Plagued by uncertainty, Kings struggle through 'lost' year
The Sixth Man (cont.)
The Sixth Man (cont.)
The Sixth Man (cont.)
On the morning of the announcement, Sacramento Kings players were waiting for their coach, Keith Smart. "Coach," one player said, "you got something to tell us?"
It was all over the news that the Maloofs had agreed to sell the Kings to a group that intended to move them to Seattle next season.
Smart's response was consistent with the message he's preached as Sacramento coach for the last calendar year. Focus on two things, he told them: their shootaround this morning and their game that night. But it was no good. They lost the game that night in New Orleans as well as the three games that followed.
They had won three of their previous four before the announced sale, but the announcement has surely unsettled this talented young team. The Kings have lost five out of six, including an embarrassing 99-81 loss Wednesday at Boston in which the Celtics made their first 14 shots in the second quarter. It is the culmination of years of rumors and questions over the franchise's future.
"Every year there are allegations," Kings center DeMarcus Cousins said of the speculation, "and we're just as lost as the fans. We never know what's going on. We never know what to expect. We can't just focus on ball. We're residents of Sacramento, too, but we don't know what's going on."
It goes without saying that the pending sale has undermined the authority of Smart and team management overall. It doesn't matter whether the Kings are moved to Seattle or whether a local ownership group being assembled by mayor Kevin Johnson is able to convert its long shot of keeping the team in Sacramento. Either result is going to lead to new owners, who in turn are going to hire a new front office, and those executives will be bringing in new coaches.
The Kings are a team built for the future, but every aspect of that future is in doubt. "Absolutely," said Cousins. "This is a year lost."
Cousins wasn't selected as a reserve to the All-Star Game, and point guard Isaiah Thomas didn't receive an invitation to play in the Rising Stars Challenge (formerly the rookie-sophomore game). Cousins viewed both snubs as a consequence of the Kings' circumstances.
"There's no reason Isaiah shouldn't have been in that game," Cousins said. "He's had an incredible year and once again he's not even mentioned. So I feel like that's on the organization."
There is no guessing how many of the current Kings will be wearing the uniform of this franchise next season. Sacramento's abundance of young talent is tied largely to six straight visits to the draft lottery -- the 6-foot-10 Cousins is averaging 17.3 points, 10.1 rebounds, 2.9 assists and 1.5 steals; shooting guard Tyreke Evans was a Rookie of the Year; and the 5-9 Thomas (the final pick of the 2011 draft) has, according to Smart, "leadership skills [that] are off the chart."
And yet turnover must be anticipated because the pieces haven't fit. When I mentioned that Cousins, Evans, Thomas and shooting guard Marcus Thornton are all potential young stars who need the ball, power forward Chuck Hayes started laughing. "You said it," he said, zipping a finger across his lips to ensure he made no comment.
Hayes, 29, was signed as a free agent in 2011 to help provide direction to his younger teammates. But he is averaging only 16.7 minutes this season, which has limited his authority, and he recognizes that words can accomplish only so much.
"You've got to have young players to buy in, and it's so hard for a young player to buy in," Hayes said. "It may take some sacrifice, and it's hard for a young player to cope with that. They think they can play forever, their talent is unlimited.
"It's like that with most people -- you've got to see it to believe it. If they see it works, maybe they'll believe it. But they might not."
Hayes understands it isn't easy to turn wisdom into constructive actions. Coaches Mike Brown and Mike D'Antoni were undoubtedly selling a team-first agenda in Los Angeles to players who are far more talented and experienced than the Kings, and yet the Lakers spent most of this season failing to conform to one another.
"If you've got veterans like that and it's hard for them to figure it out, imagine how hard it is for these third- and fourth-year players," said Hayes, who played for the Rockets from 2006-11. "This is new territory for me as well. I'm taking everything that was taught to me from [Rick] Adelman, [Jeff] Van Gundy, [Dikembe] Mutombo, Juwan Howard, Yao Ming and Tracy McGrady. I'm taking everything they ever taught me and injecting it into these guys' heads.
"I'm not just talking to talk. It's been inherited by me. I have great sources," he went on, his voice rising across the locker room, his words chopping with laughter. "My research is great. So believe me when I say it."
