell a lot of tickets, in the grand scheme of things," Aron said. "And when we did sell them, we sold them off at great discounts. When the new ownership came in, we said we'd rather have an arena that tends to be more full than tends to be empty. And we'd rather have half of something than 100 percent of nothing."
The lockout-compressed schedule produced another potential pitfall. The Sixers had 13 home games in 25 days in January, and not against, shall we say, the cream of the NBA crop. There were a lot of Washingtons and Detroits in there. Not even the most die-hard NBA fan can easily drop whatever it is they do with their discretionary income and their time and go to a game every other day. So throughout January, every ticket in the upper bowl, including those that would normally go for $20, $30 or $45 sold for $17.76 (get it?) or less -- with no online ticket fees.
"That's one of the things from our season ticket holders -- their biggest complaint was 'I can't go to 13 games in a month,'" Price said. "The most we've ever had in one month (before), I think we were at nine one time. And most other times, it's seven. People's lives are very busy. I think we've got a lot of new fans, and a lot of new fans back that had been turned off for one reason or another. They like what they're seeing. They like the stuff they see outside of the basketball game."
The basketball, of course, still matters. The Sixers have been dominant at home, playing an exciting, up-tempo style. Collins has insisted that the team play like one; on any given night, any of six or seven guys could be the leading scorer. They're fifth in the league in points per 100 possessions, at 105.3. They are tied with the Bulls for stingiest defense, allowing just under 87 points per game, and are tied for second in lowest field-goal percentage allowed, .418. They are first in the league in fewest points allowed per 100 possessions, at 92.3 per game. Jrue Holliday and Jodie Meeks are becoming an effective if unheralded backcourt; Andre Iguodala, playing his usual all-around game but averaging just 12.8 points per game, is nonetheless poised to make his first All-Star appearance if the team keeps winning at this rate. Such are the rewards for teams that do well.
The fans have been appreciative.
"I think they're more active in the games," Iguodala said. "If we get down, they stick with us a little bit. Whereas last year, you might have had some boos, even though we were still in the game. This year, even if we go through a spurt where we don't score, we might be down and the other team goes on an 8-0 run, they're still in there with us, which is a good thing. There's been a few times where we've made a big play, and they really, just like, erupted. And it gave us some momentum and we were able to finish out the games."
But with Saturday's win over Detroit, the Sixers have completed their non-conference NBA schedule. How about this for your next eight home games: Orlando tonight, Chicago Wednesday, Miami Friday, the Lakers on Feb. 6, San Antonio on Feb. 8, the Clippers on Feb. 10, Dallas on the 17th (after a three-game road trip) and Oklahoma City on Feb. 29, after a four-game road swing preceding the All-Star break? It's not likely Philly will go through that stretch unscathed. Indeed, given the decided raise in opponent quality, it wouldn't surprise if the Sixers gave back some of their Atlantic Division lead. In short, is this promising new beginning with fans sustainable if the team stops winning?
"Part of the answer is we're all going to find out together," Aron said. "But everything I described did not happen by accident. It came as the result of tons of hard work. So we're going to continue to work hard. And we're going to continue to innovate. And we're going to try our hardest to continue to put exciting, winning basketball on the floor."
The Hornets' unusual step of publicly acknowledging they were shopping Chris Kaman creates a buyers' market for the 29-year-old former All-Star. With Kaman's agent, Rob Pelinka, working on potential deals as well, New Orleans won't lack for potential suitors. It also helps that the Hornets have recalibrated their initial demands of an expiring contract, a young player and Draft picks for Kaman. League sources indicated this weekend that the Hornets -- and, by extension, the NBA, which owns the team -- now realize they'll have to at least take some salary back for Kaman. But New Orleans is still looking for a first-round pick, and Lottery-bound teams that might be interested in Kaman aren't going to give up those kinds of picks. That would leave good teams at the bottom of the first round as more likely trading partners. (Also keep in mind that Kaman, having been dealt to New Orleans on Dec. 14, can't actually be traded under the CBA until Feb. 14.)
So, what will happen? Based on conversations with league sources this weekend, here's an educated guess. Let's start with teams that probably won't be calling the Hornets:
Chicago, Oklahoma City: locked and loaded. Don't want or need any roster changes, at least not in the middle.
L.A. Lakers: If L.A. trades for a center, it won't be Kaman.
Dallas: Not taking on any salary until the Mavericks know how the whole D-Wil/D-Howard scenarios play out.
