Karl leading the unlikeliest of contenders in Denver
The Sixth Man (cont.)
The Sixth Man (cont.)
The most exciting team in the playoff races is the lone contender that lacks star power and experience. They are the Denver Nuggets, they've gone 20-7 over the last two months and they show much less fear than they create in their opponents.
"They just ran out of the starter's blocks and beat us down the floor," Lakers coach Mike D'Antoni said after being outsprinted at his own game in a 119-108 loss Monday at Denver.
Added Kobe Bryant: "That team is like a track team over there."
The Nuggets are reinventing the game even as they're turning back the clock. They try to run like the NBA teams of the 1960s and '70s, but coach George Karl compares the Nuggets' pace to the modern fast-twitch offenses of new Philadelphia Eagles coach Chip Kelly and the more progressive soccer nations.
"I see it in the Spanish soccer team -- do you see how they play?" Karl said. "They never hold the ball. They never play power soccer where they kick it in and then run it down. They're moving the ball -- boom-boom-boom-boom-boom -- and I'm sure there's some sense to it. Football now is quick decisions. No-huddle offense, boom-boom, everything's quick.
"If you make quick decisions," said George Karl, and in this case I use his full name in order to emphasize the wisdom of his statement, "defenses always will react and they can't be aggressive."
The Nuggets are up tempo without being finesse. They lead the NBA with a preposterous 57.4 points in the paint per game, having scorched the Lakers for 78 the other night. They also lead the NBA in fast-break points (19.5 per game), offensive rebounds (13.5) and second-chance points (16.3).
"Our style is different from most styles," Karl said. "We want to attack the rim. We don't like to shoot jump shots. Some players might not like our system. We want to make a jump shot; we don't want to take a jump shot. There's a difference. We make a jump shot, OK -- you run a play, you execute it and you come wide open? That's a good jump shot. But we don't want you coming down to shake-and-bake and take a jump shot. For 10 years, that jump shot has been going in 40 percent of the time.
NBA teams on average make about 38 percent on jumpers from 16-23 feet.
"We call it a tough two -- outside the paint, inside the three," Karl said of those jump shots. "Why do we shoot two-point jump shots? Because we have to. OK, I understand it."
The tough two is their least preferred shot, and in all but a handful of games this year the Nuggets have attempted more shots from the paint than tough twos.
Karl is far more forgiving of three-pointers.
"I don't mind shooting a lot of threes if they're wide open," he said.
Even as his team operates on the extremes -- playing at full speed in order to create shots of the longest or shortest distances -- Karl is not a heartfelt fan of one of his chief weapons.
"The three is more exciting," he said, "but it has swung the balance in favor of shooting too much. The value of shooting is more important than the value of smarts, of fundamentals. I'm not sure shooting was as important -- as fundamentals -- in the game as when they let the three-ball in.
"It's harder to get a dunk than make a three. Dunks are earned by execution and hard defense. Teams can play 22 seconds of great defense, and Paul Pierce can jump and shoot over Ty Lawson and make a three. Seems like it's not right. We can run a play and get JaVale McGee an incredible dunk because two or three guys decoyed, Andre Miller makes a great pass and JaVale makes a great athletic catch for a dunk. That's two points."
Seems like two points for all that effort isn't right, either.
"We work very hard to get our five to six dunks a game," he said.
Karl borrowed much of his philosophy on speed and spacing from D'Antoni, who for three months in Los Angeles has been unable to convince his more talented stars to play fluidly. Karl has no such problems, because he has no such stars.
No Nugget is averaging 17 or more points per game. Andre Iguodala, their most accomplished player as an All-Star (with the 76ers) and Olympic gold medalist last year, is averaging 13.4 points amid criticism locally that he isn't worth his $15 million salary. Karl loves him because Iguodala's perimeter defense gives Denver a chance to become, as his coach imagines it, a "top two or three defensive team in the West.
"Iguodala is a top defender in basketball,'' Karl said. "We didn't expect him to score 20 points a game. We knew what we were getting from him, and we think we'll get better offense from him.
