It’s not ideal to begin any NBA season poorly as the media and fans judge the NBA most on its first 10 games and then after the Super Bowl. But it’s especially dangerous for coaches off to a slow start with perhaps the most unprecedented stable of unemployed coaches in NBA history waiting around.
George Karl is available after winning 57 games with the Denver Nuggets as is Lionel Hollins after taking the Memphis Grizzlies to the Western Conference finals. Plus, there’s Stan Van Gundy, arguably the Magic’s most successful coach dismissed in the Dwight Howard mess. All are considered elite coaches with Karl a sure Hall of Famer. I believe Phil Jackson. He isn’t coaching again. But these three will.
And if I had to guess the way the season started, it’s Washington’s Randy Wittman the most vulnerable and Karl a choice to come in given his history of being able to turn around teams, even in midseason as he did with the Supersonics.
The sometimes too candid Karl is working for ESPN and in a recent media conference call seemed to declare his candidacy for an opening when he was asked about so many coaching changes last season. Said Karl: “When you have three coaches that won 57, 56, 56, get dismissed and move on, it’s just difficult to understand. You have nine new coaches that have never coached an NBA game (this season). I’m not saying that there’s not nine qualified assistant coaches that couldn’t become good head coaches. But I just think the whole puzzle right now is, it’s too much. It’s too much change. It’s an incredible time for basketball and I think coaching. I can’t deny there’s a lot of coaches, including myself, that are trying to figure out and understand why this is happening and what are going to be in the next steps. Because as a coach you’ve got to be able to adapt to the atmosphere you’re going to be dealt. If this is the atmosphere we have then we have to adapt to it.”
With the 0-3 Wizards headed to another season ending start with a tough opening schedule at a time they all but promised their fans a playoff spot, Karl could be back working soon. The Wizards are the league’s worst defensive team and John Wall already is in mid-season slumped shoulder form. He’s supposedly stopped writing “Playoffs” on his sneakers as he said he would do all season. It’s possible Wittman could be this season’s Mike Brown Early Departure winner.
Brown, however, seems safe even with his 1-2 start in Cleveland as he’s a game ahead of his 0-3 start pace from last year that got him fired at 1-4. Starting 2-1 has been good for the teetering Duane Casey with new management over his head. Though winless, the Jazz, whom the Bulls host Friday, have competed well thus far in seemingly taking some pressure off Tyrone Corbin.
Game says goodbye to Bellamy and Sharman
-- You’d never have heard it from him, but perhaps the modern day sports figure closest to Jim Thorpe as greatest athlete may have been Bill Sharman, the Lakers and Celtics star who died last week after a stroke. Sharman as a player, coach and executive has 17 championship rings. He was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame as a player and coach, and one of my favorites is he was in the Brooklyn Dodgers’ dugout in 1951 when Bobby Thompson hit his famous home run as a late season Dodgers’ callup. … Perhaps the most overlooked Hall of Famer—if that is possible—died last week. It was Walt Bellamy, who as a Chicago Packers rookie in 1961 out of Indiana University had one of the great rookie seasons ever, averaging 31.6 points and 19 rebounds. Bellamy also had the misfortune, if you will, to be in the greatest center era ever with Wilt Chamberlain, Bill Russell, Nate Thurmond and Willis Reed and Wes Unseld. Now that’s tough work every night. Bellamy is perhaps more famously known, especially in New York, for being traded for Dave DeBusschere to fill out the Knicks title teams of the early 1970’s. Bellamy was a traditional center of the era, defensive oriented and playing inside. But he was a quiet, intelligent man who was involved in politics and the African-American voter registration drives of the 1960’s. In an era of NBA mayhem, Bellamy was a less emotional man who advised teammates against fighting, which was a badge of honor at the time. It resulted in a reputation at times of a soft player, though he more was burdened by less talented teammates. After all, when he and Reed were first paired in New York, the Knicks had their best run in a decade. But Bellamy was an ironman typical of the era, of which he was proud. He missed just 12 games in a 13-year career and with that midseason trade to the Pistons holds the distinction of the longest regular season in NBA history with 88 games, not missing a game with either team as the Knicks had played more at the time of the trade. … Though I never asked Bellamy, guys like him were likely embarrassed at the soft outlook of this era’s NBA player. Already, many top players like Dwyane Wade are sitting out games and parts of back to backs to rest. It’s a virtual schedule with the Spurs. Pretty much before the last few years, it was unheard of. Players played. I guess it’s understandable that players want to extend their careers in this era given the huge amounts of money available. But the relative lack of competitiveness of this generation compared to their ancestors is disappointing.
