Posted Mar 17, 2014 10:35 AM
I never, ever thought he'd give up The Life.
We all work to have The Life. The Life is when you've accomplished everything you could ever think of doing and the house is paid off, the kids are happy and you have a place in Playa del Rey where the Pacific is right outside your window and another fortress in Montana that is accessible to almost no one.
Your fiancée runs the Los Angeles Lakers, and you have 11 championship rings for 10 fingers. You have millions of dollars in the bank and no more mountains to climb.
Your hips and knees finally aren't hurting all the time.
You've beaten prostate cancer.
You're considered, if not the best, one of the two or three best people to do what you did for a living.
You are free to live The Life. No worries or responsibilities, just the occasional (highly paid) appearance, and writing yet another book.
Phil Jackson is walking away from The Life.
It is here where you will mention the $12 million to $15 million Jackson is getting from the New York Knicks to save their Hot L Baltimore of a franchise. And, it is here where I mention that ex-Lakers owner Jerry Buss paid Jackson handsomely for the better part of a decade -- up to $10 million yearly at one point -- and that Jackson doesn't need the money.
But Phil Jackson loves to compete, and he wants desperately to have the same kind of impact on a franchise that Pat Riley has had on the Miami Heat, taking it from a joke to the gold standard, like the Heat first built through major trades (Alonzo Mourning, Tim Hardaway, Shaquille O'Neal), nailed the one lottery pick it would have for a generation in Dwyane Wade, and then was disciplined enough to create the cap room necessary to bring in the SuperFriends.
Riles has the trifecta: rings as a player, coach and executive. Jackson only has the first two. Both role players on great teams, then great coaches on dynasties, accidental legendary coaches who got where they were through a series of fortunate occurrences.
But Riles went on to a third act. Phil had The Life, though, and men have broken almost all of the Ten Commandments in pursuit of The Life.
Yet he's walking away from it to become the Knicks' new president. He'll be in charge of the basketball side of the organization, tasked to find a way to keep Carmelo Anthony in town and to make Anthony more of the kind of player Jackson has said publicly Anthony is not.
It is something Jackson's wanted to do for years -- put his stamp on a team, from top to bottom, hiring the coaches, developing the playing philosophy, making sure that everyone knows who's running the show.
And the Knicks, and their chairman Jim Dolan, would really like you to stop looking at the men playing in the World's Most Famous Arena for awhile, even as they've won six straight feasting on the league's bottom feeders to crawl back into the playoff race.
"Phil's so smart, I wouldn't put it past him being successful in anything," a former longtime sports executive who's dealt with him said last week. "The betting line should be on him being successful."
Two other management sources who've had extensive dealings with the Knicks in recent years believe that the comically meddling and mistrusting Dolan will, at least initially, give Jackson free rein to make the changes he thinks are necessary. (Whether that will include the media policy that has, over the years, turned so many smart, capable folks who could help Dolan with his horrible public image into pod people is not yet known.)
"Jim will try to make it work," one of them said, insisting that Dolan won't get in Jackson's way -- at least not right away.
"... He will listen to Phil, just like he listened to Donnie [Walsh]," the other management source said. "Then he can't help himself and he will start fighting Phil and start listening to other people."
There's very little that Jackson can do inside the margins for at least a year. New York's books are loaded for 2014-15, sagging with the weight of $35 million worth of contracts for Amar'e Stoudemire and Andrea Bargnani, and with Tyson Chandler on the books for another $14 million. That's $49 million for three guys of diminishing productivity.
They all come off after '15, so that's when the Knicks are likely to strike, hoping to be able to convince Kevin Love or LaMarcus Aldridge to come East.
But will Anthony still be in New York? He can opt out of his contract this summer, and he's said he will, looking both to test free agency and to set himself up for a max payday -- though he said during All-Star weekend that he'd be willing to take less than the max if it helped the Knicks get better talent.
Jackson famously told my friend Andrea Kremer of HBO's "Real Sports" two years ago that the Knicks were a "clumsy" team in which he had no interest in coaching.
"Stoudemire doesn't fit together well with Carmelo," he said in the HBO interview. "Stoudemire's a really good player. But he's gotta play in a certain system and a way. Carmelo has to be a better passer. And the ball can't stop every time it hits his hands. They need to have someone come in that can kind of blend that group together."
Jackson will certainly need people to blend with the holdovers from the Knicks' current front office, including general manager Steve Mills and assistant GMs Allan Houston and Mark Warkentein. Houston and Warkentein, along with Anthony and Woodson, are represented by the CAA behemoth, and for so long, the rumor mill was ripe with the idea that CAA would call the shots on who the team's next coach would be, with Kentucky's John Calipari, also a CAA client, at the head of the list.
You don't hear much about that idea now that Jackson's signed on.
But putting an organization together is not the same as coaching. Not at all.
"That's a complicated, tricky thing -- perhaps more complicated than just finding a coach," said the former longtime executive. "How he relates to a coach, that's going to be interesting to me. Does he want it done his way? Does he want to run the Triangle? Or will he just try to maximize the talent that he has?"
Jackson will clearly bring in his own people. His guys include people like Ron Harper, the former guard who was with him in Chicago and Los Angeles. Harper was likely to join Jackson in some capacity in Seattle if the deal to bring the Sacramento Kings to Washington state had gone through last season -- Jackson was Chris Hansen's choice to run the team.
