|They were on a free-fall down the Rocky Mountains in classic Denver Nuggets form ... reeling aimlessly, breathless and contradicting inflated expectations much to the dismay of their fans and frustration of owner Stan Kroenke. |
To the rescue with his quick fix bag of tricks comes George Karl, the fifth NBA head-coaching job for the old Kamikaze Kid from North Carolina, and his contention that he is better than ever.
He's jump-started a 17-25 team that was buried in an avalanche of over-coaching from Jeff Bzdelik, and under-coaching from Michael Cooper to a 13-4 run, landing them right smack in the middle of the playoff race with the Los Angeles Lakers and Minnesota Timberwolves. With that in mind, we'll clarify the future of Karl, the Nuggets, and other key issues over the past week.
1. Item: A 16-month stint as an ESPN analyst was about all Karl could take as he watched ineffective teams and wondered why he wasn't getting an opportunity to be a savior. Now he's back, a stone's throw from Boise State, where his son Coby is the starting point guard.
What it really means: Karl has proven once again that he is one of the most talented coaches anywhere when it comes to quickly assessing a team and teaching the players to win. Short of unforeseen injuries, it's hard to fathom the Nuggets not earning the eighth seed in the West considering how badly the Minnesota Timberwolves and Los Angeles Lakers are playing.
But looking over the long haul, Karl tends to be one of those guys who isn't happy unless he's unhappy. He already has had, and will continue to have, battles with talented but hopelessly spoiled young talent Carmelo Anthony. Also, he must be in line with veterans Marcus Camby and Kenyon Martin for this to work in the big picture. But nobody is better with the snapshots than the Kamikaze Kid.
2. Item: The Portland Trail Blazers fired coach Maurice Cheeks, replacing him with director of player personnel Kevin Pritchard, claiming Pritchard needed a closer look at the talent base for future decisions.
What it really means: The Blazers organization is stuck in a state of suspended animation without a plan once again. Oh, they'll say the future is all about youth and building around Zach Randolph, Darius Miles, Joel Przybilla and teen point guard Sebastian Telfair. Well, prior to last season, it was all about getting under the salary cap for the flexibility to make moves and vying for home-court advantage in the playoffs. Then, after failing to make the playoffs for the first time in 22 years, they signed Randolph to a maximum contract of $84 million when they didn't have to because he would be a restricted free agent. That came after a ludicrous extension of more than $40 million to limited and broken-down center Theo Ratliff and overpaying Miles by at least $10 million with a six-year, $48 million deal.
Cheeks, although still green as a coach with much improvement likely to come, was run out of town despite being the most popular figure on the team. The irony is a lot of his ineffectiveness came from the management base of Steve Patterson and John Nash's support of Miles' ugly verbal attack on Cheeks in January, when, in fact, Miles has been a lazy underachiever wherever he's been. Now the latest tale is a youth movement. About the best thing they have going for them is Pritchard, a product of the San Antonio Spurs organization the previous two seasons and former point guard for Larry Brown at Kansas. He's not a coach, but a bright, focused and competitive basketball man who could have a profound effect on the organization provided the obvious ineptitude of spin-doctors Patterson and Nash don't get in the way.
3. Item: As if things haven't been difficult enough for the Indiana Pacers, All-Star forward Jermaine O'Neal badly sprained his right shoulder in Tuesday's loss to the Nuggets. He was placed on the injured list Friday and will be out at least a couple of weeks.
|The Pacers were dealt yet another blow this season when Jermaine O'Neal injured his shoulder last week. (Greg Wahl-Stephens / AP)|
What it really means: The lost season of the Pacers continues. It's sad for the fans, who have suffered the most as a result of the brawl foisted upon the Pacers by the Detroit Pistons fans. It's sad for coach Rick Carlisle, one of the best coaches in the league and a no-nonsense guy who doesn't play politics. It's sad for future Hall-of-Famer Reggie Miller, who will retire at the end of the season. And it's a shame for everybody else in the organization, including Ron Artest, who was suspended for 73 games after charging into the stands after somebody threw a drink at him in the closing moments of the fateful game.
It now appears the Pacers, once one of the three or four favorites to win the title this season, will have a hard time even making it to the playoffs, especially as other teams improve. And maybe, just maybe, there is a great story there should O'Neal and Jamaal Tinsley get healthy, Dale Davis help the depth up front and Artest return for the playoffs. Or maybe that's just too much to ask.
