Stephen Curry just latest to establish himself as star during playoffs
The Sixth Man (cont.)
The Sixth Man (cont.)
Stephen Curry has been the breakout player of this postseason. When Gregg Popovich compared Curry to Michael Jordan, the Spurs coach wasn't far off the mark -- in Game 1 of the conference semifinals at San Antonio, Curry's double-double of 44 points and 11 assists was the best by any player in the playoffs since Jordan in 1990.
What is sensational about Curry is that he's establishing himself as a star during the playoffs. Curry was respected this season -- he made an NBA-record 272 three-pointers while driving the Warriors to their second postseason appearance in 19 years. But he has never made an All-Star team, and it's unusual to watch someone make a name for himself nationally when the competition grows more difficult.
Curry is averaging 26.5 points, 8.9 assists and 2 steals in the heat of the playoffs. During the season he was good for 22.9 points, 6.9 assists and 1.6 steals while shooting a lower percentage from the field overall than he has managed this postseason.
Here are a dozen active players who set the example for Curry by becoming stars in the postseason:
• Tony Parker, 2003 NBA Finals. Parker was finishing his second year when he helped push the Spurs past the Suns, Lakers and Mavericks. Coach Gregg Popovich always seemed to be yelling at him, and Parker accepted the harsh advice while helping the Spurs reach the NBA Finals. After being outplayed by Jason Kidd in a Game 2 loss in San Antonio, Parker scored 26 in Game 3 to lead the Spurs in a Game 3 win on their way to winning the championship in six games. "I probably wasn't as good as Tony," recalled Kidd of his own play when he was 21. "Tony can do scoring and find the open guy, and he runs the team. They would not have won 60-something games if he wasn't as talented as he is."
Parker wouldn't make an All-Star team until 2005-06. By then he had already won two championships. His reputation was established in the playoffs long before he built up the stats of a regular-season star.
• Chauncey Billups, 2004 NBA Finals. Billups was 27, he was playing for his sixth franchise and he had never averaged more than 17 points or 6 assists in the regular season. His Pistons were swept in the 2003 conference finals by Kidd's Nets, but in the following postseason -- his second year with Detroit -- Billups spearheaded their shocking victory over the Lakers in five games as he averaged 21 points, 5.2 assists and shot 47.1 percent from the three-point line. A season later, Billups would lead the Pistons within minutes of winning Game 7 of the 2005 NBA Finals. He would make his first All-Star team the following season, but he was already known as "Mr. Big Shot" long before then.
• Tyson Chandler, 2011 NBA Finals. Injuries had threatened to prevent Chandler from fulfilling his potential as the No. 2 pick of the 2001 draft. He had moved from Chicago to New Orleans to Oklahoma City, which rescinded the acquisition for medical reasons; in 2010 Chandler arrived in Dallas as the result of a salary dump by the Bobcats. He provided the Mavericks with the defensive leadership they'd never had, and his presence enabled them to overcome the firepower of LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh in the Finals. Chandler's effectiveness in the postseason turned his career around, setting him up to win the Defensive Player award last year on his way to becoming an All-Star this season.
• Rajon Rondo, 2009 playoffs. In his second season, Rondo was viewed as a weak link of the 2007-08 Celtics championship team -- until he helped clinch the Game 6 win over the Lakers with 21 points, 8 assists, 7 rebounds and 6 steals. His breakout came one year later during the 2009 postseason in the absence of the injured Kevin Garnett. Rondo averaged 16.9 points, 9.8 assists and 9.7 rebounds through two rounds while dueling with Bulls rookie Derrick Rose in a sensational opening series that went seven games. Rondo averaged 24.2 points over the first five games against Chicago, and 15 assists over the final two games. The postseason of '09 showcased Rondo and set him up to make his All-Star debut the following season.
• Manu Ginobili, 2003 NBA Finals. Ginobili was a 25-year-old rookie from the Italian league who contributed in all areas off the bench. His impact was greater than his individual stats, and his aggressive style of play on the way to his first championship defined him. He would become an All-Star in 2004-05.
• Deron Williams, 2007 playoffs. Williams, 22, was finishing his second year with the Jazz when the top-seeded Mavericks were knocked out in the opening round by Golden State. That upset opened a path for Utah to reach the conference finals, thereby showcasing Williams (who averaged a breakthrough 19.2 points and 8.6 assists) as a future All-Star. He would become second team All-NBA the following season.
• Dwyane Wade, 2004 playoffs. He trailed LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony in the Rookie of the Year race while averaging 16.2 points and 4.5 assists for Miami in the regular season. While James missed the playoffs and Anthony was knocked out in five games, Wade averaged 18 points and 5.6 assists throughout the postseason, leading the team in both categories while the young Heat survived a Game 7 against New Orleans and then went six games against the Pacers. That postseason would introduce Wade as a big-timer who would become All-NBA the following year and then lead Miami to the championship in '06.