The Mavericks went 19-31 in the 1999 lockout season with their young trio of Michael Finley, Steve Nash and rookie Dirk Nowitzki. Fans were booing Nash for shooting 36.3 percent from the field, while coach Don Nelson was threatening to bench Nash because he was passing up shots. Was anyone at that time predicting a long run of title contention for a Dallas franchise that was in the midst of a nine-year playoff drought? Mark Cuban bought the team one year later, and soon they were embarking on 11 straight years of 50 or more wins.
That's the kind of model in which the Kings would like to believe.
"It's crazy talent in this locker room," said 32-year-old shooting guard Francisco Garcia. "It's unbelievable talent. In a couple years you're going to see Sacramento -- I mean, Sacramento or wherever they're at -- in the running."
Little may they realize, but the next three months will amount to a test. Can these young players forget about their promising futures and focus on conquering the difficulties of the present? If so, they'll be worthy of a long-term investment -- regardless of who signs their paychecks or where they might be cashing them.
• Rudy Gay traded. A three-team deal Wednesday sent Gay and Hamed Haddadi to Toronto, while the Pistons received Jose Calderon's expiring contract from the Raptors and the Grizzlies wound up with a less-prohibitive payroll thanks to the arrivals of Tayshaun Prince, Austin Daye, Ed Davis and a second-round pick from Toronto.
The Pistons cleared more cap space for this summer and may yet re-sign Calderon as their point guard. The Raptors stole a star small forward entering his peak years without giving up any pieces that greatly affect their future, and team president Bryan Colangelo hinted he may yet try to move former No. 1 pick Andrea Bargnani, who has been injured since mid-December.
The only team that behaved questionably here is the Grizzlies. How does new owner Robert Pera, who bought the team three months ago, introduce himself to the fans in Memphis by downscaling their hopes of contending for the championship this year? Everyone was sympathetic to last week's trade of a couple of players at the end of the bench to duck under the luxury tax for this season. That move with Cleveland made sense because it enabled the Grizzlies to keep their team intact for a playoff run -- after which they could have traded Gay to lower payroll in avoidance of the more punitive taxes that will go into effect next season.
With this trade Pera has made a demoralizing first impression among the fans -- his customers -- in Memphis. Will they ever forgive him for saving money now at the expense of the larger goal? Prince is a wise, experienced player who can contribute at both ends of the court, but he doesn't create the threat of Gay as an athletic complement to the Grizzlies' imposing front line.
So now Grizzlies management can be expected to lean on coach Lionel Hollins to push Memphis deep into the playoffs to make a cynical trade look good. If the Grizzlies fail this spring, a poor showing can be blamed on Hollins, who is on the final year of his contract anyway.
I've written a lot about the impact of the new taxes and how it's going to change everything for the NBA, starting with the painful tax-driven decisions that must be made in Miami after next season. There are going to be a lot of trades like this one. The problem with this one in particular, however, is that it didn't need to be made Wednesday. The Grizzlies could have given their fans another three or four or more months of hope before avoiding the tax. Instead, a new ownership team has created a bad first impression in its new home, and don't we all know that first impressions mean everything?
• Derrick Rose and Andrew Bynum counting down the days. Both stars are expecting to return shortly after the All-Star break. Never mind the fury of midseason trades -- the comebacks of Rose, Bynum and Danny Granger should have an enormous impact on the second-half playoff races. Rose's Bulls are No. 3 in the East without their best player, just 2½ games behind the No. 1 Heat. The No. 9 Sixers are three games out of the final playoff spot held by the Celtics, who, despite wins in their first two games without Rajon Rondo, should be vulnerable after losing the All-Star point guard to a season-ending knee injury.
• Heat visit the White House. The president of basketball, Barack Obama, invited the world's best club to join him for an afternoon in which the Heat celebrated their 2011-12 championship as well as his return to office. These presentations used to be special for World Series champions when George W. Bush was president, because he loved baseball. While Obama is a sports fan across the board, his priority is basketball, and Obama made a big impact on the sport when he thanked LeBron James for representing USA Basketball at the Olympics last summer -- a comment that may help inspire James to return for a third straight Olympics in 2016.