"I mean, I don't think he's happy with the touches. I'm happy with getting him touches, but in the same sense I've got to coach efficiency. And if I have two or three players who are more efficient than you, A.I., that's how we play. Whoever is playing efficiently, that's who gets the opportunity. And there's a competition out there every night. I want everybody to feel like they're going to be part of it. But those extra 10 or 20 possessions are going to be earned by efficiency in the moment of the game. And I don't think that's wrong either. Sounds like that's the way it should be."
The Nuggets' two Andres -- Iguodala (29) and Miller (36) -- happen to be their two oldest players. Everyone else on the roster is, amazingly, 26 or younger. Karl loves to watch them play together because they play as if they're trying to outrun one another.
In his previous job with the Bucks, Karl was more in love with defense -- which is why he so often appeared frustrated by Ray Allen, Glenn Robinson and Sam Cassell.
"What I did learn in Milwaukee was that we could outscore people," he admitted. "I never really liked that, because in Seattle [where he led Gary Payton's Sonics to the 1996 NBA Finals] we defended people and turned them over. But in Milwaukee I knew we could score 110 points, and I thought there were only 10 teams in basketball that could. I don't care how bad we were defensively -- some teams couldn't score 110.
"But we're trying to be a balanced team,'' he said of his young Nuggets. "I would say the rest of the season most of our practices will be spent on defense. Iguodala is the key to that. Iguodala, I can plug him in every night on the best guy on the perimeter. Pretty good."
Danilo Gallinari, the 6-foot-10 small forward who leads Denver in scoring at 16.9 points, has potential defensively.
"He has been a very good defender in a lot of games," Karl said. "Consistency is what we're asking him for more. And Ty [Lawson, the explosive 5-11 point guard] should be a bulldog pressuring the ball, instead of him being soft and letting his size be a negative. Pick up, let his speed be a positive.
"And then Corey [Brewer] I can throw in there and he can pick the ball up. Kosta Koufos doesn't get enough credit for being a good defender. JaVale is an athletic defender of the paint. Kenneth [Faried], we want him to think like Dennis Rodman."
Careful there, George.
"We want him to think defense," Karl went on preemptively. "He is so intense on running and rebounding and he's fantastic at it. Can we add the next piece? Can he become a big-time defender? We think he can.
"And Wilson Chandler is the piece, he gives us a confidence out there because we have with him another defender. He's kind of my motivator. 'Gallo, if you're not going to defend, I'll put him in.' 'Kenneth, if you're not go to defend the rim, I'm putting him in.' I know he's going to defend. And if I want to play a defensive game, I can do that."
There you have it: the 2012-13 Nuggets. A team in, by all manner of definitions, transition.
• Pacers, Warriors scuffle. Indiana's Roy Hibbert and Golden State's David Lee were each suspended a game after shoving one another in the fourth quarter of the Pacers' win Tuesday against the visiting Warriors. Their spat edged off the court and into the expensive seats after Stephen Curry tried to separate Hibbert and wound up pushing him toward the stands. But that was as far as it went, and the abbreviated scuffle affirmed how much the NBA has changed since the infamous 2004 brawl involving the Pacers at Detroit. It is almost inconceivable that NBA players would repeat the mistakes of that night, knowing as they do the huge financial penalties they would suffer.
Curry went on to score a career-high 54 points Wednesday night in New York. The Warriors' loss spoiled Curry's spectacular performance -- a loss in no small part because they didn't have Lee.
• Sixers slumping. They lost their sixth straight game Tuesday at home to Orlando, which itself had lost 10 straight on the road before taking advantage of the collapsing 76ers. Many of Doug Collins's friends around the league have wondered how much longer the highly demanding coach will be able to deal with this young team, and shortly after the game Collins appeared to be setting the stage for his eventual departure.
"They say it's a players' league," Collins said with exasperation. "Well then, take ownership. Take ownership. That's all I'm asking: Take ownership of what you're putting out there. To me, I'm a day's-work-for-a-day's-pay kind of guy ...
"I did not think our guys prepared themselves during the [All-Star] break to come back to play ...
"If everybody looked inside themselves as much as I did, this world would be a CAT scan. There's not two days go by that I don't go to Rod [Thorn, the team president], I don't go to Tony [DiLeo, the GM] -- 'What can I do? Can I do anything different? Can I be a better coach? Can I be a better leader, can I help these guys?' Sometimes you've got to help yourself. Youth is a very blaming thing.''