• Dirk Nowitzki, 2001 playoffs. He made his playoff debut by helping the Mavs overcome three elimination games, including a winner-take-all Game 5 at Utah. Nowitzki averaged 23.4 points during that postseason and made his first All-Star game the following year.
• Steve Nash, 2001 playoffs. That was his first postseason as a starting point guard. He overcame John Stockton, and Nowitzki survived Karl Malone. Nash was a first-time All-Star the following year as well.
• James Harden, 2011 playoffs. Harden had averaged 12.2 points off the bench during the regular season. But the second-year guard turned up his game as the young Thunder reached the conference finals, where he generated a couple of 23-point games against the eventual champion Mavericks. Harden would win the Sixth Man award the next year on his way to becoming a star for the Rockets this season.
• Derrick Rose, 2009 first round. He became a star by dueling against Rondo. Rose averaged 19.6 points, 6.4 assists and 6.3 rebounds over those seven games. He became an All-Star in 2010 and league MVP in 2011.
• Russell Westbrook, 2010 first round. He elevated his production to 20.5 points in the Thunder's six-game loss to the eventual champion Lakers. Westbrook would earn All-Star and All-NBA honors one season later.
• Ray Allen, 1999 first round. He had never averaged 20 points in the regular season, but Allen made his playoff debut with 22.3 points over a three-game sweep by the Pacers. The first of 10 All-Star invitations would arrive the next season.
Eight teams left and approaching the final month ...
• Warriors vs. Spurs, 1-1 heading to Oakland for two games. An unfortunate postseason trend has been building around the Spurs in recent years: they just haven't been able to keep up. When they were in their championship era, an opponent would steal an early game and the Spurs would heighten their level of play to win the series. Since their last title in 2007, whether because of injuries or the age of Manu Ginobili and Tim Duncan, the Spurs haven't been able to find that next gear against the hot Thunder (last year), Grizzlies (2011), Suns ('10) and so on. Now it's the emerging star Stephen Curry and his young teammates who appear to be more stubborn, aggressive and inspired, knowing that they deserve to be up 2-0. What makes this series interesting is the lingering question of whether the Spurs might yet find a way to elevate their game and become the team they were in their previous life.
• Grizzlies vs. Thunder, 1-1 heading to Memphis for two games. This promises to be the most competitive series thanks to the misfortune of Russell Westbrook. To Mike Conley's credit he is taking advantage of Westbrook's absence; if Westbrook was creating defensive havoc for 38 minutes then Memphis may not have a perimeter threat to provide balance to their bigs. There is tremendous theatre to the series around Kevin Durant, who is trying to galvanize his teammates to win a series they should probably lose. In the meantime, Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol are playing hungry: They can see the NBA Finals within their reach and are envisioning the mismatches they might create against Miami.
• Pacers vs. Knicks, 1-1 heading to Indianapolis for two games. Each team has been humiliated once already. Most of the variables involve the Knicks. Will J.R. Smith ever recover from the ridiculous elbow he threw in the previous round against Jason Terry? (Smith has shot 15-of-57 from the floor since.) Will the anticipated return of Amar'e Stoudemire in Game 3 hurt the Knicks? (I think it will help because in a limited role off the bench he'll provide additional size and a threat to score against the bigger Pacers.) The Pacers as a team must liberate Paul George, David West and others, while Carmelo Anthony and Iman Shumpert have shown an ability to make plays to lead the Knicks. In the end, Anthony figures to be the difference-maker.
• Bulls vs. Heat, 1-1 heading to Chicago for two games. If Derrick Rose and Kirk Hinrich aren't able to come back then it's asking too much of the Bulls to win four games against the league's best team. The Bulls will try harder than any team in the league to win three more, but their loss in Game 2 (and other blowout losses this season) showed how difficult it is for them to uphold the highest standards amid the absence of so much talent. Miami is going to have to rise to that higher gear in order to survive this series. If the Heat go onto win another title, they'll thank the Bulls for waking them up and preparing them after a season that has been altogether too easy for the defending champs.
"We welcome his championship pedigree to our organization."
-- Lon Babby on the Suns new GM.
The Suns president was revealing that the team had hired Ryan McDonough as its new GM. McDonough played an important role as assistant GM during the Celtics' six-year run of contention. From Red Auerbach, Danny Ainge and others he learned to identify and judge talent, which enabled McDonough to push the Celtics to draft their starting backcourt of Rajon Rondo and Avery Bradley with first-round picks. It will be interesting to see how he pulls together his staff of scouts and coaches in order to resurrect what has traditionally been one of the league's most successful franchises in Phoenix. This was an inspired hire.
A longtime NBA assistant coach breaks down the league-wide searches for new head coaches:
"If Scott Skiles was your previous coach, then your next guy is probably going to be more of a players' coach. The same goes with Lawrence Frank. If it was Larry Brown, then the next guy won't be a yeller. If the previous guy was somebody they think was a little bit lax, then you'll see them going from Mike D'Antoni as an offensive guy to Terry Porter as a defensive guy. In the NBA it's about the personalities and the style of play. That's why you see Portland going from Nate McMillan to Terry Stotts -- it's a change.
