Just four weeks into the season, we’re down to six contenders for the 2009 NBA title: Cleveland, Boston, Los Angeles, New Orleans, Utah and San Antonio. The first three are the favorites; the second three are the long shots. And they have one thing common. Reps.
Reps are easy to understand: The more you do something, the better you will be. LeBron James (and the Cavaliers, by proxy) jumped a level this season because he banked those Superstar Reps. The Celtics survived a grueling championship campaign, gained a noticeable swagger, embraced the Lloyd Neal Memorial “That’s right, we’re the f—— champs” mentality and aced their three biggest tests in November (two against Detroit, one in Houston). They’re getting those Defending Champ reps. The Lakers were toughened by last year’s Finals collapse, brought back Andrew Bynum and evolved into a 10-man juggernaut that wears down weaker foes. They’re putting away those Super Team Reps, learning how to flick that on-off switch, blow games open and conserve Kobe’s legs for the postseason.
All three teams could win 65-plus games, which, by the way, has never happened before. As for the long shots, the Jazz have proven to be deeper than anyone thought when they survived a solid month without Deron Williams. Come playoff time, they will be better off because their supporting guys stored those Crunch Time Reps. The Spurs are the wily veterans, the ones who know by experience that you only need to hang around for four months, then turn it on in the spring. They’re running on the fumes of a decade of reps. Only the Hornets seem to be going the wrong way. A popular preseason pick that struggled early because, as the theory goes, it’s easy to jump Point A to Point B and harder to go from Point B to Point C, everyone keeps waiting for the Hornets to turn things around. Including me.
After sitting a few rows behind their bench for Monday’s game against the Clippers, I realized the Hornets’ problems went deeper. You can tell from the stands when teams are happy and everyone is on the same page. For instance, I watched the Spurs beat the Clippers without Manu and Parker-Longoria; as long as Duncan and Popovich are around, and as long as they keep building around character guys, things can’t splinter for them. That Pop-Duncan foundation is just too strong. You could see it during every timeout huddle, you could see it with how they interacted and supported each other, and you could see it with the way they carried themselves. When Roger Mason drained the game-winning 3-pointer, there was no chest-pounding or pointing to God, just a quiet fist pump and a leisurely walk back to the huddle. It’s a professional team in every sense.
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Titans (-10.5) over LIONS
Last week: 9-7
The Hornets gave me a different vibe. They seemed a little detached, surprising since they have so many character guys on the team: Chris Paul, Tyson Chandler, David West, James Posey. Really, their only chemistry wild card is Mike James and he barely plays. I mistakenly believed it would be one of those lovefest teams that players josh around during the shootarounds before each half and hug each other too much. Nope. Midway through the second quarter, I asked my friend Tollin, “Are we sure the Hornets like their coach?” After all, the Nets practically revolted against Byron Scott four years ago. So there is a precedent.
We studied the Hornets for the next hour like marriage counselors. The good news is that, when you attend Clippers games, you inadvertently earn a Ph.D. in “How To Tell When a Team Despises Their Coach.” Even the football team in “Varsity Blues” liked Bud Kilmer more than the Clippers like Mike Dunleavy. If he doesn’t get fired soon, I would put 10-to-1 odds on a timeout huddle this year when everyone slowly closes in around him, we won’t be able to tell what happened for about 30 seconds, and then they’ll back away to reveal the coach in a bloodied, unconscious lump.
Anyway, that Ph.D. comes down to paying attention to the little things. The way players walk toward the bench after a timeout. (Goes one of three ways: “I’m interested to hear coach’s thoughts,” “I look forward to sitting down” or “Great, I get to listen to this bonehead again.”) How fast someone jumps up when the coach calls for them as a sub. (If they jump up fast, that means they’re totally in the game; if they jump up slow, that means they were either daydreaming about that night’s sexual conquest or imagining he’s punching the coach in the face.) Whether they listen or don’t listen in the huddle. The body language of the coach himself. And the telltale sign … what happens when a top player gets called over by coach when someone is shooting free throws.
This can unfold one of three ways:
A. Player runs over respectfully and seems genuinely interested in the coach’s wisdom. Watch what happens when Popovich calls over Duncan or Parker in a Spurs game. Total respect. They look like someone jogging over to a police officer.
B. Player jogs over, doesn’t seem totally interested, but doesn’t want to seem like a jerk either. This usually sums up 75 percent of the league.