Others could certainly include my TNT colleague Steve Kerr, rumored last week to be Jackson's choice to replace Mike Woodson as coach. Jackson has long spoken fondly of Scottie Pippen, his Hall of Fame forward in Chicago, who is currently in the Bulls' front office. He also thought highly of B.J. Armstrong, the former Bulls guard who is now Derrick Rose's agent for Wasserman Media Group. Making agents into team executives is all the rage these days, with Jason Levien (Memphis), Lon Babby (Phoenix) and Bob Myers (Golden State) making the leap in the last few years.
Obvious coaching names also include Jim Cleamons, who was on Jackson's staffs in Chicago and L.A. as his longtime top assistant and is now in Milwaukee with Larry Drew. Frank Hamblen, the assistant coach who also spent many years on Jackson's benches, is also a name of note.
And when Jackson was winding down with the Lakers in his second-go round, he made it clear to management that he wanted Brian Shaw to succeed him as coach. But the Lakers went with Mike Brown instead, and Shaw went to Indiana as associate head coach before taking Denver's coaching gig this year. Shaw's gotten off to a rough start with the Nuggets, publicly wondering if the roster was constructed correctly and frequently criticizing his players' attention (or, inattention) to detail.
Whether Jackson would still want Shaw, or vice versa, isn't known at the moment. What is known is that the Knicks' move for Jackson has, at least, piqued Anthony's interest.
"I don't know exactly what his role will be," Anthony told me last week in Boston. "But I'm pretty sure any time Phil Jackson is involved, he will be heavily involved, whether on the bench or in the front office. The insight, the knowledge, will still be there, whether he's sitting on the bench or sitting in the front office. That's never going to change."
But Jackson will have to make at least some accommodations. At 68, with all his maladies and the discomfort extensive travel causes, not only is he highly unlikely to ever coach again, he's not even a prime candidate to fly around the world chasing the next great young prospect. And he would need help if he were 48 and in perfect health. It's a huge undertaking.
"You need somebody to be the kind of anchor for you, help you through the tough times," said Hall of Famer Al Attles, who added the GM title to his coaching duties in Golden State in 1980. "It's hard to break away from the player mold. When you take a shot at the basket, you want it to go in now. You have to think about a player who may not be ready, but might be ready if you give him an opportunity to develop."
Every coach, and Jackson was no different, wanted to win the game he was playing that night. The Ws and Ls go on their record, after all. But when you're figuratively at 35,000 feet, you have to look at the big picture, and not surround yourself with yes men.
"Maybe some players who have had some patience as a player, and are allowed to develop that way, it's not that instant gratification -- I want it now," Attles said. "It doesn't happen that way [as a general manager]. You have to understand that. The players who are successful in that way were that way as players. It's not a no-win situation, but you have to show some patience. Sometimes you may need a guy who maybe, if you trust him, because we all want the same thing, to not say everything I do is right. You need somebody you trust to say, 'Hey, let's look at it from the other side.'"
Only Riley and Red Auerbach, who retired as coach of the Celtics in 1966 at age 48 after winning nine championships to become Boston's general manager (Bill Russell won two more as Auerbach's successor as coach) put as much of their coaching legacy on the line as Jackson is doing.
Auerbach was pretty successful as a GM as well, using a first-round pick in 1978 on Larry Bird, then waiting a year for Bird to play his junior season at Indiana State before agreeing to come to Boston. And he famously built the rest of the Big Three on Draft night in 1980, acquiring Robert Parish from Golden State and taking Kevin McHale with the third overall pick, while Golden State used the first overall pick acquired from Boston for oft-maligned center Joe Barry Carroll.
It's obviously not Attles' favorite subject. He revered the Warriors' late owner, Franklin Mieuli. Mieuli made Attles one of the first African-American coaches after his playing career ended, culminating in the Warriors' 4-0 sweep of the Bullets in the 1975 Finals.
"I think what happened was Robert was a terrific player, but he hadn't developed yet," Attles said. "And Joe Barry, coming out, was all-everything coming out of college. The powers that be felt that money was going to be an issue, unfortunately. They felt, our scouts, that [Carroll] was going to be more of a low-post center. There were a lot more factors at work. It was just a decision that was made."
Auerbach's guidance led to three more titles for the Celtics during the Bird-McHale-Parish era, and he never sat still. His last great deal brought Boston what became the second pick of the 1986 Draft for guard Gerald Henderson. With that pick, Boston took the late Len Bias. Goodness, what could have been.
"I almost traded him Reggie Theus for Danny Ainge," said Rod Thorn, the NBA's President of Basketball Operations, who was the Bulls' general manager in the mid-1980s. "We talked about it for a week."
Even after Thorn went to the league office in 1986, he'd get an earful from Auerbach.
"I would hear from him once or twice a year about something to do with the refs, and he was usually right," Thorn said. "He was really good to deal with regarding league matters. Particularly from an historical perspective. Red was always on top of everything going on and had great intuition about the pressing issues. I can't say enough good things about Red. He was truly one of a kind."