4. Item: Cruising along at 10 games over .500 after the All-Star break for the first time in seven years and with a new ownership group led by Dan Gilbert and Usher, the Cleveland Cavaliers and their young star LeBron James seemed on track to earn the fourth seed in the Eastern Conference.
What it really means: Since the break, the Cavs have fallen apart on the floor and seemingly have no sense of understanding or urgency in how to win big games, losing six in a row overall, and eight in succession on the road. Despite all those on the bandwagon a month ago, the Cavs, as they are structured, do not have the kind of roster or system that make them contenders this season. They have a serious flaw of inept offense beyond James and center Zydrunas Ilgauskas. They play terrible transition defense, and there is no history of coach Paul Silas ever coaching a team to 50-win status and contention. It's hard to know what Gilbert and Usher have in mind for president Jim Paxson, Silas and the future of the club. But early indications are they will not be long on patience with Paxson, Silas and any other players, besides Ilgauskas, who are not under contract for next season.
Are they contemplating a coaching change from Silas to unemployed Clevelander Flip Saunders? Moving the decision making process from Paxson to John Hammond, the trusted aide of Joe Dumars in Detroit? Lots of changes may be in store if indeed the Cavs don't right their wobbly ship and fall apart down the stretch as they did last season.
5. Item: The Boston Celtics were on the verge of good things when they dealt Gary Payton, Tom Gugliotta, Michael Stewart and a draft pick for Antoine Walker and cash. A week later, the Hawks released Payton and the Celtics re-signed him Friday.
What it really means: Celtics president Danny Ainge, roundly criticized throughout last season as a rookie, has caught on to his job in a hurry. He has quickly transformed what appeared to be a floundering franchise with no direction into the best team in the admittedly weak Atlantic Division. With Walker and Payton, he has two wily and talented veterans on the final year of their contracts to support All-Star Paul Pierce and perhaps get talented knucklehead Ricky Davis on the right track. Even more important, along with veterans up front Raef LaFrentz and Mark Blount, there are youngsters Al Jefferson, Tony Allen, Broderick Perkins, Delonte West and Marcus Banks soaking all of this in.
All of a sudden, the Celtics are a franchise on the rise. Ainge deserves a lot of credit for changing the course. Not only with roster moves, but hiring Doc Rivers. On the other hand, maybe it's just centrifugal force from the success of the Red Sox and Patriots.
6. Item: Last Sunday, the Seattle SuperSonics went into Milwaukee and were hammered by the woeful Bucks. The next four days they proceeded to win at Indiana and Cleveland for their seventh back-to-back sweep of the season and return home to handle the defending champion Detroit Pistons in impressive fashion.
What it really means: Granted, this Sonics team is very limited when it comes to playoff experience, but to describe them as a run-and-gun team that will struggle when the tempo slows in the postseason is not an apt analysis. The fact of the matter is they have played any style necessary to win, with shooting stars Ray Allen, Rashard Lewis and Vladimir Radmanovic. Actually, they play better playing possession basketball, especially after watching the Phoenix Suns kill them in transition Sunday night in Seattle. Nonetheless, second-year point guard Luke Ridnour has matured very quickly and third guard Antonio Daniels is having a career year. What it comes down to is their interior play.
If the quartet of Danny Fortson, Reggie Evans, Jerome James and rapidly improving rookie Nick Collison mature and contribute consistently at the end of April, look for a showdown in the conference semifinals with the Suns.
7. Item: Less than two months after the Orlando Magic swapped Steve Francis' running mate Cuttino Mobley to the Sacramento Kings for Doug Christie, Christie is overwhelmed with unhappiness with his role, and is presumably now out for the year with bone spurs in his ankle.
|Steve Francis is a great talent, but his teammates are getting sick of his incessant need to dribble and force shots. (Victor Baldizon/NBAE/ / GettyImages)|
What it really means: The surprising Magic of the 13-6 start have been 18-21 since then. Francis badly misses Mobley, Christie misses his Sacramento teammates, and rookie point guard Jameer Nelson has moved into the starting lineup. The move comes as many of the players have tired of Francis' incessant dribbling and forced shots. Regardless of his assist numbers, he forces plays way too often, especially when you've got ultra smooth Grant Hill, through whom you can move the ball and young talent Dwight Howard aching to be included. Essentially, we're seeing if coach Johnny Davis is capable of keeping this together, or he'll be out the door at the end of the season.