C. Player does a double-take and his head kicks back briefly (like he’s thinking, “Really, I have to talk to this guy again???”). He saunters over disdainfully. When he reaches the coach, he makes eye contact for the first two seconds, then starts subconsciously pulling away (first with his eyes, then with his body leaning back toward the coach), and at about the six-second mark, he just starts walking back toward the court whether the coach is finished talking or not. Everything about the exchange says, “I’ve just had it with this freaking guy.”
I mistakenly believed that Chris Paul and Scott had an “A” relationship but in the second half of Monday’s game, it was revealed that they were a “C.” At least right now. Translation: I am no longer sold on the 2009 Hornets.
Which brings me back to reps. I wrote for Jimmy Kimmel when he hosted the “American Music Awards” show last weekend. We showed up for rehearsal on Saturday and Jimmy’s agent, the legendary James “Baby Doll” Dixon, wanted a picture with Miley Cyrus to impress his three kids. We thought this was really funny; not the request itself, but that Baby thought his kids would be impressed by a photo in which a teenage female pop star was taller than their father.
After getting the picture, Jimmy and Baby ended up chatting with Miley for a minute before returning to our spot. I mentioned that Miley, who turned 16 on the day of the show, handled herself with the maturity of a 30-year-old woman. Actually, it was a little creepy. Like one of those “Freaky Friday”-type movies in which the mom and daughter switch bodies. Jimmy pointed out that Miley’s current boyfriend was 20; we decided this was for the best since she couldn’t date anyone her age. She had worked too many hours, been exposed to too many different things, had too many adult conversations, been in the spotlight for too long, lived too much of a life. Even if she was physically turning 16, mentally, she was turning somewhere between 21 and 49.
“It’s all about reps,” I said to a nodding Jimmy. “She’s gotten a ton of life reps, if that makes sense.”
In real life, reps are a good thing unless you’re a porn star, a hooker, a cocaine addict or Tony Siragusa. In basketball, sometimes you can get too many reps in the wrong direction and it does more damage than good. If the Hornets are subtly tuning their coach out — and that seemed to be the case on Monday night — then that situation can only deteriorate. Remember Avery Johnson’s last two seasons? The Dallas brain trust never realized Avery lost the team until after the damaging-in-every-conceivable-respect Jason Kidd/Devin Harris panic trade. They didn’t understand — or maybe they didn’t want to admit — that Avery had burned out his players and they were getting “I secretly hope we lose so I never have to hear this guy’s annoying voice again” reps.
So how will this Hornets’ situation play out? My guess would be poorly. (Unless I caught them on the wrong night. I doubt it.) But it’s just one of the most intriguing questions through four weeks. Here are 10 more.
1. Has Derrick Rose exceeded every conceivable expectation?
Yes, yes and yes. Yes. Yes. Absolutely yes. Yes. Yes. Yes. Unequivocally, 100 percent, yes. As God as my witness, yes. May I get struck down by lightning if I’m lying, yes. Yes. Yes. Yes, yes, yes. Allow me these three points:
A. His worst-case scenario ceiling? Micheal Ray Richardson without the coke problem. (And if you don’t think that’s a big deal, remember that a clean Sugar knocked the Fo-Fo-Fo Sixers out of the ’84 playoffs by himself.) As for the best-case scenario … I can’t jinx it so I won’t go there. Just know that I wouldn’t change a single thing about his game other than giving him a reliable jump shot (which should come soon), which doubles as the craziest thing about Rose right now: He’s beating guys off the dribble WHO ARE ALREADY PLAYING OFF HIM BY FIVE FEET!!!!!! Do you realize how absurd that is?
B. I always judge players by one question: Would I like playing with him? And I’d love to play with Rose. … Too bad I was washed up 10 years ago. But to watch Rose’s unselfishness slowly rub off on such a messed-up, immature, overpaid, poorly coached, terribly put-together Bulls team has been one of the most random shockers of this season, right up there with Vince Carter looking like Vintage VC again; Jason Thompson being a great pick; Jason Kidd morphing into a Nash-like defensive liability; Marc Gasol being semi-competent; the poor Hawks fans getting suckered in by one of Flip Murray’s infamous November hot streaks; the fact that Alexis Ajinca could ever get drafted in the top 20 of an NBA draft; and Tim Thomas being involved in a trade that was delayed because someone else had a heart problem.