• Rick Adelman's scare. The Timberwolves' coach returned Monday for the second half of what has been a worrisome season. The Wolves lost Kevin Love for practically the rest of the year, Brandon Roy hasn't been able to contribute and Ricky Rubio's return from knee surgery has been managed cautiously. But none of their issues has been as serious as the illness of Adelman's wife, Mary Kay, who has been suffering mysterious seizures.
"We don't know why. We have no clue why it happened," Adelman said. "No one can figure it out. How do you manage it? What do you do with it? How do you go forward?"
Adelman is an extremely private person working in an intensively public industry. The pressures on him must be enormous.
• Steve Nash returns to Phoenix. He was cheered, for the most part, as he came onto the court in his Lakers uniform, and Nash received a standing ovation during a video presentation in the first quarter of his first time back at US Airways Center on Wednesday. Nash, 38, won two MVPs in eight years with the Suns, but he could sense a major transition coming in Phoenix, and left in a sign-and-trade last summer in hopes of winning a championship with the Lakers.
He was welcomed by cheers and sent on his way with more cheers -- though the latter were the result of the Suns' 92-86 win in which Nash was held to 11 points and two assists. Despite the recent firing of coach Alvin Gentry and the defections of two of his assistants, the Suns are just four games worse than the Lakers. It's been a painful season for both franchises.
• Allen Iverson holds out for the NBA. The 37-year-old guard respectfully declined an offer to play for the Mavericks' ambitious D-League team in Texas while insisting that he would like to return to the NBA, where he hasn't played since the 76ers released him in March 2010.
"My dream has always been to complete my legacy in the NBA," Iverson tweeted. "I realize my actions contributed to my early departure from the NBA, should God provide me another opportunity I will give it my all."
He was an amazing talent and one of the most charismatic players the league has known. But who is going to gamble on him being able to provide anything more than a short-term fix of publicity?
• Billy Hunter tries to save his job. G. William Hunter, as the players' association referred to its executive director, has promised to fix all of the union's problems now that they've been found out. In a union release issued Wednesday, he confirmed he had fired his daughter and daughter-in-law from the union and disassociated the union from Prim Capital, a financial planning and investment company for which Hunter's son is a principal, and which had received $576,824 from the union in 2010-11.
Hunter promised to reorganize the entire department and vowed to enact new policies dealing with conflicts of interest, anti-nepotism, employee hiring and document retention as well as an employee manual. Hunter is moving forward with these reforms after a scathing investigation of his union, which, at its onset, he appeared to be trying to prevent.
Agent Arn Tellem declared that the players must replace Hunter.
"N.B.A. players deserve better representation from the union they fund," Tellem wrote in a letter obtained by The New York Times. "I implore you and your fellow players to take control of your union and your future. It's time for Mr. Hunter to go."
All of this figures to boil over when the union meets in Houston during All-Star weekend. The union already tried to oust president Derek Fisher when he pushed for this revealing investigation. It will be difficult to move forward without Hunter because he (along with much of his family, it turns out) was, in essence, the union. If he leaves, what is left behind?
Glickman, 88, was nominated earlier this month to the Hall of Fame in the "contributor" category. Glickman was a public relations consultant in the 1960s when he picked up the idea of bringing an NBA team to Portland, a move that helped pave the way for small markets in the league.
• He wanted to be a sportswriter. After graduating from the University of Oregon, he expected to join the Oregonian newspaper in Portland. "They were holding a job for me," he said. "When I graduated, they had a law at the time that a returning war veteran had to be given his job back, and the guy came home that week. So I did some public relations."
The Oregonian sports editor helped him become a local sports promoter. "They used to have greyhound racing at the stadium and a flag football game and stuff like that, and it went from there," Glickman said.
"I always wanted to try to get an NBA team here, and in those days some of the NBA teams played games outside their cities. I brought a game to Portland between Minneapolis [then the Lakers] and one of the other teams -- I think it might have been Rochester -- just to prove that we had some interest in pro basketball. We didn't have a building at the time, and they had a commissioner, Maurice Podoloff, whose mentality was such that anything west of Brooklyn was beyond his mentality. Then Walter Kennedy came in and they went on a pretty aggressive expansion and added teams like Phoenix and San Diego and Seattle, and then we fit into that very nicely.