Walt Bellamy is known for being traded for Dave DeBusschere to fill out the Knicks title teams of the early 1970’s. Bellamy was a traditional center of the era, defensive oriented and playing inside. (NBA Photos Library)
Carter-Williams off to a hot start
-- That first week phenomenon has the 76ers Michael Carter-Williams with rookie of the year after big games to open the season with nine steals and beating the Bulls and Derrick Rose. Carter-Williams, who fell to 11th in the first round because pro scouts said he couldn’t shoot, leads rookies in points, assists and steals and is fifth in rebounding. Carter-Williams is shooting 47 percent on threes. Nice scouting. One surprise has been Boston’s Vitor Faverani, a hulking big man who was undrafted in 2009 and has played in Europe. The Celtics signed him as a free agent and with injuries and their remake, he’s been a plodding if pivotal addition, leading rookies in rebounds and blocks and third in scoring. Orlando’s Victor Oladipo was the preseason choice and is second in scoring among rookies, averaging about 14 per game and with a strong game in Orlando’s win over Brooklyn Sunday. He’s still a rookie of the year favorite. Another surprise has been Milwaukee second round pick Nate Wolters, impressive as a point guard fill in, the Knicks Tim Hardaway Jr., aggressive and shooting well with J.R. Smith suspended. You assume they regret that contract now. I could see Smith available in trade at some point. There’s also Boston’s Kelly Olynyk, who has been solid.
Power forwards flexing their muscle
-- The fantasy acquisition among Bulls fans, as well as others, has been the power forwards, the Trail Blazers’ LaMarcus Aldridge and the Timberwolves’ Kevin Love. Aldridge is off to the best start of his career, the first Blazers player to score 24 or more points in each of the first three games since 1995 and the second player to record at least 10 field goals in the first three games in franchise history. Love was brilliant again Sunday in leading Minnesota to a win in New York in what is shaping up as the Timberwolves best season is a decade. He made two pressure shots late to shut off a Knicks rally and is leading the league at just under 30 per game. Their teams’ fares rest with them, and they aren’t going anywhere. In some ways, it’s been a power forward’s league to open with Love, Aldridge, Anthony Davis and Dirk Nowitzki in the top 10 in scoring. Though Chris Paul got on top early with a 42-point game, he’s not going to be a top scorer as size did matter. Kevin Durant and Paul George also are in the early top 10.
NBA news and notes
-- I understand the philosophy behind that new emphasis delay of game call, which got the Bulls two technicals against the Knicks and could have cost the game if not for Derrick Rose’s winner. Players were holding up outlets by grabbing their shots out of the net. But there has been significant selective and arbitrary enforcement as Marc Gasol clearly caught his own ball toward the end of regulation in the Grizzlies’ overtime win over the Pistons last week. If the call had been made, the Pistons likely would have won in regulation. There was a similar late game violation overlooked in the Nets win over the Heat. Plus, it actually does delay the game often as players now won’t pick up the ball as it rolls onto the court and officials must chase it down. … Nate Robinson was back at it again as his 16 fourth quarter points almost rallied the Nuggets to a win against Portland. But it was revealing to watch Andre Miller languishing with just 19 minutes per game. The Nuggets have been in multiple starting lineup changes already. … It’s perhaps most understandable with the Bucks with 11 new players. But in a 1-2 start, not one starting Bucks’ player has a positive rating in plus/minus while bench players have rallied the team each game with multiple positive plus/minus. Newly paid Larry Sanders has been the biggest disappointment. … It was a rare rant—though not the rant part—for ESPN commentator Jeff Van Gundy doing the Nets/Heat game about the league being too lenient on drunk driving offenders and suggesting perhaps year-long suspensions. Van Gundy, who never yet has seen a coaching mistake in a game, obviously was pointing toward suspended Nets coach Jason Kidd. You get the feeling the coaching guys, a close fraternity, aren’t too thrilled with Kidd walking into a head job without ever coaching anyone ever. The Nets got blown out in Orlando in Kidd’s debut Sunday. Please, no drive you to drinking jokes. Like Van Gundy says, it’s no joking issue. Magic Johnson, by the way, just declared the Magic could win the NBA title.