Because of Rose (and to a lesser extent, Vinny Del Negro’s ongoing Shooter/”Hoosiers” routine which continues to deliver the goods comedically), the ’09 Bulls became one of my go-to DirecTV teams even though I can’t stand watching 80 percent of the guys on the team. Remember the days when we were worried that we wouldn’t have an adequate starting point guard for the USA Olympic Team? Now we have Paul, Williams AND Rose? Holy schnikes.
C. I can’t think of another sports example to match this one: Bulls GM John Paxson completely butchering an unbutcherable (I just made up that word) situation in Chicago, heading toward the chopping block, then getting bailed out at the last minute by 1.5-percent odds in the 2008 lottery. This was nothing less than a GM Death Row pardon. Incredibly, they still have one of the five worst roster situations in the league — Ben Gordon will leave tread marks fleeing after the season, Andres Nocioni, Luol Deng and Larry Hughes have unwieldy/untradeable contracts, and two high lottery picks (Ty Thomas and Joakim Noah) look like ninth men at best. But none of it matters because of Rose. If I were Paxson, I would hug him every time I saw him. Right now, Derrick Rose is like a $500,000 Maybach parked in the driveway of a $200,000 house in the middle of nowhere. Let’s hope we still aren’t saying that in three years.
2. Why don’t more people realize that the Cavs, already really good, will be even better three months from now?
Only 5-to-1 odds to win the title? Really? Even in this crummy economy, with ticket sales about to drop through the basement, the Cavs can’t blow their LeBron Window for one reason: If they win a title, he might stay and save professional basketball in Cleveland. Money is no object. They don’t care. And given that they have $20 million worth of expiring contracts (Wally Z. plus Eric Snow) as well as two favorable contracts (Andy Varejao and Sasha Pavlovic), that means the following guys are in play for them: Mike Miller and Michael Redd (the two biggies), along with Josh Howard, Shawn Marion, Gerald Wallace, Jason Richardson, Rasheed Wallace, Brad Miller, Raja Bell, Leandro Barbosa and Antawn Jamison.
For instance, let’s say they traded Wally, J.J. Hickson and $3 million to Minnesota for Mike Miller, and $10 million worth of Brian Cardinal and Mark Madsen in 2010 … then they dealt Pavlovic, Snow and a 2009 No. 1 pick to Washington for Jamison and Darius Songaila’s mildly reprehensible contract. Two reasonable trades, right? Cleveland gets two blue-chippers; Minnesota and Washington save money, gain cap space and position themselves for 2009 (fan-tanking) and 2010 (the free-agent bonanza). Wouldn’t the Cavs become the favorites if they landed Jamison AND Miller without giving up anyone in their top eight? I’d be more scared as a Celtics fan if Mike Brown wasn’t in charge. The point is — they will definitely add one more elite guy and possibly two. Which means that our top three (Boston, Cleveland, Los Angeles) could end up being more loaded than any top three since 1993 (Chicago, New York, Phoenix). This is a good thing.
(The highlight of the second trade for me: I called my buddy House, a diehard Wiz fan, and opened the conversation with, “Would you trade Jamison and Songaila for …?” Before I could say the rest, he just started screaming, “YES! YES! YES! ABSOLUTELY! GIVE ME THE CAP SPACE!!! YES!!!!” Ladies and gentlemen, your 2009 Washington Wizards! OK, let’s give the readers a couple of questions.)
3. “Have you watched the Nuggs with Chauncey running the show? I forgot what a play coming out of a timeout looked like!” –Colby, Fort Collins, Col.
You’re right — lost in the Iverson/Detroit/Dumars lovefest was the dramatic impact that Billups might have on the Nuggets (lacking an elite point guard since Fat Lever), George Karl (looking relatively healthy for the first time in 10 years), Carmelo Anthony (more efficient), and the natural order of the team in general (from chaotic to orderly). The effect was instantaneous. Like putting the team through a car wash. Sometimes a player (especially a point guard) only needs to switch teams and impact the new one for everyone to realize, “Oh yeah, that guy’s really good, I forgot.” We forgot that Chauncey was still good. Not our fault because that whole Pistons nucleus had gotten stale, but still.
(By the way, Rip Hamilton now looks like Red after Andy escaped from Shawshank; he’s 33-for-93 from the field since the trade and on pace to break the record for hang dog “I guess I just miss my point guard” looks. Some birds weren’t meant to be caged, Rip.)