L.A. Clippers: Kaman can't be traded back to the Clippers this season under CBA rules.
New York: Only in some kind of muliple-team, hydra-headed megadeal in which David Stern winds up traded to Regis and Kelly for a floor director to be named later.
Philadelphia: To hear Doug Collins waxing rhapsodic about Spencer Hawes the other day, it certainly doesn't seem like the Sixers would have an interest. But Kaman is better than Hawes. So if the 76ers had visions of a long playoff run in their heads, it's at least conceivable. But can't see them parting with a young piece like Thad Young or Jodie Meeks, and the Hornets surely don't want Elton Brand's contract.
Utah: The Jazz have a lot of good, young assets, including rookie big Enes Kanter, second-year forward Derrick Favors and second-year swingman Gordon Hayward. But Utah is looking to upgrade in the backcourt, not up front, and while Kaman could be useful, the Jazz want to give their young guys the bulk of the playing time in the next few years.
Detroit: Seems like a natural for Kaman, who's from Grand Rapids, but the Pistons are also rebuilding and don't want to give up any of their young assets like forwards Jonas Jerebko or Austin Daye, or rookie Brandon Knight, in a package for Kaman. Detroit is committed to going slowly, through the Draft, and certainly wouldn't part with a pick that's going to be high in the Lottery.
Boston: The Celtics would have interest, but the Boston Globe reported this weekend that that interest is limited to Kaman being a free agent following a potential buyout by New Orleans of his contract, not in a trade with the Hornets.
Miami: I have no idea if the Heat would even be interested, and I don't think they are, but even if they were the Hornets wouldn't take back the Heat contracts that would be necessary to make the deal work -- like Chris Bosh's, for example.
Orlando: Yes, the Magic would need a center if they trade Dwight Howard, but if the deal is with New Jersey, Brook Lopez is superior to Kaman, and the Nets can add an expiring contract like Mehmet Okur's, along with a pick.
San Antonio: Kaman wouldn't be the Spurs' type of player. But you never say never in this business.
Now, to the other side of the coin:
Atlanta: With Al Horford out for the season the Hawks need someone in the middle, and Kaman would certainly help. But New Orleans would have to take at least some salary back -- like Zaza Pachulia, who has a year left on his deal -- or, maybe, Marvin Williams, along with an expiring contract like Kirk Hinrich's and Atlanta's first-round pick -- which wouldn't be that good, given the Hawks' likelihood to be in the playoffs. But the Hawks have been reluctant to get anywhere near the luxury tax, and unless they were just renting Kaman for the rest of this season, it would be hard to re-sign him and avoid exceeding the threshold next year.
Houston: The Rockets are always looking for bigs. But what young roster pieces does Houston have that the Hornets would like? At first glance, don't see any. But if Rockets GM Daryl Morey starts concocting one of those three- or four-team deals he loves to put together, who knows? New Orleans would surely like that first-round pick that Houston got from the Knicks in the Tracy McGrady deal a couple of years ago, but the Rockets aren't giving that up.
Portland: The Blazers have a lot of young pieces, like Luke Babbitt and Nolan Smith and Elliot Williams. They have a potential breakout player in Nicolas Batum, who is chapped he didn't get a contract extension, and though the Blazers have always said Batum was off-limits trade wise, they need a long-term solution in the middle to ultimately replace 37-year-old Marcus Camby. They also have an owner who can easily write a $3 million check. (If we were really feeling conspiratorial, they also have a former No. 1 overall pick in the Draft who hasn't been able to stay healthy, and who probably could use a change in scenery to a place with next to no expectations for him.)
Cleveland: The Cavaliers wouldn't deal Tristan Thompson, obviously, but they have the requisite expiring contract in Antawn Jamison, and they have a bunch of future first-round picks -- one from Sacramento and a couple from Miami.
Golden State: The Warriors have one Monta Ellis, a scoring machine from nearby Jackson, Mississippi, that they could offer, pretty much straight up, for Kaman. But Ellis has two years and $22 million left on his deal, a price tag that could be too rich for the Hornets/NBA's blood. And if the Hornets genuinely want to keep Eric Gordon -- another Pelinka client, by the way -- an Ellis deal wouldn't make sense.
Washington: The Wizards surely would move Andray Blatche, just as the Hornets would surely say no. And my understanding is New Orleans is equally uninterested in getting Rashard Lewis's massive $22 million deal -- which can be bought out next summer for $10 million -- on its books. The Wizards won't part with their soon-to-be Lottery pick. Would probably take a three-way deal to get enough assets down to Nawlins for Kaman to come to D.C.
