The Sixth Man (cont.)
The questions are fabricated, my answers are for real.
"What should I do? Should I be who you want me to be?"
-- L.J., Miami
Weren't you asking the same thing last week? It seems the questions have more urgency now.
When I watched Boston clobber the Heat for the second time in three weeks -- this time in Miami, where the home team has now lost two in a row -- I realized there could be no better result for the NBA. Those three Miami stars had made foolish caricatures of themselves when they danced on the smokey stage last July to celebrate their unification and brag of an impending dynasty that was as yet beyond their understanding. Come on, what could LeBron James know about winning "one, two, three, four, five, six, seven" championships, as he promised last summer?
What makes this struggling experiment so interesting now is that it's turning the Miami stars into real people. They aren't giggling cartoon characters any longer. They are real people. How are we going to do this? Can we do this? There was a moment midway through Thursday's loss against Boston when a close-up of James revealed the same expression he wore during his misbegotten TV announcement last summer. He looked strangely apprehensive, which is a look I've never seen from him on the court. I remember him looking frustrated in the playoffs two years against Orlando and impassive last spring against the Celtics, but he has never revealed himself quite so honestly as he did Thursday night. At least, that's how I saw it.
The role players are playing their roles -- they're spreading the floor and making their shots when left wide open. The problem is the stars don't know how to be stars in a selfless way. They aren't playing as a team, and they're just now beginning to realize that they'll have to work harder than ever to play as one. This isn't about improving their skills; it's about deepening their wisdom. When Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen united in Boston, they understood intuitively the demands of coach Doc Rivers to alter their games in order to fit together, because each of them had gone year after year after year of losing in the playoffs. They were all in their 30s and they were ready to change.
But these players in Miami haven't been humbled enough in their previous careers -- if they had been forced to accept that humility, they never would have gone upon that stage and behaved so naively last July. (What is truly surprising to me is that Pat Riley enabled them to do so. Didn't he, of all people, realize the celebration shouldn't be consummated until they'd earned something of real value to celebrate?) But now James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh have no choice but to deal with facts. To their credit, they committed themselves to winning championships and nothing else, but now that they're starting to see what they've gotten themselves into, there is no other option except to play humbly as a team.
The dose of humility they received Thursday (and Tuesday) was exactly what they needed. And if they remain too stubborn to listen, there will be more humbling losses to come. Michael Jordan was humbled until he learned how to listen. Kobe Bryant learned to listen, and so did Garnett, Pierce and Allen. (Tim Duncan didn't need to learn; he knew already how to listen, because he is Tim Duncan.)
What makes this so interesting is that they're real people now. They've gone from being despicably full of themselves to now becoming understandable and potentially redeemable. This NBA championship, it's not so easy to win, is it?
"He's a nobody. Why should I pay attention to nobodies?"
-- K.G., Boston
Kevin Garnett has always been a trash-talker, but for the last two years in particular he has been in Me vs. Everyone mode while fighting hard -- harder surely than any of his Miami opponents fought Thursday -- to regain his talents following 2009 knee surgery.
I'm not excusing what Garnett might have said to Charlie Villanueva, nor am I endorsing Villanueva's decision to tweet his accusation that Garnett referred to him as a "cancer patient."
What I do recognize is that Garnett is making -- at age 34, despite 45,761 regular- and postseason minutes -- an inspired comeback. Last year, Garnett averaged 7.3 rebounds in 29.9 minutes, and that rebounding number dwindled to 5.6 during the Finals. In Game 7, the Lakers exploited the absence of Kendrick Perkins for 23 offensive rebounds (leading to a dozen more field-goal attempts than the Celtics) while Garnett managed only three rebounds in 38 minutes. So it's fair to say that had KG been able to cover the glass at a normal rate, the Celtics might have won that game.
It is clear now that two years of manic work and focused play have helped restore Garnett's legs. Garnett is producing 10.5 rebounds -- a four-year high -- in 34.6 minutes in nine games this season. He had a game-leading 13 in the win at Miami, and he is responsible for converting the Celtics from one of the league's worst rebounding teams last year to No. 11 in rebounding differential so far this season.