4. “What are the chances that MJ was on a golf course somewhere, saw that “Jordan Gets Fired From Wizards” headline come across the ESPN ticker as he mixed a drink and lit a stogey at the turn, then had to look at Oak and ask, “Is that me? I thought we were with some team in Charlotte … the Bearcats or something like that?'” — David Sanders, St. Louis
Come on, that’s not fair! MJ knows what team employs him — he goes to Charlotte at least once a month! For like two days! Take it back.
(Follow-up note: In a “Which NBA team would you NOT want to take over based on location, attendance, ownership, cap flexibility, can’t-miss commodities on the roster and spending ability?” debate, the final choice has to come down to Charlotte or Washington … and I’d have to go with the Bobcats. They are locked in to nearly $130 million over the next three years for Emeka Okafor, Gerald Wallace, Jason Richardson, Matt Carroll and Nazr Mohammed. Just look at that sentence for a second. Charlotte’s new marketing campaign should be, “The 2009 Bobcats: Giving hope to wanna-be GMs across the country!”)
5. “Can we just change New York’s name to the New York Expiring Contracts?” — 500 different readers
Done and done. It’s certainly one of the weirdest situations in sports history: a franchise announcing, “We are throwing the next two years away, only our fans will hopefully be sophisticated enough to realize why we’re doing it.”
And they are. I don’t know a single Knicks fan who isn’t OK with this direction. Of course, if LeBron cares about winning titles over everything else, then Portland is the play unless Cleveland loads its team to the point that he’d be crazy to leave. But I think he cares about winning titles AND positioning himself as the most famous athlete alive. He’s smart enough to know what the New York market means for him, as well as the hype/media/attention that accompanies a superstar moving to a mega-market in his prime. If he stays in Cleveland, he’s treading water. If he moves to New York, that becomes the biggest sports story of that year. And for all the Global Icon things he wants to accomplish — clothing lines, production companies, sponsors, etc. — he needs to be in New York or L.A on a daily basis. Those are the two cities in which Global Icon stuff happens.
But here’s the part that I love (just a pet theory of mine): Team LeBron is making everyone think they have a chance at LeBron in 2010 so multiple teams clear cap space and weaken themselves competitively in the short-term (like Detroit did) … which inadvertently gives Bron a better chance to win a title over these next two years! It’s devious and hilarious. I love it. I would do the same thing. Can’t you see Worldwide Wes whispering to Dumars, “Yeah, LeBron loves Detroit, he could totally see himself there, you should kill your 2009 chances so we can maybe sign with you.”
Fast-forward to two years later: “Sorry, Joe, I don’t know what happened!”
Only they’ll have that same conversation with eight teams. I love it. And yes, I totally subscribe to the “LeBron, Wade and Bosh agreed in China that they’d sign with the Knicks in two years” conspiracy theory even though there’s no evidence to support it. Wouldn’t that nucleus dominate the next decade? Wouldn’t they lure every cheap veteran dying for a ring? I am truly terrified for the future.
6. “Shouldn’t Dwyane Wade be getting equal billing to LeBron when anyone mentions the 2010 free agents? They are Pacino and DeNiro in my mind. Does LeBron have a Finals MVP? Didn’t think so.” — Harrison, West Palm Beach, Fla.
Take it from someone who owns Wade on two fantasy teams: He’s the second-best player in basketball right now. You realize he’s averaging a 29-5-8 with 49 percent shooting on a mediocre team with a rookie point guard and no bench, right? I can’t put him on LeBron’s “free-agent desirability” level because of their ages (Wade is three years older), their injury history (checkered for Wade, blank for LeBron) and the nagging sense that LeBron can get better and better, whereas Wade has pretty much realized his ceiling. Then again, Wade thrives as the underdog and might be using this “LeBron in 2010! LeBron in 2010!” hype to keep driving himself.
Quick tangent: The Summer of 2010 quickly turned into a polarizing topic since it’s two years away and some fans are rightly making the “Can’t we just concentrate on this season?” and “How is this good for a professional sport that a team is throwing away two solid seasons for something that might happen?” My counter: The NBA’s off-court subplots, in many ways, have become just as fun as anything happening on the court. Because of the Internet, sports radio, team blogs, better information guys and everything else, the whole trade/draft/free-agent market has practically evolved into its own sport to follow. We love reading mock drafts, making up fake trades, arguing about GM mistakes, discussing the latest moves and everything else. That’s just become part of being a hoops fan.