It's a gamble moving Nelson into the starting lineup, but something had to be done with the way Francis dominates the ball to the detriment of his teammates. Now everybody knows the frustration coach Jeff Van Gundy had with him last season in Houston, and why it was imperative he be moved for the good of the team. It isn't that Francis isn't a great talent, but it's the same malady Stephon Marbury, Kobe Bryant and Allen Iverson inflict upon their teammates. Perhaps one day the other four guys will pull out a card table and deal as opposed to watching their so-called superstar play one-on-five.
8. Item: All of a sudden the Golden State Warriors have won four of six games, nearly beating Memphis and Detroit in the two losses, as the acquisition of Baron Davis for Dale Davis and Speedy Claxton at least initially looks like a move that could finally alter the decade-plus of franchise ineptitude.
What it really means: This was a big financial gamble by Mullin for the future of the franchise. With guard Jason Richardson and forward Troy Murphy expected to draw big contracts this summer, you have to consider the more than $15 million a season Davis will earn over the next four seasons. He's suffered through injuries to the back, knee, ankle, Achilles and psyche over the past three seasons. He tends to gain weight easily and that hastens his injury problems every time. But, should Davis get into shape, and discover that he actually enjoys playing on a young team that hasn't had a winning record nor been in the playoffs since 1994, they've got a chance to break the chain next season.
As for rookie coach Mike Montgomery, 58 and having just recently addressed the Stanford players, where he previously coached for 18 seasons, he's still comfortable with the difference between the two. Explaining the difference on KNBR radio in San Francisco, Montgomery said, "As I started speaking, I expected to have to stop after a minute or two, the normal (NBA) attention span I've gotten used to. But (the Stanford players) are looking at me ... great eye contact. I said, 'God, I forgot about this. These guys are actually listening to what I'm saying.'" Which is why nobody thought he had a shot at succeeding with the Warriors in the first place.
9. Item: The Pistons' win streak extended to eight games before consecutive losses at Phoenix, Seattle and Sacramento Sunday brought them back down to earth.
What it really means: The Pistons are the defending champs, and certainly have a shot at repeating, but it isn't likely. People seem to forget how close they were to getting knocked out in the second round at New Jersey last season, then hung on against an injury-laden Indiana team in the conference finals. They then trashed the Lakers to earn the title and accolades. But this three-game losing streak revealed their lack of depth in the backcourt and bench scoring, with the exception of big man Antonio McDyess.
Without question, they still play great defense, and their starters have perfectly defined roles. Rip Hamilton and Chauncey Billups are explosive scorers, and Tayshaun Prince has emerged as their best all-around player, plus Rasheed and Ben Wallace are there making noise every night. But the San Antonio Spurs are superior to them in virtually all categories, plus the Suns, Sonics and perhaps a couple of other teams have too much offense for the Pistons to match.
10. Item: Los Angeles Lakers owner Jerry Buss and former coach Phil Jackson finally sat down for their first powwow this week. The buzz is that none of their discussion had to do with the possibility of Jackson returning to coach the Lakers following a one-year sabbatical that is looking more disastrous all the time for the Lakers. What it really means: What seemed to be completely out the question isn't so far-fetched anymore. To say it's gaining some legs may be an exaggeration, but with Jackson returning to Los Angeles, resuming his relationship with Buss' daughter and the team making the transition back to the triangle offense under former Jackson assistant Frank Hamblen all deem this situation a little more interesting. There still seems to be a strong sentiment for Larry Brown. Then again, you hear both Brown and Jackson's names in conjunction with the New York Knicks. The main issue is how this team is constituted, and it strongly compares to Jackson's Chicago Bulls of the a decade ago, starring Kobe Bryant as Michael Jordan; Lamar Odom in Scottie Pippen's role; Chucky Atkins as Steve Kerr; Caron Butler does what Ron Harper did for the Bulls; and Chris Mihm certainly compares to Luc Longley. Sure, it remains a long shot for Jackson to return, particularly when you consider his dicey relationship with Bryant. But stranger things have happened. Don't ever forget that both Jackson and Bryant are contrarians at heart. If they hear it enough that they can't co-exist, they may just prove everyone wrong.