The Sixers packaged second-year center Nikola Vucevic (12 points and 19 rebounds in the win at Philadelphia) and rookie forward Moe Harkless (10 points) with a first-round pick to Orlando in the four-team trade for Andrew Bynum, who has yet to play for Philadelphia.
"The team we tried to put together we've never seen. When you take a big piece from it, your warts show," Collins said.
Later, he added: "We made a huge deal and we have nobody playing as part of that deal. How many teams can give up Andre Iguodala, Moe Harkless and Nikola Vucevic and have nothing in return playing? That's tough to overcome, right? That's just the facts. I'm not looking for any outs. Nikola Vucevic had 19 rebounds tonight. Spencer [Hawes] had one. I think Lavoy [Allen] had two."
He was asked if the team has bottomed out.
"I sure hope it can't get any worse than this," Collins said. "If you look at our schedule, 12 of the last 14 are on the road."
Sounds like it might get worse.
• Mike Krzyzewski insists he won't coach USA Basketball. Jerry Colangelo, chairman of USAB, has been hoping to talk Krzyzewski into returning for the 2014 World Cup. There appears to be no hurry to resolve the situation, with several outstanding replacements -- including Gregg Popovich and Doc Rivers -- available to take over. Colangelo will meet with Krzyzewski after the NCAA tournament before moving forward to hire an NBA coach, which will change the dynamics of the program.
• Dennis Rodman visits North Korea. The late Kim Jong-il was a fan of the Chicago Bulls and Michael Jordan, and his son and current leader of the Democratic People's Republic, Kim Jong-un, was expected to meet with Rodman as part of a basketball camp this week in the world's most secretive nation.
"I'm not a politician," Rodman tweeted. "Kim Jung Un & North Korean people are basketball fans. I love everyone. Period. End of story."
Rodman also tweeted, "Maybe I'll run into the Gangnam Style dude while I'm here." Wrong side of the border, Dennis.
In additional news that could only happen on the other side of the world, Stephon Marbury revealed that he would like to coach the Chinese national team. China: the land of second chances.
• Derek Fisher signs with Oklahoma City. The Mavericks weren't happy that Fisher left them in late December and has now reappeared in order to pursue his sixth championship with the Thunder, for whom he appeared in the NBA Finals last June. Fisher didn't break rules by signing with OKC. He was injured when he left the Mavericks, who released him. He was a free agent who saw an opportunity to contribute to a title contender, which, in the larger scheme of all NBA injustices and outrages, has to rank at the bottom.
• Hornets lowering ticket prices. The cost of attending a game will drop for 81 percent of the New Orleans Arena next season, when the team will be renamed the Pelicans. The Hornets have developed superior relationships with their fans, and with that comes a strong understanding of their market. The question now is whether other teams follow this example.
The 6-foot-7 swingman has recovered from injuries to provide the surging Wizards with 10.7 points while converting 45 percent of his threes (No. 3 in the NBA). Webster, 26, grew up in Seattle and played his first seven seasons with the Trail Blazers and Timberwolves.
• He was 4 years old when he lost his mother. "I remember the last day I saw my mom," he said. "We went to church and she dropped us off, me and my sister and my brother. She gave me a kiss and she said, 'See you all.' She was wearing her flower dress. I saw her leave through the door and how I saw her leave was the way I [envisioned] her coming back into the house. Every day I would wait at the door and see if she would come back. She never did."
There has been speculation that his mother, Cora McGuirk, who was 22, was a victim of the "Green River Killer," Gary Leon Ridgway, who pleaded guilty to 49 murders in Washington state and has since confessed to many more.
"As you get older, reality sinks in," Webster said. "She loves her kids, she loves us and my grandmother, and she would never do anything to hurt us. I pray to God that if she's up there to give her my love and to let her know that we love her. I know I'll see her someday."
Webster was raised by his grandmother in Seattle.
"I had tons of energy," he said, "and it was kind of scary for my grandmother. She didn't know what to do with it. As a result, I was placed in special education all the way up through high school. It was tough for me from a social standpoint, feeling like I didn't fit in with the other kids. But they accepted me because I was so outgoing, so friendly and welcoming. And that hasn't changed.