The Summer of 2010 (it sounds like a blockbuster movie) ties everything we love about that goofy underbelly into one neat package. You have teams killing themselves to clear cap space. You have rumors galore. You have a staggering number of star free agents who might be available (including Wade and LeBron, who only has a chance to become the best player of all time), as well as some crucial markets in the hunt (including New York, the league’s signature city). That summer could rewrite the following 10 years of the league. It really could. If LeBron signed with the Knicks in the prime of his career, that would be the single biggest transaction in the history of the league. And if LeBron, Wade and Bosh really did make that China pact to play in New York? The significance can’t be calculated. I don’t know if we can discuss it enough.
(In fact, I think ESPN should jump on this story like ABC jumped on the Iran Hostage Crisis with “Nightline.” I vote for a daily afternoon show called “Toyota’s Summer of 2010” hosted by Matt Winer, Tim Legler, Jalen Rose and Tim Hardaway in his dramatic return to TV. Every day, they could just rehash the latest rumors and interview Marc Stein and Ric Bucher by the Sony VideoPhone. Once a week, Chad Ford could give us the latest from Hawaii via OnStar Satellite while wearing one of Thomas Magnum’s old shirts. EA Sports could simulate mock “NBA Live” games with Wade and LeBron on various teams. And so on. Would I TiVo this show? Absolutely! Speaking of TV …)
7. “I just watched NBA TV as Ahmad, GP and C-Webb went over the All-Star ballot and called out players who had no business being on the ballot, complete with GP butchering last names of players he’s never heard of. I think all sports-themed shows should do this in the future and GP just threw his hat in the ring to take Barkley’s mantle of being able to say anything and get away with it. In hindsight shouldn’t we have always thought that GP was the rightful heir to Barkley’s throne?” — Michael T., Cleveland
Come on, this is like talking during a no-hitter! We can’t jinx it — I’m 99.999 positive that David Stern has no idea what’s happening every Tuesday night and would be rushed into surgery for an angioplasty if he ever stumbled across the show. Please keep it hush-hush. The only thing I would change is this: Instead of Andre Aldridge as the update guy, I’d hire T-Pain.
8. What the heck happened to scoring?
Through four weeks, the games themselves have been lacking in the entertainment department and I couldn’t figure out why. Then I checked the scoring.
• Last season, teams that averaged 100-plus points: 13
• This season, teams averaging 100-plus points: 5.
• Last season, teams that allowed less than 95 points per game: 3.
• This season, teams allowing less than 95 points per game: 10.
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1. Eric Gordon — About to become Baron Davis’ new Monta Ellis.
It goes deeper. Last season, 12 teams averaged better than 46 percent shooting, with nine of those teams averaging at least 80 shots per game. So far this season, only seven teams are shooting 46 percent or better; those teams average between 74 and 79 shots per game.
(Good God, noooooooooooooooooo!)
That’s right, we’re drifting away from the “Scoring Is fun!” era. My theory is threefold. First, four key high-scoring 2007-08 teams (Dallas, Phoenix, Golden State and Denver) underwent identity changes of sorts. Second, the main contenders watched Boston’s defense throttle the Lakers in the Finals, remembered that the last 20 NBA championships were decided by defense and started adjusting accordingly. Third, and most importantly, front offices are getting — gulp — smarter and smarter. Quality teams lean on statistics and numbers more than ever before; not broader stats (like Hollinger’s PER), but specific, hyper-intelligent data like “Player X’s shooting percentage drops 15.76 percent if you make him shoot a straight-on jumper instead of a corner jumper,” or “When Player Y gets double-teamed on the right block, he turns and shoots a jump hook 64.99 percent of the time,” or even “By all means, force this guy left every time — his scoring efficiency drops 28.4 percent.”
When baseball teams went into WHIP/OBP/VORP mode after “Moneyball” was released, Bill James wrote that the statistical revolution had changed the way rosters were assembled and games were played, only it might not necessarily be a good thing from an entertainment standpoint. After all, stolen bases are fun. Hit-and-runs are fun. Swinging for the fences on the first pitch is fun. Seeing a starter throw a 140-pitch complete game is fun. Watching a lineup with a bunch of boppers and no OBP guys is fun. Irrational, indefensible managerial decisions are fun. But watching hitters milk pitch counts, or managers use five relievers a game, or contender after contender constructed in the same cookie-cutter way … not quite as fun.