"By then we had a nice new building, Memorial Coliseum, and it went from there. I think if we proved anything, it's that there's room for some small-market teams in professional sports. I think we pioneered that a little bit. Some of what used to be considered small-city markets like Seattle and Phoenix are now pretty big markets.
"We paid $3.7 million for our franchise. Paul Allen could sell it tomorrow I guess for $500 million. It's amazing, it really is."
• He almost missed landing the team. "I had to find people to invest in the thing," Glickman said. "We were originally going to take it public, but at the time interest rates were about 20 percent. It didn't make any sense. The only team that did it that way was Milwaukee, and they were very sorry they did. It was not a good arrangement."
When the NBA raised the price of a new franchise to $3.7 million, Glickman's local investors backed out. "They had a meeting of the expansion committee in Abe Pollin's hotel room [in Los Angeles in 1970]. Abe was the chairman of the expansion committee. And I was at the time trying to convince them we would have a public offering. I remember phoning Tommy Cousins in Atlanta, who said, 'Look, we want you in the league, we want Portland in the league, but Portland has got to put up some money.' So I said let me go back and make a couple of phone calls."
Some members of the expansion committee wanted no part of a small city like Portland, and Glickman thought his dream was doomed.
"I went down to the lobby," he said, "and I remembered I left my raincoat in Abe Pollin's room. So I went back to retrieve it and he said, 'Hey, there's a guy here who wants to talk to you -- Herm Sarkowsky.' And he had contacted [fellow investors] Larry Weinberg and Bob Schmertz and they agreed they would come in. So I went back to the room and here it's a new ballgame, we're all set."
What if he hadn't left his raincoat behind?
"I don't think we'd have gotten the franchise."
• Glickman became GM of the expansion Blazers, who debuted in 1970-71. He put Stu Inman in charge of player personnel.
"I'm always asked who is my favorite player, and the answer is Geoff Petrie," he said. "Because he was our first player. There are 30 guys who are tied for second. If they had the three-point rule when Geoff was playing, he'd still own all the records. A lot of his shots were from what is now three-point range."
The most important Blazer remains Bill Walton, who suffered a broken foot the year after leading Portland to the 1976-77 championship. He would leave the Blazers and file a malpractice lawsuit against their medical staff.
"That year after we won the championship, I wouldn't go through that again for anything," Glickman said. "We had the lawsuit, he defected and went to San Diego. I'm glad that's all over. We've straightened it all out and he's become a good friend.
"We won a couple of more conference championships in '90 and '92, but '91 was our best team. We beat Chicago that year by 20 at their place and by 20 here. We'd have won it all that year but we lost to L.A. [Lakers] in the conference championship when Clifford Robinson dropped the ball on a dunk that would have won it for us. Clifford Robinson, with a few seconds to go, he was all alone under the basket [trailing by 1 point in Game 6]. We threw him the ball. He dropped the pass. If he'd have dunked it, we'd have won the game. That was too bad. That was our best team."
"u know what? In this situation, I think u r 100% right"
-- Kobe Bryant responding to a fan's tweet.
He was responding Saturday to a tweet from @ImJustSam, who wrote, "you should pass more often bro" ... And so it was that Bryant ended a four-game losing streak for the Lakers by accumulating 39 assists over the next three games, all victories.
He added nine assists Wednesday while the Lakers built a 13-point lead in the fourth quarter at Phoenix. Then Dwight Howard returned to the bench after aggravating the torn labrum in his right shoulder and the Lakers' new style shut down, enabling the Suns to come back for a 92-86 victory. The Lakers haven't won away from home in six weeks, their next six games are on the road and Pau Gasol and coach Mike D'Antoni aren't getting along. Can Bryant keep this team united?
Milwaukee Bucks at New York Knicks, Friday, 7:30 p.m. ET. An NBA advance scout breaks down the matchup between the No. 2 Knicks and the surprising No. 7 Bucks, who have gone 8-3 since interim coach Jim Boylan replaced Scott Skiles.
"The Bucks are much deeper than they've been in the past," the scout said. "The rotations have changed a little bit since Boylan has taken over, and he's playing looser. He's letting them get shots up early in the clock, and it's the way it seems to be for most every interim coach -- they're playing free and happy at this point. When Scott was coaching it was defense-first, but they still weren't a lockdown defensive team. Now it seems like Boylan is going more with the offense first.