But Auerbach's time has passed. Today's GMs have a job that is literally not the same as his. The salary cap, the luxury tax, the repeater taxes, the growth and primacy of advanced analytics, dealing with powerful agents, shoe companies, an exponential growth in media ... and Jackson just happens to be going into a city with the most venal-yet-omnipresent press corps in the world, for a team owned by a company that is seemingly overrun with vice presidents, power bases and agendas.
Yet Jackson will have many advantages being in charge in New York.
Money, clearly, will never be an issue in the pursuit of any player or anything Jackson thinks important. Dolan has many faults, but being chintzy isn't one of them.
The Knicks have their own TV network and a renovated building that is printing money for the organization. The New York megaphone is still louder than anyone else's, and Jackson has always been able to turn on the charm when it served his purposes. The potential for superstars to cash in on and off the court in Gotham is always a lure.
He will have the luxury of not having to worry about running a practice or looking at cutups of upcoming opponents. He won't have the daily interaction with the players that he loved, but he'll be able to shape the Knicks' culture, no doubt looking to remake the team-centric approach that his revered coach, Red Holzman, brought to New York's title-winning teams of 1970 and '73.
He will surely get to know Anthony better before deciding whether he's worth $129 million. And no matter his, and Anthony's, decisions, Jackson will find like-minded people who will put his ideas into practice. The Knicks will be a vastly different organization in five years under his guidance, and probably for the better.
But, will they be a winner? Who knows?
My former TNT colleague Doug Collins used to have a phrase: "jackpotting around." Basically, it meant a team that was superior to another playing down to the level of its opponents, giving the inferior team a chance to steal a win.
The Pacers have been jackpotting around for a few weeks.
What was once a 5 1/2 game lead over Miami for No. 1 in the East a month ago had dwindled to 2 games by last Friday morning. But Indiana got a break Friday night when the Heat dropped another inexplicable game at home, to Denver, and the Pacers took advantage -- though they let the 76ers hang around far too long Friday before pulling away late. It is that behavior that played into Indy's falling behind by an embarrassing 25 in the first half Saturday in Detroit before rallying to win in overtime -- the very definition of jackpotting.
That kind of play was behind Larry Bird again calling out his team last week to the Indianapolis Star, saying he was "disappointed" in the their stretch of indifferent play of late, and was especially unhappy with his bench's production. Indy brought in Luis Scola from Phoenix to try and shore up what had been a problem area last season, but Scola is only averaging 7.4 on 46 percent shooting this season, the lowest percentage of his career.
Every team has peaks and valleys through the course of the season, but this is the time of year when most teams with championship aspirations start tightening things up. But Indiana doesn't look like such a team at the moment, even though Coach Frank Vogel insists things aren't as bad as they've seemed lately.
"We're a half-game back from being the best team in the NBA," Vogel said Friday night. "That's what the record says. We're playing pretty good. We're not playing terrible. Did some really good things. We're working in some new guys. We're dealing with some injuries, and we're playing pretty well."
His players, though, acknowledge that this was more than just a typical lull in quality of play.
Whether the trade of former franchise player Danny Granger to the 76ers for Evan Turner and Lavoy Allen created a hangover effect in the locker room -- Paul George and Granger were very close -- or whether the Pacers put too much into their public desire to finish with the league's best record, they haven't been their defensively dominant selves for a while.
The Pacers held a players-only meeting after getting drilled by the Rockets March 8. But they also went one further, with the starting five of George Hill, Lance Stephenson, George, David West and Roy Hibbert going in as a group to meet with Vogel after the players-only meeting.
"For the past two weeks, it's been a little off," Hibbert said. "To tell you the truth, everybody here has accountability. I was letting the lack of touches on offense really affect my defense. So I came to the conclusion, I said, if I [only] get one or two shots a game, I'm just going to get back on track for Defensive Player of the Year ... and not worry about offense, let Paul and Lance and David take over the helm in terms of scoring."
Hibbert went through a similar funk last season, trying to live up to the $58 million offer sheet from Portland that the Pacers matched. But Hibbert shook himself out of it, and was dominant in the postseason, taking Indy to the brink of The Finals.
"Last year going into the playoffs, he accepted that," West said of Hibbert, "that our attack was going to go through Paul, and he just wanted to become a commanding presence at the defensive end. That's something that we've asked him to do. At times, it's on us. We know we've got to feed him a little bit. If we want him to block shots and do all that up and down, we've got to keep him happy. The good thing is he owned up to it."
But when Hibbert speaks about the team not getting to the foul line enough, George knows who he's talking about.
George's free-throw attempts fell from 5.8 per game in December to 4.8 per game in February. He had a True Shooting Percentage of .616 and an offensive rating (points per 100 possessions when he was on the floor) of 117 in December; in January, those numbers plummeted to .522 and 101, respectively.
"I don't think I'm getting to the free-throw line enough," George said. "It's me attacking and learning how to get contact going to the basket. That's just the area I'm trying to improve leading to the late season."
Indy's emphasis on getting home court over Miami was on all of their tongues throughout the first two months: we need to have a potential Game 7 at Bankers' Life Fieldhouse this season, not American Airlines Arena. And for two months, they went all out to put the Heat in their rear view mirror. But now Miami is closer than they appear.
Vogel bristles at the notion that Indy put too much into getting homecourt advantage.