Could that be happening here? If basketball keeps getting smarter and smarter, will the quirky things that help make any NBA season entertaining — freewheeling teams, 132-128 shootouts, all-offense/no-defense contenders we secretly know can’t win — eventually just fade away? Could we be headed back to a more intelligent and efficient version of the brutal mid-’90s, when playoff games routinely ended in the 80s and everyone longed for the Magic-Larry era? Don’t forget the lessons of this decade: C-Webb’s Sacramento teams fell short. Nash’s Phoenix teams fell short. Nowitzki’s Mavs teams fell short. Nellie’s Warriors fell short. We loved watching all of them. And the one team that was keeping their spirit alive — the New York Expiring Contracts — just gutted their roster for the next two seasons. In the NBA this season, you’re more likely to see someone take a perfect charge than someone run a perfect fast break.
I am concerned. Just a little.
9. Is there a dumber argument in sports than “Chris Paul or Deron Williams”?
I argued before the season, passionately, that Paul was in a different league and earned myself a few death threats from the Salt Lake City area. (You stay classy, Utah.) Check out their 2009 stats through four weeks:
• Paul: 20.5 PPG, 12.2 APG, 2.9 steals, 52.3% FG, 85.6% FT.
• Williams: 7.5 PPG, 8.0 APG, 0.0 steals, 26.7% FG, 66.7% FT.
I mean, that’s a landslide! Come on! Can we all agree to stop arguing about this?
10. In the post-Isiah era, is Mike Dunleavy the single most destructive coach/executive in the NBA right now?
Forget that he’s a mediocre coach and an even worse GM, that Clippers fans openly grumble about him during games, that he dresses like a movie usher, that he forced out Elgin Baylor (only an NBA icon and the most beloved employee in the organization), that he clearly has nude photos of somebody important and that can be the only explanation for all of this.
Forget that he only succeeded for one season with the Clippers — when Sam Cassell was basically running the team — and screwed up the 2006 playoffs with the forever-indefensible substitution of an ice-cold rookie named Daniel Ewing during the biggest moment of the Phoenix series (when Raja Bell hit the game-tying 3-pointer in Game 5 over, you guessed it, Daniel Ewing).
Forget that he spent $65 million on Baron Davis this summer — a player who only thrives in a specific type of freewheeling system — then saddled him in a half-court offense with two centers and about 500 plays. Well done. Way to know your personnel, Mike. Maybe that’s why, within five games, poor Baron was regarding you with the same contempt that somebody’s wife would have if their husband showed up at 7 in the morning reeking of booze and cigarettes and wearing the previous day’s clothes. He couldn’t be more bummed out. It’s not possible. You did this to him.
Forget that he blew the only asset he had after Elton Brand screwed over the team — cap space — by acquiring 34-year-old Marcus Camby, as if this team had a chance to contend or something, when he already had another starting center making $10 million a year named Chris Kaman. Forget that he blew any chance they had for a superstar in the Summer of 2010 by dumping Cuttino Mobley’s corpse and Tim Thomas’ corpse to New York for Zach Randolph, leading to a Camby-Randolph-Kaman logjam down low that should go great with Baron’s run-and-gun game. And forget that Camby and Kaman now have matching discount signs around their necks and Dunleavy pretends he isn’t shopping them to other teams.
(Quick tangent: The previous two paragraphs were just an incredible sequence of events. There was no rhyme or reason to those three moves other than, “I have no plan whatsoever.” It was like watching someone open an Irish bar in downtown Boston, then serve wine, cheese and caviar to the confused customers. I gotta say, I loved it. As a season-ticket holder who only attends Clipper games to see opposing teams and prays for as much unintentional comedy as possible, this season has been a godsend … and Randolph hasn’t even thrown a punch at Ricky Davis yet. Is it too late to sign Ruben Patterson and Michael Richards? I might send them an extra $2,000 as a “Thank you!”)
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Titans (-10.5) over LIONS
Last week: 9-7
Again, forget all these things. Just come back with me to two Mondays ago. The Clippers are tied with a depleted Spurs team. Less than 29 seconds remain on the clock. I’m talking to the disgruntled father-son combo behind me (Lenny and Jessie) and make the mistake of saying that the Clips might pull this one out.