(Last week's ranking in parenthesis; weekly record in brackets)
1) Oklahoma City (2) [3-0]: Contract hangover? Westbrook finishes three steals and four rebounds short of a quadruple double (28 points, 11 assists, seven steals, six rebounds) Friday at Golden State.
2) Miami (5) [4-0]: Um, didn't D. Wade take a swing at Joakim Noah Sunday? Just askin'.
3) Chicago (1) [2-2]: Deng opts to play with a torn ligament in his left wrist and postpone surgery until he's done with this season, the Olympics, and the offseason -- a decision known as the "Shaq Gambit."
4) Atlanta (7) [3-1]: Bow to the Hawks, who have absorbed both a hellacious January schedule and the Al Horford injury to win 11 of their last 14 to stay right on the Heat's heels in the Southeast Division.
5) Philadelphia (10) [3-1]: Sixers are 10-2 at home, and have won those games by an average of 21 per game. Closest margin of victory at Wells Fargo Arena is their 10-point win over Indiana Jan. 9, but Philly has laid the smackdown on several opponents, winning by 35 (Toronto), 31 and 20 (Washington), 27 (Sacramento), 23 and 21 (Detroit) and 17 (Charlotte)
6) Indiana (13) [2-1]: Pacers have persevered despite playing 13 of first 19 on the road.
7) Dallas (8) [3-1]: Good to see Roddy Buckets back on the court and healthy.
8) Denver (4) [2-1]: George doesn't look good with the goatee.
9) L.A. Lakers (9) [2-1]: The Lakers scored more than 100! The Lakers scored more than 100!.
10) L.A. Clippers (12) [2-1]: Clips have played only seven on the road so far and have to prove they can beat good teams away from Staples. Sunday's come-from-behind win at Denver is a good beginning.
11) Houston (NR) [3-1]: Glad to hear Courtney Lee was not seriously injured in a crash Saturday, but hope the person in the other vehicle who was seriously hurt recovers.
15) Portland (15) [2-1]: Like Spurs, Blazers have no trouble winning at home (9-1, tied with Chicago for second-best home record in the league), but can't get it done on the road (3-7).
13) Utah (11) [1-2]: Enes Kanter is a load. The Jazz have a good one there.
14) San Antonio (14) [2-2]: Of course Pop has carte blanche to do whatever he thinks is right, but letting his bench finish both regulation and the overtime Sunday in Dallas was nonetheless gutsy.
12) Memphis (6) [0-3]: No sympathy for the weak -- Grizzlies' next 10: Spurs, Nuggets, Hawks, Thunder, Celtics, Spurs, Timberwolves, Pacers, Jazz, Rockets.
Dropped out: Orlando (3)
Miami (4-0): Hots haven't allowed more than 100 points in their last eight games, giving up an average of 91.6 per game. No surprise, then, that they've won seven of eight, including Sunday's heavyweight tilt with the Bulls.
Charlotte (0-4): With D.J. Augustin and Gerald Henderson, their two leading scorers, out with injuries, this was the Bobcats' starting lineup Wednesday night versus the Wizards: Kemba Walker, Matt Carroll, Derrick Brown, Tyrus Thomas, Byron Mullens. Wow. And Mullens has actually gotten a lot better this season. But that's not going to win many games for Paul Silas, who I hope gets his money up front.
How do you go about replacing the guy who hired you as an assistant coach? What is that phone call like?
"It wasn't even a phone call," Randy Wittman said late last week. "You basically walk in here, and it's all kind of happening."
Wittman walked in on Tuesday morning to do the job he'd done for the Washington Wizards the last three years -- be Flip Saunders' top assistant, basically in charge of the defense -- or, at least, trying to teach the green and soft Wizards players defense. But when he arrived at Verizon Center, he was brought into an office and told that team president Ernie Grunfeld had fired Saunders and wanted Wittman to take over for the rest of the season. In so many ways, this was deja vu Wittman did not want.
He'd taken over for Dwane Casey in Minnesota in 2007, caught in the middle when Kevin McHale and the Wolves' management pulled the plug on a head coach whose team was 20-20 at the time. Wittman finished 12-30 that season, and after he started the next season 4-19, he was fired--caught in the middle again, when team owner Glen Taylor ordered McHale down to the bench.