"No," Vogel said. "Emphaticially no. I think if we didn't, we'd be five, six games behind Miami right now. So why would that be a mistake? Why is it a mistake? I don't see how anyone could view playing your hardest, every single night, as being a mistake. That's all we asked them to do."
West points out that that cushion the Pacers built up has allowed them to stay ahead of the Heat during this rough patch. But the issue seems to be more about Indiana than Miami. There's no question the Pacers can beat the Heat anywhere. But do they believe it? Do they really think they're better? That's what's going to determine who wins the Eastern Conference finals rematch everyone expects to see.
"Nobody ever said all along that we can't beat Miami, or anybody else, if we don't have homecourt advantage," Vogel said. "We've stated that regularly -- regularly -- that it's not everything. It's an advantage. That's why they call it homecourt advantage. We're competing, and that's what the regular season is for. Every team in the NBA is competing for the highest seed possible. That's all we're doing. [The players] want it. They understand that we have a better chance if we have homecourt advantage. It's not that we have no chance if we don't. We have confidence that we can win on the road in the playoffs. We won a game in every series on the road last year, and we have confidence we'll do the same this year. If we have homecourt advantage, and we're able to win on the road, that means teams have to win twice at our place. So, there's an advantage there. It's not everything, but there's an advantage."
Improvement down the stretch is a team-wide issue. The Pacers, several players said independent of one another, have lost their edge. Whether it's, as Hill believes -- at least in part -- that the Pacers tried to be more up-tempo to be more entertaining, or something else, the mojo that made Indy look nearly unbeatable early is gone.
"Teams, I wouldn't say they were fearing us [at the start of the season], but they knew it was going to be a tough game coming in," George said. "And I don't think it's gotten to that point [again] at this point of the season. We've got to get that nastiness about us again. That's what we've been preaching to Coach, and trying to find that again in this room."
Said West: "I think we deviated from who we are a little bit, trying to outscore teams. We've got to make the game dirty and physical, playoff style ... we get in these games, we can't get caught up in who we're playing. We had Golden State at home [a 98-96 loss March 4], and we're trying to play that way. We can't continue to keep up with the Joneses in terms of them, and we give up a loss at home. Same thing with Houston. We try to play up and down with them instead of slowing the game down and playing our style of ball."
George says that, in a sense, the Pacers started smelling themselves a bit.
"That bitter taste was still in our mouths to start the year off," George said. "We had an edge and a nastiness to begin the season. And I think we started to feel ourselves, being at the top and being the best team in the league for so many days and months in the season. We kind of relaxed and expected to come out and win games, and weren't coming to play. That's just what we've got to come back to, square one, and the way we started this season off."
In November, the Pacers held opponents to 38.6 percent shooting and allowed just 85.2 points per game, a ridiculous defensive pace. No one could keep that up, but while Indy's defensive numbers fell in subsequent months, they didn't fall precipitously: 44 percent and 92.8 points allowed in December, 41.5/93.5 in January and 41.9/93.6 in February.
This month, though, the defensive numbers have cratered. Through nine games in March, Indy's opponents are shooting 43.7 percent from the floor and scoring 99.2 per game.
"I think we became a little bit finesse, not getting to the foul line, not getting into the paint, and settling for contested jump shots," Hibbert said. "With success, we thought we could just turn it on. Last year we were a little bit rougher. We made things ugly. We were guarding the paint. For a stretch, we weren't guarding the perimeter, the paint, and we weren't scoring. That's going to lead to losses."
Bird saw many of the same things. So even though the Pacers were 36-10 on Feb. 1, he didn't hesitate to tinker with the roster, signing Andrew Bynum for $1 million after the center was released by Chicago following his trade to the Bulls in January for Luol Deng. And Indy shocked many at the trade deadline by sending Granger to Philly. (Granger subsequently signed with the Clippers after being waived by the 76ers.)
Many wondered if bringing in Turner wasn't duplicating the production of Stephenson, who also plays a lot of point forward when the reserves come into the game. But with the Pacers unlikely to match a big offer this summer for Stephenson, an unrestricted free agent at season's end, having Turner as insurance was worth whatever short-term adjustments they have to make.
Turner has fit in well so far, not forcing any action. In his last six games he's shot 25 of 41 (.610), including 8 of 15 in Detroit Saturday to help Indy's rally. (Vogel did his part by laying into them at halftime.) Allen, who played well against Boston in the Eastern Conference semifinals two years ago, saw his most extensive action Saturday since being acquired, making six of six shots en route to 13 points.
But Bynum is the key to Indiana's hopes for an improved, productive bench -- the Pacers were 28th at the start of last week in points off the bench -- in the postseason.
A three-headed combo of Hibbert, Ian Mahinmi and Bynum would be almost impossible for Miami to deal with, even if Greg Oden is ready to play bigger minutes in the playoffs with Chris Andersen and Chris Bosh up front. (Vogel says that while it would be unlikely he'd play Hibbert and Bynum together against Miami, there are other teams, like Chicago, with its non-stretch power forwards, against whom a Hibbert-Bynum combo might work.)
He played in his second game for the Pacers Saturday in Detroit. While he's just 9 of 22 in those two games, Bynum has 19 rebounds in 36 minutes.