"Marquis Daniels was playing more with Skiles and hasn't been playing much at all recently for Boylan. Instead, Boylan has been using Luc [Richard] Mbah a Moute at the 3 a lot and allowing him to shoot, even though he's not an exceptional shotmaker.
"Larry Sanders has to be one of the guys on the list for the Most Improved Player award. He's blocking shots, they look for him when he runs the floor and he can make shots in the paint. The fortunate part of relying on Mbah a Moute and Sanders is that they aren't offensive players, so having those two guys out there doesn't create a lot of issues for their other guys.
"Mike Dunleavy is having one of his better years as a pro. He comes off the bench and aggressively tries to score, he can shoot the three and he gets out and runs -- so the things he can do, they let him do.
"The other thing with the coaching change is that Ersan Ilyasova is playing a lot more. With Scott, the thinking seemed to be that Ilyasova is not a great defender and so he's not going to be in the game as much. But Boylan has him out there stretching the floor and playing with a lot of energy and confidence, like he did last year when they decided to give him all of that money.
"The Bucks have two guys in Brandon Jennings and Monta Ellis who can go for 40 [points], but when you look at their shooting they're both around 40 percent. It seems like whoever is hot that night is the one who gets the most shots. They've been above .500 doing it that way, but I don't think that backcourt is going to get them very deep in the playoffs. Neither one is a committed defender. They're both steal-type guys and volume shooters, even though Jennings has been better about distributing the ball and involving the team.
"The Knicks have Raymond Felton back, but I'm going to wait and see how that goes over the second half of the year. He's been one of those guys who has been a meteor that goes bright for a while, but I don't know that he's ever had a full great season. It will be interesting because now that they also have Iman Shumpert back, they have a lot of guys trying to play those spots. I'm not on the Shumpert bandwagon. He's a pretty good defender but he doesn't know that defense is his bread and butter -- he wants to prove he's an offensive player, too.
"I also have a question of why you would play a Hall of Fame point guard like Jason Kidd off the ball? I'm not understanding that one either.
"Carmelo Anthony and LeBron James are the MVP candidates in the East. Carmelo is playing as well as he can play. Mike Woodson has had him at the 4 a lot, which gives him an opportunity to be an attacker offensively. He's had all the pressure on him of being in New York and he appears to be responding pretty well to it on a consistent basis.
"Kidd is a willing defender but he can't stay in front of Jenning or Ellis. The key thing with Milwaukee is that when Jennings and Ellis are guarded, they just end up shooting quicker.
"I like the Knicks in this game because I think their depth of quality players is better than the Bucks'. They can bring in Amar'e Stoudemire up front, and then Pablo Prigioni comes off the bench and plays the point. James White can give them minutes because he's been playing lately while their guards were hurt. The way Milwaukee is playing under Boylan, I think this ends up being a shootout."
This is in honor of Nash, who is currently the all-time leader in NBA free-throw percentage (90.41) ahead of Mark Price (90.39), Rick Barry (89.98) and Peja Stojakovic (89.48). It wasn't so long ago that the NBA was known as a league of bad shooting, but half of the top six free-throw shooters in history are playing in the league today -- including No. 5 Chauncey Billups (89.37 percent) and No. 6 Ray Allen (89.35).
The players on this team rank among the best free-throw shooters at their positions based on their performances this season. (Only qualified players who average at least 10 points were considered.) It turns out that a list of the top foul shooters includes many of the league's best players; if this roster could be brought together as is, it would be favored to win the NBA championship this year.
C Marc Gasol, Grizzlies 87.7%
PF Ryan Anderson, Hornets 87.8%
SF Kevin Durant, Thunder 91.2%
SG Kevin Martin, Thunder 90.8%
PG Stephen Curry, Warriors 90.1%
C Al Jefferson, Jazz 83.6%
PF Carmelo Anthony, Knicks 82.9%
SF Martell Webster, Wizards 87.2%
SG Klay Thompson, Warriors 90.1%
SG JJ Redick, Magic 89.4%
PG Chris Paul, Clippers 89.7%
PG Darren Collison, Mavericks 88.6%