"I learned a lot because I've done it before, and when it happened then I said I don't ever want to be in that position again," Wittman said last week. "It's awful, just to put it bluntly. It doesn't matter. The one thing I learned was I had to sit down with these guys and tell what I wanted to do, if I was going to take over, and how I wanted to do it. And if they didn't agree with me, don't have me do it. That's the only way. You can't come in here and not be yourself, and I think you try to do that sometimes, because you're thrown right in. It's not an interview process and you've gotten the job, and it's your job. It's all of a sudden, blam. That's why I said if you want me to do it, this is how we have to do it."
Wittman needed two things to happen before he agreed to take the job. One, he needed to make sure that Saunders' son, Ryan, also on the Wizards' staff as an assistant coach, was kept on. He was, and so were all of Saunders' assistants, including Saunders' long-time, close friend, Don Zierden.
Two, he needed to talk to Saunders. Not for permission. Nor absolution. Just for understanding.
"I had to talk to him first, and we talked for a long time," Wittman said. "And I had to tell my wife. She's been with me for the 30 years I've been in this league as a player and a coach. Those are the steps you have to take. You don't just come in and say, 'Yes.' I want to know how Flip feels. He's the one who brought me here. That's why I was here. So I had to have that conversation. Then everything else kind of fell into place."
Sometimes, an interim coach goes on to do great things on his own. Jeff Van Gundy replaced Don Nelson as coach of the Knicks in March, 1996 -- when no one outside of the Knicks' organization thought he was more than the guy who warmed up the likes of Allan Houston and Larry Johnson -- and became one of the best, most driven coaches of his generation in New York and Houston. Famously, Pat Riley was brought out of the Lakers' radio booth to the bench when Jack McKinney fell off a bike when he was the head coach in L.A. Paul Westhead replaced McKinney -- and, even after winning a championship in 1980, Westhead was replaced by Riley the next season when Magic Johnson told owner Jerry Buss he didn't want to play Westhead's style anymore.
But most of the time, the interim head coach finishes the season as quietly as possible, is thanked for his work via the bump in salary that he got when he took over, and moves on to the next assistant coaching gig. Sometimes, though, a guy makes the most of his chance.
"You pick the one you think is the best to keep the ship afloat in the interim and hire him," said 76ers president Rod Thorn, who stepped in as interim coach of the Bulls in 1982 while general manager, replacing Jerry Sloan.
"Almost all the time the assistant is amenable," said Thorn, noting the exception of Phil Johnson in Utah -- who walked with Sloan last season, instead of taking over for him as the team offered, after Sloan resigned as coach of the Jazz. "If you've chosen the right one they will then execute whatever plan you have and go forward. (It's) never easy, but not as dicey as you might think unless you have picked one that does not have a clue that some things have to be changed. Most times there is an immediate uptick. But reality will soon rear its ugly head."
In a season where practice time is already at a premium because of the lockout, big changes are nearly impossible.
"You honor and understand what the (former) head coach is trying to do, but there's always things in the back of your mind that you want to do different. But you never have the time to implement those things during the season," said Suns coach Alvin Gentry, who has started three of his four NBA head coaching jobs as the interim guy.
Gentry replaced Kevin Loughery in Miami in February 1995, and coached out the rest of that season (being replaced in September by Riley, who was acquired by Heat owner Micky Arison for a first-round pick and $1 million after the Knicks alleged Miami had tampered with Riley while he was under contract in New York.) Gentry replaced Doug Collins in Detroit in February of '96, getting the Pistons to the playoffs -- but getting fired in March of 2000, replaced by George Irvine. The Clippers named Gentry head coach later that year after talking to Cincinnati's Bob Huggins and Mike Fratello; that gig lasted two and a half years. And Gentry, who'd been brought to Phoenix as an assistant by Mike D'Antoni in 2004, took over for Terry Porter in February of '09.
Gentry says he tried to help Porter, who'd replaced D'Antoni, and who was trying to implement the defensive changes and emphasis on halfcourt baskeball that the Suns' then-GM, Steve Kerr, wanted. But Gentry thought it was another Steve -- Nash -- whose blessing was more important.
"Terry, he can say a lot of things about me, but I went to Terry and said you have to find a way to get Steve on board," Gentry said. "And after they made me the coach the first thing I did was find Nash and say 'Steve, we're going to dinner. We're going to play like we did in the past.' The first week of practice we have, we're just going to be running, because we have to get in shape to play that way.'"