"He's come in and he's paced himself in terms of acclimating himself to the group," West said. "He's just been working in the weight room every day, working on his conditioning. He looks different than he looked like in Cleveland, because he's had a month of nothing but conditioning and weights. And I thought in his first game he looked pretty good. He's a smart ballplayer. That's the one thing I didn't know, because I didn't play with him, just seeing him from afar. He's got a pretty good IQ for the game. He kind of knows, he picked up our system right away. We really haven't had to do a lot of remedial [teaching]. He's picked it up in bunches."
The Pacers have been all in all season. Bird's given them everything they need to win. They have great coaching and veteran leadership, and they still have the best record in the East by three games. They're properly scarred by how they went out to the Heat last season. It is all still in front of them.
No more meetings. No more trades. The Pacers have to roll with what they have.
"We're okay with where we are," West said. "We had to recalibrate, refocus a little bit in order to get back to the basics, and get our mojo back. For about a week or so, we just didn't have any juice. We tried to beat people going through the motions, without actually playing the game and doing what we were supposed to do."
(Last week's record in parentheses; last week's rankings in brackets)
1) San Antonio  (4-0): Clinched 15th straight non-lockout 50-win season with win over Utah Sunday. (Spurs have won at least 50 15 straight seasons overall, including the 2011-12 lockout-shortened 66 game season, when San Antonio went 50-16.)
2) L.A. Clippers  (4-0): If the Clips make The Finals or win it all this year, Willie Green, currently starting at shooting guard with the injuries to Jamal Crawford and J.J. Redick, could be the Marc Iavaroni ('83 Sixers) of otherwise unknown fifth starters on great teams.
3) Oklahoma City  (2-1): How come no one mentions that the Thunder might be struggling in part because they're missing two of their top eight guys in their rotation -- and two of their best on-ball defenders -- in Kendrick Perkins and Thabo Sefolosha?
4) Indiana  (3-0): One more game against the NBA's JV, Philly, before the schedule gets mean: Chicago, Memphis, Chicago, a big showdown with Miami (March 26) and a date with Washington.
5) Houston  (0-3): Rockets stumble against top shelf teams last week after being hottest team in the league for two months.
6) Miami  (2-2): Thought the Heat had turned the corner and were really locked in, but spit the bit in consecutive home losses to the Nets and Nuggets. Can't feel great about a first-round matchup with Brooklyn (0-3 this season), either.
7) Golden State  (2-2): Chance for the Warriors to really solidify themselves in the playoff race; Golden State won't leave home again until April 1, with five straight at Oracle over the next two weeks.
8) Chicago  (2-1): MVP chants for Joakim Noah? Well, he certainly is valuable, I'll give you that.
9) Portland  (1-3): Blazers' slide has left them just 1 ½ games ahead of the Warriors for No. 5 in the West. You don't want to be sixth in the West. Sixth means playing the Clippers, who are third in the conference. If L.A. keeps winning, it could mean Oklahoma City slides down to No. 3. You don't want that, either.
10) Dallas  (2-1): Mavs have already clinched the season series with Memphis, winning the first three meetings with the Grizzlies, and would thus win any potential tiebreaker. But that last game of the regular season -- April 16, at Memphis -- still looms quite large.
11) Memphis  (3-1): Encouraging for the Grizz that they've gotten back into the playoff race without Marc Gasol playing anywhere near his best since recovering from his knee injury.
12) Washington  (2-2): Wizards start what could be a seed-defining stretch of six games on Tuesday: at Sacramento, at Portland, at the Lakers, at Denver, then home against Phoenix and Indiana.
13) Toronto  (2-2): Raptors need Patrick Patterson, who's missed the last five games with an elbow injury, to get healthy for the postseason. He creates all kinds of mismatch problems.
14) Phoenix  (2-2): Don't think I've ever seen a stretch like this: at Boston Friday, at Toronto Sunday, at Brooklyn Monday, home versus Orlando Wednesday, home against Detroit Friday, at Minnesota next Sunday, at Atlanta next Monday, at Washington a week from Wednesday. That is insane.
15) Brooklyn  (2-1): Nets began the season thinking their size and length -- Brook Lopez, Kevin Garnett, et. al -- would make them formidable against potential playoff opponents like Indy and Miami. But Brooklyn's success of late has come from having to go small because of all its injuries, with Paul Pierce at the four and Miles Plumlee at center.
L.A. Clippers (4-0): Exploded on offense during win streak, averaging 113.1 points per game in their 10 straight wins entering play Sunday against Cleveland.
Philadelphia (0-4): This award is retired until further notice ... or until the Sixers win another game. They haven't won one since Jan. 29, which was four days before the Super Bowl.
How do the vets know it's getting close to Winnin' Time?
It's mid-March, and the circadian rhythms of the NBA dictate that it is time to get things locked down and ready for the big push. All over the Association, teams with championship aspirations are beginning to make their moves. Like veteran jockeys, the teams sense the right time to push their horses for more. All of a sudden, old guys start making plays.
That was 32-year-old Drew Gooden, 34-year-old Al Harrington and 37-year-old Andre Miller battling 36-year-old Paul Pierce, 33-year-old Andrei Kirilenko and 29-year-old Deron Williams -- the Kid -- down the stretch in Washington Saturday night, in as big a game as they've had in D.C. in a while.