"Myself, I don't like assistant coaches that are self-promoters. When you turn on the TV, you shouldn't notice the assistant coaches. There are a number of assistant coaches that are famous for knowing the TV camera angles and knowing who the reporters are so they get a chance to be seen doing the little things. As an assistant coach, I don't think you should be noticed; you can be noticed by the players and by the team and by your head coach, but your job is not to be the first guy out there hugging the best player on your team. Some of us laugh at assistant coaches who are always standing up when their teams are ahead and making sure everybody knows they're coaching, but when their teams are behind, they're sitting down and being quiet. There are a number of guys like that in the league. It's noticeable.
"That being said, it's hard to know who the most qualified guys are. You're always taking a chance on an assistant coach becoming a head coach because there are so many variables that go with it. I'd like to think a guy like Kelvin Sampson could do the job, because he's been an assistant coach in the league, but he's also been a successful head coach in college. It's a big job moving over those 18 inches from assistant coach to head coach and having all that pressure on you. A guy like Sampson may have a better chance of success just because he's done that already.
"You also have to think about whether a GM is comfortable enough that he is able to take a chance on a guy. Danny Ferry is going to be making his first coaching hire in Atlanta, and he has years on his contract, so he can take a chance on who he hires.
"Then you look for guys who have been around a winning program. If you need to change the culture then I think that is a big thing to have a guy like Mike Budenholzer, who has been around a winning program and knows what it takes. The counter to that is they've also never been around a losing program, so it's a little bit different -- you can't go in and say everything's wrong, because some changes have to be gradual."
"I would think a guy like Melvin Hunt would get an opportunity down the road soon. His situation is similar to Mike Malone's -- he was with the Rockets with Rudy T and with Cleveland. He has a good reputation as a guy the players respect and like, and now that he's in Denver, he's been in three pretty good situations. He has got some intangibles that guys look for.
"In a couple years Kaleb Canales will get another chance to be a head coach. Mo Cheeks will be a candidate: He didn't have a bad career as a head coach or a player. He's not a yeller or screamer but he's been a player, and players respect him.
"And that's a big deal right now in the league. At the end of the day when things get tough I don't think NBA players respect the title of coach the way they used to, and definitely not the way they do in college. At the end of the day their excuses are, 'You never played in the league, you don't understand.' That's one of the common excuses I've heard of over the years. That's why a lot of organizations try to make sure the guys they hire have played in the league.
"I think Sam Cassell is a really good coach. You can see watching games that he's grown a lot on the bench. He used to be really vocal and demonstrative. His passion is great, but you've got to level it off at some point, and he's definitely done that. He's going to have an opportunity pretty soon. He'll be a guy that will be able to challenge the players, and the players will respect him; he'll still have enough credibility with them that they won't dismiss what he says.
"Point guard seems to be a pretty good indicator that you have the ability to think like a coach on the floor. Not a lot of big men get to be head coaches.
"I'm surprised Paul Pressey hasn't had a chance to get a head coaching job. I think Robert Pack is going to be a great head coach when he gets a chance. But Robert is really intense. If he dials it back again, he'll be even better. He's got that tenacity and he understands the right way to play and he holds guys accountable.
"Armond Hill doesn't get much publicity. I think Hill and Kevin Eastman are two great assistant coaches, but you don't see or hear them. They get locked out of the notoriety.
"Steve Clifford is another guy like that. He's been with the Van Gundys, Jeff and Stan, and now he's in L.A. [with the Lakers]. He's a soldier, a good assistant coach. Tom Thibodeau was a great assistant coach who didn't start getting much notoriety until Jeff Van Gundy went on TV and started doing a great job of promoting him, and then, in Boston, Thibodeau began to get some notoriety for the same work he'd been doing for some time.
"Brett Brown is as qualified as any guy. Not too many people know about him. He's a good assistant coach who does his stuff. He's proven to be a winning head coach [with Australia at the recent Olympics] when he gets the opportunity. Is a GM going to really look at those guys that are most qualified and take a chance on somebody like him? Thibodeau didn't win the press conference, but he's one of the best coaches, if not the best coach right now. An owner or a GM is looking to win the press conference by convincing his players to say it was a good hire and by convincing the season ticket holders to renew their tickets. The reality is, if you don't win, they don't show up."
In addition, the assistant listed the following as candidates to be an NBA head coach, in no particular order:
Wes Unseld Jr.
This puts LeBron James' achievement into perspective: With four MVPs he is now solidly in the starting five of this team of the 12 players in league history who have won the award twice or more. Placement on the roster is based entirely on how many times the player won the award.
C -- Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, 6-time MVP
F -- LeBron James, 4
F -- Larry Bird, 3
G -- Michael Jordan, 5
G -- Magic Johnson, 3
C -- Bill Russell, 5
C -- Wilt Chamberlain, 4
C -- Moses Malone, 3
F -- Tim Duncan, 2
F -- Karl Malone, 2
F -- Bob Pettit, 2
G -- Steve Nash, 2