Thorn said that while the switch is occasionally awkward, ambition often wins out over sadness.
"Everyone will feign awkwardness," he said, "but in many cases it's not real. The opportunity, increased pay and ego all enter the assistant's thinking. Most are sad that their friend is no longer there but thankful for the opportunity to show what they can do."
No one had to tell Wittman what he had to do in Washington. The godawful Wizards were 2-15 when he took over, playing with no passion or heart. John Wall, in just his second pro season, seemed to have all the air and enthusiasm already sucked out of his body. No one was listening to Saunders, who didn't have any more buttons to push.
Wittman didn't want to be a head coach anymore. He figured he'd had his chances, first in Cleveland, where he was 62-102 from 1999 to 2001, and then Minnesota. He came to Washington just to stay in the game and help out an old friend in Saunders, who'd hired him in Minnesota in 1994 as an assistant.
But Wittman knew he had to push some life back into his players. The Wizards don't play very smart at times, and Lord knows they're not physical, but they're long, athletic, can block shots and run. So Wall picked up Kemba Walker 94 feet Wednesday.
"He said I need to be more committed on the defensive end," Wall said. "And I need to lead the team. And let him coach me. If I make a mistake, he's going to talk to me, try to make me the best player I can be. He said I can be one of the great players if I have the work ethic. He said if I make mistakes, he's going to call me over. He said 'I'm going to call you over 20, 30 times a game.'"
Wittman also tore up Saunders' substantial playbook -- a playbook of great designs, counters, and such -- that was wholly lost on such an immature team as Washington's.
"My first time, I was going to re-invent basketball," Wittman said. "I thought the guys needed a change in their mind. And it's just basketball. And so you can't do that. Their minds are going to be everywhere, and they're thinking 'What the hell are we doing? I don't know what we're doing,' and now they can't play. So I just simplified everything. Flip's a great offensive mind and has great ideas and incorporated that in the last two and a half years with this team. Me, it was more, let's cut that baby down, let's do these three things as good as we can, and then we'll build. I tried it the other way."
The Wizards have won two of their first three under Wittman. The two wins were against Charlotte. Washington will not get to play Charlotte every game. The strong likelihood is that Wittman will finish the season having taught his players a few lessons in being professional, and playing hard, knowing that they'd gotten a good coach fired because they didn't do those things often enough to save him. And then he will leave Washington in search of the next assistant's job. He is a realist. But not a defeatist. It's part of the fine line between being an assistant and moving over those 12 crucial inches.
"I told the guys I would have walked out the door with Flip if I didn't believe we were better than 2-15," Wittman said. "Now, should we be winning 50? No. But we should be winning more than 2-15. These guys, I really believe, can do that. And you have to realistically have that understanding. We're going to have some bumps and bruises here and there. We're going to get some stuff that's still going to happen to us. But we've got to forge ahead, win what you're supposed to win. You're going to have an Oklahoma City and you're going to play teams that are in a similar situation as you. You go and win those games. All of those things even out."
In a similar vein, how the hell could Veronica Hamel not win more Emmys on "Hill Street Blues?" Confounded ensemble casting! From Alberto Tortella:
In a so condensed season I think it's normal that teams without a primary star are performing better.
Nuggets, Pacers, Hawks, Jazz, 76ers: in these teams there isn't a primary star.
When they must run many back to back, different players can take the stance and solve the game for the entire time: tonight could be Joe Johnson and tomorrow could be Josh Smith, and so on.
I'm sure that Johnson and Danny Granger and Andre Iguodala would disagree with your characterization of their teams as "starless," Alberto, but your point is a good one -- though only half-right. Those teams have an advantage not because they don't have a star, but because of their depth. You're right; the Hawks have a lot of players to choose from on a given night that might be crucial to their winning a game -- Johnson, Smith, Jeff Teague, Al Horford (when healthy, obviously), maybe Kirk Hinrich now that he's finally back in the lineup. The other teams you mentioned have similar rosters of deep talent. Add in coaching and younger legs compared with some of their opponents and you do indeed have teams that may be more able to compete this season.
Does he have a year of eligibility left? Holy Cross is struggling this year! From Ira Greenberg:
In your Monday column (1/23), you wrote, "If the Celtics' Mount Rushmore currently has Russell, Bird and Havlicek already cast in stone, Pierce surely has his eye on that fourth spot." I'm guessing that if Pierce wants that fourth spot, he's going to have to remove Cousy first.