The Nets came to town a half-game ahead of the Wizards for fifth place in the East, but the game really wasn't for fifth place. It was to stay as far away from seventh place -- where either the Heat or Pacers await -- as possible. And it was one of a half-dozen games where thirtysomethings suddenly were on the floor in key moments.
Everything before the All-Star break is about young guys and numbers. Everything after is about championships.
"It's when the season starts," Nets coach Jason Kidd said Saturday. "For the veteran guys, that's when basketball starts to get serious. You look at the vets around the league, that's when they start preparing for the playoffs."
The Spurs push. The Clippers push. The Grizzlies push. Chicago pushes, out of habit and muscle memory, even with half its team infirm.
Kobe pushes, and his leg gives way. That's what has him so angry and puzzled; it's not just that the Lakers stink this season, it's that he can't do anything about it, can't will his team to meaningful victories, as he's done since he was 20.
Washington and Toronto, for the first time in years, are pushing. Teams like Miami and Brooklyn start to push, but if they stumble instead of fortify, it grates on them more than most.
Brooklyn has been the hottest team in the East since New Year's, and dropped quite a calling card on the Heat Wednesday, improving to 3-0 vs. Miami this season. So, after his team blew a 12-point second-half lead in Washington Saturday, and lost for just the second time in 34 games this season after leading after three quarters, Pierce was hacked off.
It was beautiful.
"You've got two teams that are a game, a half a game apart," he said Saturday. "And I tried to express that to the guys in the locker room -- hey, from here on out, these games are like playoff games. Every day, every week, the standings are gonna be constantly changing. It could be the difference from having a Game 7 at home and a Game 7 on the road. So we've gotta take these games with a better sense of urgency from here on out."
The Wizards won because Gooden had that urgency in the second half, making threes, taking charges, giving hard fouls, woofing and gesturing and blowing it out. It's a luxury of not being a starter and knowing the minutes are going to be limited.
Gooden had vowed to "sink his teeth into" what, all of a sudden, was a lifeboat of a chance in Washington to resurrect his career. After the Bucks had amnestied him last summer, Gooden, a former lottery pick, spent eight months waiting for someone to sign him. He's been in Bethesda, just north of the city, working out -- not at one of D.C.'s great indoor or outdoor courts, but at an L.A. Fitness.
The No. 4 overall pick in the 2002 Draft, Gooden, along with Pau Gasol and Shane Battier, were Memphis' building blocks while guys like Wes Person, Tony Massenburg and the late Lorenzen Wright were the wily vets. That seems so long ago. Now Gooden is one of the old heads.
He took up bikram yoga while he waited for the call, not believing he didn't have anything left to contribute.
"I have a passion for this game," Gooden said. "Every day I woke up, I knew that there were guys playing in NBA games, that guys were working out. So I had a dark cloud over my head, knowing that I had to be on my own schedule. I had to do something every day."
Brooklyn bet its season, and much of owner Mikhail Prokhorov's fortune, on its old guys. Kevin Garnett is being saved up for the playoffs, Pierce is rejuvenated playing power forward and Kirilenko continues to be a defensive pest. But the Nets had to give up some of their gray in guard Jason Terry to get some younger, peppier legs off the bench in guard Marcus Thornton.
Thornton, 26, is no old man. But he's already five years into his pro career, and has yet to sniff a playoff spot, having toiled in New Orleans and Sacramento. He didn't mind playing with the Kings; he thinks they've got a chance to be pretty good in a year or two with DeMarcus "Boogie" Cousins, Isaiah Thomas and Rudy Gay. But everyone wants to play Carnegie Hall, you know?
"I had heard rumors -- Cleveland, maybe," he said.
The playoffs, though, were a million miles away. And, suddenly, he's with KG and the Truth, playing for the best point guard of his generation, expected to come off the bench firing -- and making.
"Five years, I haven't played in the postseason yet," Thornton said. "To have a chance this year, I'm taking that in stride. I take that to heart. That's why I'm out there grinding every day, because I do want to play in the postseason. The postseason, that's where you really make your name. The regular season is regular season, and everybody do their thing. But the playoffs is where you really make a statement. If I can get there, I know I can take care of the rest."
For the first part of the fourth quarter, Thornton's youth looked like it would carry the day. You forget how talented he is on offense; when he's on, he's as unstoppable as anyone with his skill set. He scored 10 points in the first six minutes of the quarter to keep Brooklyn ahead.
The alchemy of an NBA team is like an ecosystem in the rainforest. The old guys have to keep a team in the game so that the young guys can go win it. When Shaq was 28, he was the Diesel; at 38, he was the Shunter, pushing the younger, sleeker trains in the station back to their starting points, so they wouldn't run late. But he was still important enough that he went from the Heat to the Suns to the Celtics to the Cavs well past his prime, so desired was his championship experience.
It's why the Wizards desperately wanted Miller when he fell out of favor in Denver. He not only gives John Wall a breather, but shows Wall how to play his position and not just use his incredible speed. Miller knows he's only going to play 12-15 minutes a game in D.C., so he has the luxury of blowing it out, going all out while he's on the court. On a rebuilding team, old man skills aren't valuable; on a playoff team, they're priceless.
