Covering a team that never loses means that it’s important to realize there is basketball life beyond Rte. 128. It’s a big world out there. Let’s dive in…
Item: The Sixers fired Mo Cheeks after a 9-14 start, bringing the number of fired coaches to six. To look at it another way, 20 percent of the NBA’s coaches have been fired a little more than 25 percent into the season. Or to look at it yet another way, first-year Knicks coach Mike D’Antoni is now the third-longest tenured coach in the Atlantic Division.
Reaction: Way back in October in the league previews I cautioned against drinking the 76ers Kool-aid too heavily. “It will be interesting to see how a young team that made its bones running will take to having a low-post option. These things tend to be more complicated than they first appear, but (Elton) Brand seems like the perfect fit.”
Okay, so I wasn’t going too far out on a limb with that one, and I did pick the Sixers to finish fifth in the East, but this wasn’t too hard to see coming. Brand is not in shape after missing most of last season and Cheeks made a dreadful decision to put Andre Iguodala in the backcourt, where he’s just not that effective. (Kevin Durant, anyone?)
That said, Philly is by far the biggest disappointment in the conference and making things worse is that no one seems to care. This is what my former BoMag colleague John Gonzalez wrote in the Philadelphia Inquirer:
“The only thing flatter than the Sixers are the attendance numbers. They’re 26th in the league, averaging just under 14,000 fans per game. That’s thousands fewer than the number of people who will show up at the same arena to watch fat men gorge themselves during the Wing Bowl.”
I know, cry me a river. But here’s the thing with Philly: It’s a great college basketball town, but not a great pro town. Sure, there were isolated eras when they filled the building—the early days of Allen Iverson’s mercurial tenure being the latest—but the Sixers rate a distant fourth in the Philly sports landscape, and maybe even fifth if you factor in the Big 5.
Their attendance problems may be an isolated issue, but there is a new train of thought developing throughout the league that having three dominant teams (Boston, L.A. and Cleveland) will have an adverse effect on crowd-numbers league wide. With the economy being what it is, any attempt to pin a fall in attendance numbers this year on any theory—be it competitive imbalance or a hatred of funny mascots—is going to carry a heavy financial caveat.
But we know one thing that hasn’t been affected by the crunch: the job security of NBA coaches.
Item: Phoenix trades Raja Bell and Boris Diaw for Jason Richardson and Jared Dudley.
Reaction: Are they still trying to win the 2006 championship? Shouldn’t Steve Kerr have made this move when he still had a coach who wanted to run and before he got Shaquille O’Neal? This is a classic "what-the-?!" trade. Sure, on paper it looks like a steal for the Suns, and another classic TRADE EVERYBODY RIGHT NOW move by Larry Brown, but does it really help the Suns?
Steve Nash is said to be bummed, ticked, whatever after Kerr traded his bestest buddy, Rah-Rah Bell. Predictably Nash took some heat on blogs and the like because of his reaction, but I for one don’t blame him. He seems to be one of the most well-adjusted humans who plays hoops for a living, and if your best pal gets traded clear across the country after your G.M. fired your favorite coach and drastically changed the style of play from shooting in 7 Seconds or Less to losing by 7 Points or Less, you’d be a little disillusioned too.
Whether or not they won a championship, the Suns were the best thing to happen to the NBA since Michael Jordan’s second act. They opened up the game and made running generally acceptable after decades of walk-it-up sludge ball threatened to ruin what Larry and Magic had wrought.
It’s worth noting that it wasn’t Nash, or even Kerr, who gave up Luol Deng, Rajon Rondo and Rudy Fernandez for cash, ahem Robert Sarver.
Item: The Hawks ran a billboard-like front on their website touting Wednesday night’s game with the Celtics including a definition of the word “rivalry” (and an appearance by Ludacris!).
Reaction: Good for the Hawks. Even after last year’s surprising playoff result (note: I refuse to call it a run; it can’t be a run if they didn’t win a round) they still can’t get anybody to sit in their building. And hey, who doesn’t like Ludacris?
There is not a more fun opponent for the Celtics than Atlanta. Sure, sure, the Lakers and Cavs might be better, but the Hawks are way more fun. Now, is it a rivalry?
“This is not a rivalry,” Kevin Garnett told the writers after the game. “You have to win to make it a rivalry.”