Fair point, Ira, and I thought about putting Cousy in the fourth spot (as I did Sam and K.C. Jones and Cowens, and Heinsohn). But I knew if I did that there would be a quite reasonable argument to be made about the others that I left out. You certainly would allow that one can make an argument for any of them to the "the fourth." So can Pierce. So I intentionally left it blank. Happy bar debate!
Send your questions, comments, criticisms and State of the Union jokes that are better than President Obama's to firstname.lastname@example.org. If your e-mail is sufficiently intelligent, thought-provoking, funny or snarky, we just might publish it!
(Averages from last Monday through Sunday in parenthesis.)
1) LeBron James (29 ppg, 7.5 rpg, 6 apg, .488 FG, .767 FT): Little Luke? Nod ya head!
2) Kevin Durant (27.3 ppg, 8.8 rpg, 3 apg, .600 FG, .952 FT): Scored at least 20 in 17 of 19 games.
3) Dwight Howard (20 ppg, 13,6 rpg, 1.2 bpg, .538 FG, .484 FT): Remember last week when I wrote that the Magic should think about keeping Howard instead of trading him, because they had just as good a chance as anybody to come out of the East, and wouldn't it be worth it -- even if he left after the season -- if you got a ring out of him before he departed. Remember that? Well, forget I said all that.
4) Kobe Bryant (28.7 ppg, 9.7 rpg, 5.7 apg, .463 FG, .846 FT): With 14 field goals Sunday, Kobe passed Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (9,935) to become the Lakers' all-time leader in made field goals. Bryant now has 9,946.
5) Derrick Rose (28.5 ppg, 4.3 rpg, 5 apg, .494 FG, .806 FT): Great week coming back from his turf toe, but would love to have those two missed free throws in the waning seconds Sunday in Miami.
$900,000,000 -- Estimated value of the Lakers by Forbes Magazine, the highest valuation of any NBA team by the magazine. Forbes listed the Knicks second at $780 million, followed by the Bulls ($600 million), Mavericks ($497 million) and Celtics ($482 million) in the top five. The Bucks, with an estimated value of $268 million, are ranked last among NBA teams by Forbes.
28 -- NBA teams that had won a regular season game in Houston's Toyota Center before last week, when the Bucks became the final team to do so in a 105-99 victory. The Rockets had won their first eight games at Toyota Center against Milwaukee; the Bucks' last win beforehand in Houston came in 1999, when the Rockets still played at The Summit -- or, as it was known when the Rockets left to go downtown, Compaq Center. (Random Note of Interest: The Summit/Compaq is now home to superpastor Joel Osteen's ministry, Lakewood Church.)
20 -- Points that the Hawks scored in overtime in Friday's win over Detroit, tying a team record for the most points scored in an extra period.
1) There have been a lot of nights so far this season when the quality of play has been awful. Just awful. But Sunday was not one of those days. A great rematch between the Heat and Bulls in Miami, followed by a last-second winner by the first pick overall, Kyrie Irving, to beat the Celtics, followed by an overtime thriller between Dallas and San Antonio, followed by a wire job between the Lakers and Wolves in Minnesota, and a nail biter between the Clippers and Nuggets. A great day of hoops on a day when, other than All-Star Games no one watched, the NBA had the sports stage pretty much to itself.
2) Speaking of which, pretty good homecoming for Chauncey Billups in Denver Sunday night.
3) In September, 2010, I laughed at people on Twitter. Literally, laughed. What knaves and inarticulate simpletons communicate in fewer than 140 words, I wondered, quickly finding out that it wasn't 140 words -- it was 140 characters. When my nose came down from the position in the air it previous held, I realized that a great many intelligent and forward-thinking people did indeed communicate their thoughts, feelings and occasional news items to others who loved the immediacy of the medium. Last week, my Twitter account passed the 100,000-member mark. This is stunning to me, and I am sincerely grateful to all of you who think what I have to say (Tweet?) is worth following.
5) Seth Davis, Kyrie Irving is really good. Told you. :-)
1) Flip Saunders and Paul Westphal knew what they were getting into. But it stinks that good coaches and good men and their families can get fired because some of their players quit on them. It just stinks.
2) Hard to believe Andrew Bogut's misfortune with injuries. This guy kills himself to rehab every time, and then some other body part fails him.