Saturday, Miller only had one thought when he came in to face Williams, younger and now in great shape: Don't let him attack me. Hit first. And he did, keeping Williams from taking over and giving his fellow Club AARP members Gooden and Harrington a chance to get control of the game.
"I've played against him as a starter for a number of years," Miller said, "so I kind of understand where he likes to pick his spot. My job, since I knew I wasn't going to be out there long, was to just pick him up defensively and make things a little bit tougher for him, and I did my job."
Harrington had missed the first half of the season. But now, he's healthy and still has a little bit of explosion. Gooden has almost none, but he still has a lot of toughness, and as has been the case for a million years, the ball always seemed to wind up in the hot shooter's hands. Gooden made everything, seemingly, including the 3-pointer that put Washington up for good, allowing Wall to apply the coup de grace.
"Y'all make fun of me for being old, but I am still Drew Gooden," he said, a star again for one night, as the season grows as old as he, the time now right for men like him to make their moves.
When they don't want to pump you up. From Dennis Cowan:
In the NBA, do the top teams overtrain (do extra running and weight training) on their squads from about three quarters of the way through the season until the end of the season before completely refreshing them (lightening their training intensity and strength loading) for a playoff run? This is quite often performed in other sports (by successful teams who have the luxury of being far enough ahead of/in their competitions) and could account for the some of the dropoffs in intensity we have recently witnessed from the top teams in the league.
Good question. Being a dolt when it comes to athletic training, Dennis, I farmed this question out to a couple of actual athletic trainers who know way more than I do.
"We tend to taper towards the end of the season," wrote Aaron Nelson, the Suns' renowned head athletic trainer. "Guys that aren't playing or playing little will maintain the workload, but we lessen the workload for the main rotation guys, usually sticking to corrective exercise and 1-2 lifts/week."
Corrective exercises, Nelson said, are weight-bearing workouts, but usually with either just body weight or light weight, using stability equipment like BOSU balls that work the players' core muscles, and AirEx balance pads that aid joint stability. Hope this answers your question.
Charity begins at the house next door. From Ernie Hu:
I definitely don't agree with the general consensus that Royce White should just "suck it up" and play simply as mental illness is a serious matter and not something which can just be "sucked up". Similarly, I sympathize and feel for those who suffer from mental illness (my cousin suffers from depression and anxiety). I have also made donations to organizations helping those which suffer from mental illness.
That being said, I think the whole idea of trying to implement a system for those suffering from mental illness in the League is a ridiculous (and possibly selfish) idea. In the real world, an employer would only hire an employee in a job if the employee is able to complete the job properly. If I was a mining tycoon, I would ensure not to hire any person suffering from claustrophobia. Firstly, the miner would not be able to do his job properly and the legal implications of any sort of mental and physical harm suffered by the miner due to his disorders would be too much to handle. I certainly won't try to work out a system where my claustrophobic miner can have an independent physician determine whether the miner should head into the mine each day. In the meantime, I'm paying the miner 80 grand a year regardless.
I think you know where I'm going with this. An NBA player is paid to do this job: to represent the League and play basketball. It comes with the job that NBA players be able to fly interstate as well as handle the limelight. That's why the players are paid in the millions. If White is unable to handle all that comes with the job, then perhaps there are other jobs out there for him which suit his basketball talents (e.g. a local basketball coach). It is just too much to ask for "special treatment" in such a demanding industry.
I hope I do not come across as callous, but practical.
While I understand the sentiment you express, Ernie, I just disagree. White is not asking for special treatment; he's asking that mental illness be treated the same as physical injuries are. If a player suffered a sprained ankle in a shootaround and couldn't play that night, no one would bat an eye. So why should it be different for someone who's in the throes of an anxiety attack or some similar disorder? Being able to travel is just one component of this issue -- and, again, it's an overblown one, in my opinion. The bigger issue/problem is what we are going to accept as a legitimate "injury," and who will determine the course of treatment for those injuries.
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(weekly averages in parentheses)
1) Kevin Durant (33.7 ppg, 4.3 rpg, 3.7 apg, .475 FG, .895 FT): Already has a career-high 13 technical fouls this season, three short of what would be an automatic one-game suspension. (Again, techs amassed during the regular season do not carry over to the playoffs, which have a threshold of seven Ts before the one-game suspension kicks in.)
2) LeBron James (21.8 ppg, 5.8 rpg, 6.5 apg, .516 FG, .750 FT): Odd stat lines from James since he went for 61 points two weeks ago against Charlotte: back to back games in which James didn't attempt a single free throw. And in Sunday's win over Houston, he didn't score a point in the fourth quarter until there was a minute left.
3) Blake Griffin (27 ppg, 9.3 rpg, 4.8 apg, .544 FG, .786 FT): With Derrick Rose out, the league needed some of its young stars to become players, if you can understand the distinction. Guys like Griffin and John Wall are answering the bell, and that's important going forward.
4) Tim Duncan (9.8 ppg, .8.5 rpg, 1.3 bpg, .474 FG, 1,000 FT): Averaging just under 30 minutes a game, just the way the Celtics used Kevin Garnett and Utah used John Stockton late in their careers, for maximum usage when they were on the court.
5) LaMarcus Aldridge (16.5 ppg, 7 rpg, 1 apg, .526 FG, .833 FT): Missed Sunday's come-from-ahead loss to the Warriors and will miss at least one more game (back contusion).