"I tried tons of things, all of the sports -- soccer, football, baseball. I was all right at baseball, but that game became so repetitive to me at a young age. I didn't see many pop flies coming out to left field. I tried pretty much every position in that sport.
"I stumbled on basketball and I fell in love with it. I wasn't good at all. I wasn't very coordinated or athletic. After seventh grade, I decided to take basketball off all year -- I didn't play organized basketball that year. I went to a middle-school gym where a good friend of mine coached me in fourth, fifth and sixth grade. He had the keys to the gym and I would go there from 7 a.m. until 9 at night, working on basketball. I was learning from him, Lou Hobson, and focusing on the craft of basketball. That's the reason I am the player I am today. The mindset and the ethics of that work, that continues to sit with me.''
• In 2005, Webster became one of the final high school seniors to enter the NBA. (The minimum age of 19 was established the following year.)
"I sat down with my family and really close friends and I said. This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity as far as the buzz and the hype goes," Webster said. "I was projected to be going pretty high, and I said, I think I want to take advantage of the situation. They went through the pros and cons -- there was a chance I may not go in the lottery or even in the first round, and they gave me the stats on the average life of an NBA career. I understood I would never get the social aspect of my class in college again, that those were four years I would never get back.
"I thought about it heavily. I had already signed the letter of intent to go to the University of Washington. I'd made the announcement and everything. After the [high school] All-Star games, that's when the buzz really began to pick up again. I sat down with my family again and we said, Here are the options and the feasibility of all the options."
He insists he was not intimidated after the Trail Blazers chose him with the No. 6 pick.
"The one thing was the adjustment of becoming an adult, of having to wash your own clothes and pay the bills right after high school," Webster said. "Usually you get four more years of your parents making your food and washing your clothes. You don't get that here.
"The most surprising thing about the NBA is the demand for excellence and the high level of play and what they expect of you emotionally and physically. You can never prepare for that because it fluctuates. You never know what a team is going to demand of you, and you have to respond instantly. It's the craziest thing in this league. Injuries may happen, you may be considered a role player, then a man goes down and now you have to step up and they expect that of you. Your whole mentality has to change. Your focus has to change.
"One of the most important things is not only training your body but also training your mind, because this game is taxing not only on the body but also on the psyche. You have to stay focused and healthy, and those are the most important things."
• He was unable to stay healthy. Webster considered retirement last summer after being bought out by the Timberwolves (who traded for him in 2010) after two surgeries on his injured back.
"After my second back surgery," Webster said, "I was saying, What am I doing? Am I only destroying my body right now? It felt almost impossible to stay healthy. It was like I would get fixed up just to get broken again. It became repetitive, almost depressing to a point.
"That's when I realized I'd gotten away from the people that made being in this league bearable and fun -- and that was my family. At that point I wasn't really talking to anybody, and that wasn't healthy. I wasn't really sharing what I was going through. Something wasn't healthy with me. I was always used to sharing my experiences with my family. That's where I am, that's where my heart is. So opening back up and letting my family back in was good for me. They brought me up. They changed my whole outlook. The credit goes to my wife, who is an amazing woman, and my best friends -- all of those guys were right there whenever I needed them.
"I was in a point in my life where I was saying, This is not for me. I've been really good with my money, so that I could walk away now and get a regular job and live my life. But they encouraged me to fight through the physical therapy and regimen, and also to get the second surgery.
"Not having a mother or a father in life tends to be a downfall, a spiral, especially for someone of my age not having parents. But my case is the opposite. I always had in mind that when I was older I would want to be in my families' lives that were close to me, no matter what, that they knew I was there for them in their corner. It's one of my morals that has been instilled in me now. I never, never want to be away from my kids. Now with the technology we have, I can see my kids whenever I want. I can see them on Skype, I can talk to them on the phone, it's amazing. I can't really tell you the psychology behind it. With my family, growing up, it was all about love and open arms. And that's what I instill in my kids."
-- Kobe Bryant in response to Mark Cuban's talk of the Lakers amnestying Bryant.
So Bryant tweeted, after Mavs owner Mark Cuban attempted to explain the difficulties of the luxury tax throughout the NBA. In order to name an extreme example, Cuban discussed the farfetched consideration that the Lakers would give to putting Bryant's salary out to amnesty before next season. Two days later, Bryant responded with 14 points in the fourth quarter (5-for-5) while leading the Lakers to a 103-99 win at Dallas. Cuban's mistake wasn't as egregious as when Jeff Van Gundy called Michael Jordan a "con man" and fed him additional inspiration to kill the Knicks years ago. But it was in the same regrettable ballpark.