Right, but the Celtics’ reactions on the court said otherwise. Losing to Atlanta wouldn’t have made a difference in the big picture, but it would not have been wise either. The Hawks are one of the few teams who are not scared by the sight of the Celtics, and they already believe they can beat anybody in the league on any given night. The last thing the C’s wanted to do was give them more confidence.
And now 870 words about Kevin Garnett
Over the summer I talked to 20 or so people about Garnett in an effort to break through the walls that he puts up to see if I could find out what makes him tick. Perhaps the best source was Sonny Vaccaro, who should need no introduction.
After a 45-minute conversation, I said to Sonny, “I don’t have any access to Kevin and I don’t think I’m going to realistically be able to get it. But I would love to know what goes on inside his head.”
Sonny was silent for a moment or two (a rare occasion, that) and then he said, “You know what? After all these years, I don’t think I really know him either.”
There has been a lot of talk about Garnett’s on-court persona lately. The Phoenix’s Adam Reilly brought it up a couple of weeks ago, first by asking if KG was going after white dudes and then amending his thoughts to wonder if he was picking on smaller guys, like Jose Calderon and Jared Bayless.
True Hoop’s Henry Abbott brought the conversation into the mainstream (at least the blogging mainstream) with a post where he talked to just about everybody about whether Garnett was being a bully or if he was just an intense competitor who goes a little off his nut from time to time.
First things first. As Reilly noted in a follow-up post, the KG picking on white guys angle was probably an overshot on his part. He’s pretty much an equal-opportunity trash talker. As for the second, it’s fair to say that nobody really knows what his motives are, which is why Abbott got such a wide range of opinions on the subject.
I watched him closely for my BoMag story and picked up a few insights. He is very much a creature of habit on the court. He never, and I mean never, deviates from his in-game routines, whether it’s his get-hyped pre-tip thing, or the way he puts his sweats on once he’s been taken out of a game. The guy even taps his toes the same way during the anthem every night.
That told me something—he tries to control what he can control in a chaotic environment—but it’s always dangerous to read too deeply into what we think we know about people based on their public persona. Take this fairly silly example. In my first few musings for this site I made a joke about listening to the Grateful Dead with Bill Walton and tied my Western Conference preview into a riff on Jim Morrison. That led a few people to rather innocently conclude that I am some sort of ‘60s-loving hippie. As a point of fact, I haven’t listened to the Dead in years and my favorite bands are The Roots, the Black Keys and the Clash, not exactly featured acts on Freedom Rock, man.
So, one might conclude that KG picks on guards because they’re not likely to fight back, and they wouldn’t stand much of a chance if they actually did, but I don’t know. He’s also jawed with Amare Stoudemire and was suspended for an altercation with Andrew Bogut. Don’t forget the Zaza Pachulia thing in the playoffs, as well. A personal theory: He wants everyone to know that he’s a such a bad dude on defense that he can pick up guards full-court and on the perimeter. But that’s just a guess.
Because he keeps those thoughts to himself, one can read whatever they like into KG. If people are inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt because they either like the Celtics or just appreciate his passion, they see him as a straight-up competitor. If they don’t like the Celtics and/or think he’s a huge phony who plays to the crowd, they see him as a puffed-up marketing creation.
That’s ultimately their choice, but here’s one other opinion from Paul Shirley, who I also talked to over the summer. Years ago when he was in camp with Minnesota as a non-roster invitee, Shirley bided his time to get on the court for a pickup game. When it came, Garnett looked at him and said, “No, no white boy. Wait your turn.”
Shirley was obviously ticked. He had spent most of his adult life being underestimated as a basketball player and given the cold shoulder by many an NBA star, and it bothered him. But once he got a chance to get a run, he was taken by Garnett’s intensity in what was a less than meaningless preseason scrimmage. “I thought he was kidding,” Shirley told me. “Nobody could possibly want to win a pickup game that badly.” But, as Shirley noted, Garnett not only did want to win the game, he was the same way throughout camp.
Shirley went on to say that he wished he could have hung on with the T-Wolves because he was so intrigued by Garnett that he wanted to have a conversation with him to see what he was all about. “That hasn’t happened too often to me,” Shirley said laughing.
I can definitely relate.
Paul Flannery is a regular contributor for WEEI.com.