“No!!!!!” Jessie screams.
He grew up going to Clipper games, like me with the Celtics, only the bizarro experience. He knows better.
“You don’t understand!” he continues. “They’re going to make the go-ahead shot, and we won’t even get a shot off! That’s how this game is going to end! And it’s going to keep ending this way until you alert the entire country that MIKE DUNLEAVY IS A TERRIBLE COACH AND NEEDS TO GO!!!!!”
Well, then. I think I said something like, “Hey, how ’bout those Mets!” and turned back to the game. The Spurs came out of timeout and ran a high screen with Duncan and Roger Mason. Both defenders went with Duncan — of course they did, it’s a poorly coached team — and Mason nailed a wide-open, go-ahead 3-pointer. Eight seconds left. I turned back to Jessie, who was nodding maniacally and screaming, “See! See! Now watch this. We won’t get a shot off!”
Dunleavy called timeout to set up a play that obviously should have been, “Baron, we’ll set you a double screen, beat someone off the dribble, pull up and drain a 3-pointer.” Again, Baron Davis is on this team. He lives for these moments.
They come out of the huddle. The first sign of trouble: Three-point specialist and 12th man Steve Novak has entered the game for the Clippers. Why? I have no idea. This is a Dunleavy speciality — throw the coldest bench guy in the game in the biggest possible spot. With the Spurs still trickling onto the court after the timeout, we watch in horror as Novak is STRETCHING to get himself loose. He’s stretching! He looks like a 45-year-old guy who just got called into a Thankgiving touch football game. That’s followed by a 20-second timeout, which gives Novak time to perform an impromptu pilates session at the top of the key. At this point, I would have bet my life on a Novak airball to end the game. And thank God nobody took the bet, because this is the play they ran:
Ball goes into Baron near midcourt. He dribbles left and hands the ball off to Ricky, who’s coming the other way and stops. A couple of problems here: First, Ricky might be the worst swingman in the league right now. (Look at his stats. He’s an abomination. He’s 29 years old going on 47. Through 13 Clipper games before he was mercifully benched, Ricky was shooting 27.2 percent from the field and 27.3 percent on 3-pointers. At least he’s consistent.) I guarantee that, in the Spurs huddle, Popovich never said the words, “Look, be careful with Ricky Davis, don’t let him beat us!” You can imagine his delight as Ricky killed time at midcourt. Meanwhile, the clock was dwindling. 5 … 4 … 3. The fans started screaming in horror. This was like watching a little kid wander into traffic.
At the two-second mark, Ricky passed to Baron Davis, who had just sprinted a lap around halfcourt — going from the top of the key to the left corner, then under the basket, then to the right corner, and now he was popping out in front of the Clippers’ bench. Normally, this would have been an awesome play if, you know, Baron Davis didn’t have to run a half-court lap in five seconds. I don’t even think Usain Bolt could do this. So Baron catches the pass and has to immediately hoist up a three while flying full-speed the other way after having broken the world record for “fastest half-court lap ever.” As the pass is heading toward Baron, Tim Duncan — one of the smarter players of all time — realizes that, “Hey, there are only two seconds left, as soon as Baron catches this, he has to throw it up.” So he jumps out on Baron.
Now Baron catches the ball with his body going 35 mph away from his own basket and two players jumping at him, one of whom is 6-foot-11, so he rushes up a 25-foot 3-point shot. You’re not going to believe this, but it didn’t go in. It didn’t even hit the rim. The good news was that Steve Novak got some solid stretching in.
And as we were filing out of the Staples Center in complete and utter disgust, wondering how the Clippers could possibly run a play that took 12 seconds to execute — minimum — when they only had eight seconds, I turned to see a disgusted Jessie again.
“Hey, at least the shot hit the backboard,” I joked. “Moral victory!”
Jessie couldn’t speak. He’s about 15 more home losses away from pulling a Reverse Artest, charging the court, tackling Dunleavy and serving the mandatory prison sentence.
My point is this: Somehow, someway, in one of the most inexplicable turn of events that’s ever happened in this league, Mike Dunleavy is the only person currently coaching an NBA team and handling personnel decisions at the same time. Mike Dunleavy! How does this happen? My head hurts.
Bill Simmons is a columnist for Page 2 and ESPN The Magazine. For every Simmons column, as well as podcasts, videos, favorite links and more, check out the revamped Sports Guy’s World.