-- Gerald Wallace is working hard, but mostly on apparently trying to get himself out of Boston. Wallace last week condemned his teammates for being selfish, for the second time already. Of course, the way Wallace shoots who’d pass to him? Though Wallace didn’t address that. Nor his nine turnovers in the first two games as he was blasting his teammates. Perhaps you should play well first. Maybe you can understand disappointment going from the Nets to the rebuilding Celtics. But making $10.1 million for three more seasons he better get used to it. Now, if he wants to give up the money I’m sure the Celtics would gladly accommodate him. … Carter-Williams’ first game was impressive. Along with Chris Paul’s 42 points in his duel with Stephen Curry, who had 38 and nine of 14 threes. But the line of the week has to be Anthony Davis Saturday over Charlotte with 26 points, eight rebounds, six blocks, six steals and four assists. Said coach Monty Williams: "He’s our best player and guys have to recognize that. I still think we've got to look for him more than we do. I’m pointing that out to the guards.'"
-- The Bulls are in Indiana Wednesday for their next statement game, and they’ll see a reinvigorated Lance Stephenson. Not long ago no one but Larry Bird believed in Stephenson. He started for a conference finalist last season, but it seemed just until Danny Granger returned as the temperamental Stephenson seemingly could easily be distracted. Granger’s hurt again, but the way Stephenson has played it seems unlikely Stephenson will lose his starting job. Perhaps Granger gets it only to showcase for trade. Stephenson had some shooting school this summer under Bird, a heck of a counselor. Stephenson has been one of the best shooters of the young season, 60 percent overall and 64 percent on threes and has made nine. … Omer Asik and Dwight Howard are starting together, but not playing much otherwise. The problem for the Rockets if they do try to trade Asik is the way his contract is structured as he makes about $15 million next season and then is a free agent. That’s a lot even for a good center. Asik now is the league’s ironman with the longest streak of consecutive games played. But the Rockets pretty much seem committed to Asik for now as they’re not much using their power forwards and mostly playing Chandler Parsons and Omri Casspi at power forward when a center is out. The Rockets, though they play more deliberately now, are one of four undefeated teams. … Russell Westbrook returned Sunday to the great relief of the staggering Thunder, though Serge Ibaka is still missing, shots anyway, shooting 11 of 40 as the Thunder suddenly cannot find enough scoring.
-- The Jazz couldn’t work out an extension with Gordon Hayward, who certainly is not a superstar. But the way next summer’s free agency is shaping up with LeBron James most likely to return to Miami and Dirk Nowitzki to Dallas, even if Carmelo Anthony moves on, which is doubtful, restricted free agent Hayward is going to get some huge offers the Jazz probably will have to match. Hayward’s not a game changing or go to player. But he’ll be paid like one as both Boston and Phoenix probably will pursue him. But with Jazz center Enes Kanter also coming up for an extension, after paying Derrick Favors four years and $49 million can the Jazz afford three such large contracts? … His retirement was one of the least noted times of Allen Iverson’s career. He’s not the best so-called small player ever. That was Isiah Thomas. But Iverson was a joy to watch, if not locate if you were a team official, as an amazingly tough player and one of the most prolific scorers in history. It was difficult to win with him the way he played, but he was one of the great ones. ... Turns out with all those nifty offseason additions, Doc Rivers forgot to get someone to defend. The Clippers addressed shooting and lead in points scored. But as Chris Paul always has been an overrated defender because of his steals and the new additions cannot defend on the wing, the Clippers are 29th in points allowed and in the bottom five in opponent two and three-point shooting. They play the Rockets in a potential playoff preview Monday. … DeMarcus Cousins got off to a hot start with his new deal, but he began to lose it Saturday in frustration of being unable to score with just eight points against Andrew Bogut in a loss to the Warriors. … Trail Blazers second year big man from Illinois Meyers Leonard lost out in the rotation to Joel Freeland and has played one minute this season. … The ill feelings supposedly were so bad pregame that Clippers players refused to sit with Warriors players in the pregame chapel service. “Both teams don’t like each other,” said Paul. The Clippers and the Warriors have a rivalry? The Warriors have made the playoffs twice in the past 19 years. The Clippers have been dominant making the playoffs three times in that period. Makes you forget Celtics and Lakers pretty quickly.