492 -- Career regular season victories for the Spurs' trio of Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker, second all-time in league history among three teammates. Only Boston's "Big Three" of Larry Bird, Kevin McHale and Robert Parish has won more games as a group (540 between 1980 and 1992). San Antonio's threesome passed the Lakers' Magic Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Michael Cooper, who had previously been second with 490 wins together, last week.
33 -- Number of Development League call-ups to NBA teams this season, after Milwaukee brought up forward Chris Wright from Maine on Saturday.
17,991 - Average attendance for the Jazz through 33 home dates at Energy Solutions Arena this season, the lowest average, per the Salt Lake Tribune, since the team moved from the Salt Palace to what was then called the Delta Center in 1991. The Jazz, perennially top 10 in the league in attendance during the last decade, have fallen to 14th this season with eight home games remaining.
1) Jesus Shuttlesworth got in the way, way, way, way back machine this weekend, didn't he?
2) My friend Claude Johnson continues his pioneering work getting the stories of early African-American contributors to basketball out. His Black Fives organization has been at the forefront of unearthing original and archival materials that have told the stories of the New York Rens, Washington 12 Streeters and other great teams and players from the turn of last century through the birth of the NBA. Now that work is in an exhibition at the New York Historical Society Museum and Library for a four-month stay that began last week and will run through July 17. The Museum is located at 170 Central Park West at 77th Street (Richard Gilder Way).
3) Some real stuff from Steve Nash in this Grantland YouTube series "The Finish Line," about the waning years of his career with the Lakers. In this installment Nasty says what everyone knows is true about all of us -- we do what we do for the money, and it's disingenuous of fans who say they only care about the "legacy" of players who stick around too long. They want them to leave, the sooner the better, so someone younger and better can take their spot. Athletes know this, so all this nonsense about "family" when it comes to pro sports only makes them more cynical. At least Nash is honest about it.
4) The Brow is one productive basketball player, isn't he? It's really unfortunate that the Pelicans aren't going to have a first-rounder in the upcoming Draft; one more impact guy to go with Davis and Jrue Holiday, and New Orleans would be in business.
5) Look out, Wisconsin! My beloved American University Eagles are back in the NCAA Tournament again after a brief five-year absence, and you're in the way! Go AU!
1) Mike Woodson is a grown man who knew what he was getting into when he took the Knicks' coaching job. It nonetheless is unseemly for New York to bring Phil Jackson in before the end of the season, knowing that it would only lead to the kind of speculation we've indeed seen about who will replace Woodson -- while Woodson still has the job. That he's handled the situation with great dignity doesn't mean it should have been foisted upon him in the first place.
2) Kyrie Irving doesn't need another MRI on any more body parts until 2027.
3) I see Thaddeus Young toiling night after unforgiving night in Philly, and I think of when Whitman Mayo finally got his own show, "Grady," after Redd Foxx and Demond Wilson and everyone else that made "Sanford and Son" funny left. Now you give me my own show?, Mayo must have wondered. Trust me, Young would love to go back to being a role player on a good team instead of The Man on an historically awful one.
4) I certainly know nothing about Crimean politics, but a 93-7 vote by "the people" to join Russia seems, I don't know, a little on the fishy side.
5) RIP, Wil Jones. He was one of the all-time characters, a great player -- maybe the greatest player ever -- at my alma mater, American University, good enough to get an invitation to try out for the 1960 U.S. Olympic Team. But Jones made his mark as a coach, taking the Division II University of the District of Columbia to the D2 national championship in 1982 -- two years before John Thompson led a more heralded local program, Georgetown, to the Division I national title. Wil was brash and profane and hysterically funny and did so much for so many young people in D.C. He was one of those guys that made your city a better place.
Thank you for all the support. 7months to get back And answer this challenge #healthy #training #nutrition #bodyarmor
-- Kobe Bryant (@kobebryant), Wednesday, 3:10 p.m., after the Lakers announced he would miss the rest of this season, his broken leg not having healed quickly enough. Bryant also made no secret of the fact that he was not thrilled with the Lakers losing out on Phil Jackson for a second time, as he put it.
"This is not slit-your-wrist time. This is not even close to that. This is about building a program and understanding the short-term pain for a lot of long-term gain."
-- 76ers Coach Brett Brown, in the midst of what is now a franchise-record tying 20-game losing streak, which Philly reached Saturday night in a 26-point beatdown at home by Memphis. Since starting the season with three straight wins, the Sixers are 12-49.
"We're just not playing well, and it's a league where it can turn to quicksand quick."
-- LeBron James, after the Heat's latest home loss, to Denver, on Friday. It was Miami's sixth loss at American Airlines Arena this season after losing just four games at home all of last season.
"We're like the Beach Police. You know those police who are on the beach with those bikes? They've got those little shirts with the shorts? That's what we look like. Like we about to give somebody a citation."
-- Jarrett Jack, who is not a fan of the league's new sleeved jerseys, to the Cleveland Plain Dealer. (As for his "Beach Police" claim ... we report. You decide.)
And, Happy St. Patrick's Day, y'all. Don't drink too much tonight. If you do, call a cab. Don't be a bigshot. Get home safe -- and alive.
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