An NBA advance scout looks at the Pacers as they work former All-Star small forward Danny Granger back into the rotation after he missed the first 55 games with a knee injury. The Pacers rank No. 2 in the East overall and No. 1 in the NBA defensively.
"They seem to be doing it right with Granger by playing him 15-18 minutes," the scout said. "If the game's close and they need an important possession, he's not in the game. It's like they're saying let's get him ready for the playoffs, we'll need him for the playoffs. He's not in shape at all, he's not aggressive, he's not trying to do too much. He's just trying to get up and down the floor and get in the flow with what everybody else is doing. By the playoffs, hopefully he can be in shape and he can jell with Paul George.
"If they're starting Granger with Paul George, the question I'd have is whether they'd be able to defend a scoring 2. I think they can because Roy Hibbert will be in the middle, so that even if they give up penetration, he's in there. They defend the paint really well, and when Granger is in the lineup they'll only be getting bigger. Plus, they'll be able to score more than they are right now.
"The minutes for Granger are probably going to come from Lance Stephenson. I wasn't a big fan, but Stephenson has done a lot for them defensively -- and defense is the way they're winning games. Stephenson can't be a point guard because he doesn't handle it well enough to see minutes there. I think he's the one who's going to be hurt by this.
"Lance fits in the role of what they need, and he's gotten better. It will be interesting because he's been playing so well and fitting into their chemistry. A lot of their success going forward is going to depend on Granger's ego and if he can keep it in check and fit in.
"Who knows if Paul George would have been given the freedom to play at that All-Star level if Granger had been playing this year. I don't think it would have happened because George wouldn't have gotten the shot attempts and the green light to be the guy. Granger would have taken that away. It's great for them to see that Paul George could develop into that player. Now they have to make room for Granger to come back in.
"The Pacers probably are the second-best team in the East with how they're playing right now. There is nothing flashy to them. If they get Granger back and clicking the way they've been clicking lately, they're going to present a tough series for Miami. Indiana is great at interior play, and that's where Miami suffers. The goal is to get the other team to play your way, and Indiana is the No. 1 team in the league in transition defense. If they can limit the one-man fast breaks by LeBron [James] and [Dwyane] Wade and they get Miami to play a half-court game, then it's going to be one heck of a series.
"In the playoffs, the grind-out teams usually win series. The Pacers are an old-fashioned team with two interior players in Hibbert and David West. They contest threes, and Hibbert gets back and defends the paint. Be physical, defend, control the possessions and score -- that's what wins. If any team can get Miami into that half-court game, it's Indiana."
We're running out of time to do this, so here it is. In an All-Star Game between players who entered the NBA in the new millennium (2001 and later) and those who turned pro in the previous millennium (2000 and earlier), who would win? The advantage would go to the younger legs, but -- provided everyone is at full health -- it would be a hard call and absolutely worth watching.
C Kevin Garnett, 1995 No. 5 pick in the draft
F Tim Duncan, 1997 No. 1
F Paul Pierce, 1998 No. 10
G Kobe Bryant, 1996 No. 13
G Steve Nash, 1996 No. 15
F Dirk Nowitzki, 1998 No. 9
F Shawn Marion, 1999 No. 9
F Andrei Kirilenko, 1999 No. 24
G Jamal Crawford, 2000 No. 8
G Ray Allen, 1996 No. 5
G Jason Kidd, 1994 No. 2
G Manu Ginobili, 1999 No. 57
C Dwight Howard, 2004 No. 1
F LeBron James, 2003 No. 1
F Kevin Durant, 2007 No. 2
G Dwyane Wade, 2003 No. 5
G Chris Paul, 2005 No. 4
C Tyson Chandler, 2001 No. 2
F Blake Griffin, 2009 No. 1
F LaMarcus Aldridge, 2006 No. 2
F Carmelo Anthony, 2003 No. 3
G James Harden, 2009 No. 3
G Russell Westbrook, 2008 No. 4
G Tony Parker, 2001 No. 28