Garnett has been making a lot of enemies since he came to Boston, but he has also transformed his career. If he can keep rebounding in double digits this season, the Celtics will view his trash-talking as a small price to pay in exchange for the production.
"Why is everybody talking about Steve Nash being traded? He likes Phoenix and, more important, I like Phoenix! If he goes, how much longer can I last?"
-- A.G., Phoenix
Suns coach Alvin Gentry recently blasted rumors of a trade for Nash, the 36-year-old point guard whom Gentry is relying on in the absence of Amar'e Stoudemire.
Nash never said he was looking to leave -- there have been rumors of his frustrations in Phoenix -- but his burden has never been greater. The Suns' frontcourt is so skimpy that he has to make plays like a scrambling quarterback behind a porous line. Will the Suns steadily rebuild the frontcourt -- and the team itself -- around Nash and his unique style, or will they begin to transition for the coming days when Nash is gone?
A key indicator will be Jason Richardson, who is in his final year at a salary of $14.4 million. If the Suns are a middling .500 team at the February trade deadline, will they move Richardson in order to avoid re-signing him for big money? No doubt all of these issues will be influenced by the team's play over the months ahead.
"Practice? We're talking about practice?"
-- A.I., Istanbul
I predict hard times ahead. I'm not sure how Burak Biyiktay, the coach of Allen Iverson's new team in Turkey, Besiktas Colaturka, handles things. But many teams in Europe practice twice a day, and they tend to manage their players as if they were collegians: They stay in a hotel the night before any game -- home or away -- they eat all of their meals together and they even regulate nap times.
All of these things will create difficulties for their new American import, given what we know about Iverson. Either Iverson will adapt in order to create a new life for himself in Europe, or he will decide that he is more willing than he thought to come off an NBA bench as a sixth man -- whatever it takes to return to the lifestyle he knows too well.
How to manage a change of owners, coaches and players -- all at once.
This comes from Larry Riley, a lifelong basketball man who, at 64, was named Warriors GM in May 2009. He spent the following season overseeing the 26-56 Warriors alongside his coach and friend, Don Nelson. And then everything changed last summer:
"I did want to change the culture, I really did, but I didn't know if I could get it done," Riley said. "It wasn't that we were just littered with bad guys. But I wanted to improve our salary-cap situation and upgrade the talent on our team. Fortunately for us, it looks like we did those things.
"The ways in which we needed to upgrade our talent had to do mainly with rebounding. There are people who say we were the worst rebounding team in the history of the NBA last year. We also gave up a lot of second-chance points because of our lack of rebounding, and that makes your defense worse.
"I'd watched David Lee for quite some time, and I needed somebody who would be aggressive -- to go rebound the ball. And then the package that came with him is what put him over the top. He's one of the better passing big men in the league. He's also the kind of a guy we wanted to run the floor. I didn't expect his scoring average to stay where it was a year ago, because I didn't see him getting the same volume of shots with our team. But I knew he was going to be a threat to score.
"I thought the change of system might be helpful to Dorell Wright. I did see flashes of things that did fit into what we do. As we looked to free agents and what was available, we needed a 3 and he was a guy who fit the best and he was a guy we could acquire.
"The change in ownership was a bit of a challenge. Frankly, I arrived at the conclusion there wasn't anything else to do other than go about business as usual with the hope we could get some things done to improve our basketball team. When Mr. [Peter] Guber and Mr. [Joe] Lacob became known as the people who would eventually become the owners, at that point, it was important for me to start working with both of them as well, as with [now-former owner] Chris Cohan. It was a matter of informing them, and sometimes things slowed down a little bit, but luckily for me, both ownership groups were very cooperative during the summer.
"Anytime you change coaches, you get a fresh face and voice. Keith Smart spent a lot of time preparing himself to be a head coach, and to Don Nelson's credit he did lot of work to help Keith get there. Keith believes in a lot of organization and communication with the players. Nellie's way was to communicate, but there was not much of it if there was any at all. Keith's way is if there is a problem, he's going to talk about it right away.
"We'll have to wait through this season and another to see if the moves we made are good moves. We're in the infancy of the season and we haven't had a three-game or a five-game losing streak yet. Only then will we really begin to know if we've done the job of changing the culture."