3) Epic uniform(s) fail. I'm no Mr. Blackwell or anything, but, seriously, who thought either of these -- especially the Tams homage -- ever needed to see the light of day again?
4) I do not get Bad Blake's KIA commercials. They were not made for me, I know, but for consumers 20 years younger. This makes me sad.
5) RIP, Epstein.
6) There's something amiss in our sporting priorities when a snoozefest like the NFL's Pro Bowl is shown in prime time in the U.S., while a brilliant, captivating and historic tennis match between the world's No. 1 and No. 2 ranked players, in a Grand Slam final, is shown in the middle of the night in the U.S., when absolutely no one who doesn't have a serious insomnia problem could see it.
In a league full of good stories, this week's Mr. Fifteen, the Grizzlies' Josh Davis, is one of the best. The 31 year old has bounced around the world for the last nine years looking for a permanent NBA home, playing in Italy, Russia, Spain and Greece, as well as multiple stints in the NBA Development League, where he won Most Valuable Player and Newcomer of the Year honors in 2004. Following that came brief NBA stints in Atlanta and Philadelphia, followed by another D-League gig, followed by three separate NBA callups in 2005 and 2006 with Milwaukee, Houston and Phoenix. Then he went to Russia, then back to the CBA, then to Spain, and then to Greece, and then to Puerto Rico, before finally again getting the attention of an NBA team, Memphis, last fall. But after getting cut by the Grizzlies, Davis played last season in Italy before coming back to the States on a non-guaranteed contract that has to be picked up next month. In a related story, I will kill the Grizzlies if they let this young man go after all he's gone through to play in the NBA.
Me: How did you get through the down periods -- there must have been some -- over the last five years, to keep your dream going?
Josh Davis: To be honest with you, I feel I've been blessed to play this game. It supplies a great living for my family, and my family's been gracious enough to travel with me around the world. We just look at it as a great experience and it's character building. They all came with me, my wife and two daughters, five and three, and they just followed me around.
Me: How did you explain your life to your kids?
JD: Avery has lived in five different countries her first five years. She's kind of grown up with it. She's in kindergarten now and she's just starting to understand that we move around. That's why it's been a blessing for me to come back, because she doesn't have to move out of kindergarten and go to another country. And my wife just takes care of everything for us. I definitely would not be here without her.
Me: When you got out of Wyoming in 2002, I imagine you thought that with a little luck here or there, you'd have a chance to play in the NBA.
JD: From the beginning, I never actually dreamed that I would play in the NBA. That was not a goal of mine. I didn't think it was possible. I wasn't even going to play professionally until a lot of agents called me and said how much money I could make. So we decided to go play for Jesi; it's a team in the second division in Italy. The second year I played for the Idaho Stampede in the CBA. My wife and I were kind of saying that was going to be our last year. If nothing happened I would step down. But great things happened. I was MVP of that league (averaging 18.7 points and 9.6 rebounds) and things exploded. I got a call-up (playing four games for the Hawks) and things took off from there. When those doors opened you have to take advantage of it.
Me: I remember Kevin Costner in Bull Durham talking about his three weeks in the Major Leagues -- "The Show." When you finally got to the NBA, was it anything like that for you?
JD: I was so naive, honestly, about everything at that point. I was young . I didn't have any dreams of playing in the NBA. When I got there, it didn't really register. I started a few games here and there (for the 76ers in 2004-05). Looking back at that year I realized what happened, that I played in the NBA. The fact that I made it back now is a whole different level of crazy. I appreciate it a lot more now. It's a whole lot of fun.
Me: How did you make it back?
JD: Just a lot of hard work. I've been through I lot. I've had more surgeries than you can count on both hands. But I kept working. And I had a great agent in Larry Fox. He thought I should have stayed in the NBA after (Jim) O'Brien got fired (in Philadelphia during the '04-'05 season). Apparently there are people who still think I can play.
Me: How did you work your way to Memphis?
JD: Last year I went to camp with them, probably as an afterthought, but they brought me in. I pretty much made the team. I was the last cut. They cut me because they didn't want to carry 15 players, and they had 14 at the time. It was a tough situation because I thought I'd made the team for a while there. So I played in Italy (for Bancatercas Teramo). They wanted me to come back over at one point, but then they ended up getting (Leon) Powe and it was good for them. I decided it was smart to stick around and try it because I didn't want to have to bring my family back over to Europe.
Me: When you came to camp this year, did you think 'This is it? What if I don't make it this time?'
JD: We probably would have gone back to Europe. I'm in great shape and I was playing good basketball, and I think I've got a few years left. But ever since I left the NBA, every time I went to camp with somebody it was like it was going to be the last time in the NBA, or I'll go in Europe for a few more years. The fact that this opportunity came along, this is a miracle. I think God has a plan for all of us.
Me: You're on a pretty good team. How do you use your time in practice?
JD: I'm the oldest guy on the team, so I'm kind of the veteran, I guess, although I'm not an NBA veteran; I'm a pro basketball veteran. I think a lot of that experience is invaluable. I think the team respects me. They value my opinon when they ask about players. I try to show them you can work hard and you can still do this. I drill into them that I made it back. I don't want them to just be happy about the situation. I let them know they can always do better.
Me: What was your worst injury?
JD: I guess it started in the sixth grade when I tore my ACL. Completely fluke accident. And I couldn't have surgery on it until my sophomore year in high school, because they would have had to drill through growth plates. I played with a knee brace for three years. Honestly I shouldn't have played basketball at that point. But I didn't look at it that way. I just figured I'd do what I could do and if I had to stop (playing) I would have to stop. Miraculously, I never l had any cartilage damage. I would play football and run track and my knee would pop out. But I never had cartilage damage. I had the surgery my sophomore year and didn't play at all that year. But that was the biggest one. I've had an MCL tear, had both ankles scoped. I broke a finger on my shooting hand in Italy, the fourth metacarpal, just shattered it. It still have four pins in it. But I think it made me a better shooter, because after that surgery I'd lie on my back and practice shooting. It made me a better player. I would lie down and have the ball in my hand and be on my back doing drills to get my wrist to bend again.
Me: Did you ever get to actually see the cities and countries you played in?
JD: Oh, sure. Moscow, Ukraine, Spain, Italy, Greece. We experienced so many cultures, were able to go to eat everywhere. To walk around the Kremlin was amazing. We went to Chernobyl and saw the museum.
Me: Were you able to actually go into Chernobyl?
JD: It's still pretty bad up there, but they have tours. When we lived in Kiev, you just did not eat any of the fish that was in the river. You never ate any of the produce that came out of the ground. You had to be careful. They downplay the amount of radiation that was there but when you talk to the people in the museum they kind of told you what was going on. I remember, it was kind of a conspiracy theory for me. They showed you the map of the radiation. The map shows the contamination spreading all around the city of Kiev, but apparantely the radiation never actually entered the city of Kiev. (Laughs.) It was scary. And we had our one-year old daughter there, so we had to work around that.
Me: Given all the obstacles you overcame, is it especially rewarding to be back?
JD: It will be on February 10, if they decide to keep me. It's crazy. I can reflect a little bit on my situation more than I could the first time I was in the NBA. The fact that I'm back after being out for four or five years, being 31 years old, the journey back, it's a real special thing to be here. It just makes me want to work harder. It's hard to explain. It's been a long journey. It's hard to explain the feeling. And still, I don't feel secure about it or good about it, because I'm not guaranteed for the whole year. But each goal means a lot. You don't think about it until it's completed.
I usually hate jewelry, but tonight, Im going to make an exception :)
-- Mavericks owner Mark Cuban (@mcuban), Wednesday, 7:59 p.m., before his team received its championship rings at American Airlines Center.
"I got a son of my own. I don't know if Pau got kids, but don't touch the top of my head like I'm one of your kids. I don't know what his intentions were, and it doesn't matter. I don't know if he's got kids, but I'm not one of them."
-- Chris Paul, detailing his objection to Pau Gasol's rubbing of his head in Wednesday's Lakers come-from-behind victory over the Clippers.
"We had a conversation with Chris and expressed that the Hornets are going to go in a different direction. We mutually decided for a number of reasons that we are not going to play Chris as we pursue a trade. Chris has been the ultimate professional during this process and we thank him for the way he has handled the situation."
-- Hornets GM Dell Demps, in a statement released by the team Friday publicly announcing that center Chris Kaman would not continue playing with the team while it pursued trade possibilities for the 29 year old.
"Bar fight! Tonight was a bar fight, man! We knew they were going to come in with a lot of energy, tonight was a bar fight. Have you ever been in a bar fight? Ask Charles [Barkley], he's been in a bar fight. This is what it was tonight."
-- The part of Kevin Garnett's postgame interview with Craig Sager that I can post in a family NBA column.
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