By Vincent Thomas
So Yao’s out?! For the season?! That sucks — big time — for two reasons. 1.) Yao and Tracy and coach Rick Adelman and Skip and the rest of that squad had escaped an injury-plagued, underachieving start of a season and embarked on a 12-game winning streak that was beginning to strike fear in the hearts of their Western foes. Aside from the prospect of playoff redemption for the two big stars, you could envision the Contenders and the Sleepers looking at the standings and box scores, thinking, “This is not what we needed. Why couldn’t they keep playing uninspired, sloppy, suspect ball…like, say, Denver?” Ah. Denver. This brings us to…2.) This injury sucks because Denver was right on the brink of clown-balling themselves out of the playoffs. Denver doesn’t deserve to compete in this historic Western Conference playoff.
Before today’s Houston gloom, you could sense a separation between the Top 7 out West, leaving that eighth spot to a battle between G-State and Denver. Not to evoke any images of team-brawls, but in a scrap, with Playoff Lives at stake, I’m going with the squad that has an actual Franchise Player (Baron), a dude name Jax, Monta From The Bottom and a coach that probably swigs gin from his Gatorade cup. Denver, if you can believe it, has played soft all year. And, until Yao’s season-ender, the Nuggs were soft-balling their coach right out of a job. I believe that.
Yao saved George Karl’s job — for now.
This season has been a notable for a number of reasons, but this one really gets me: Only one coach has been fired, thus far. Firing coaches — during the season — reached Epidemic Status a while ago. Every year the coaching dynamic resembled Amateur Night at the Apollo, with the bloodlust fans and media booing and impatient owners and GMs yanking coaches off the stage like the Sandman. No tears here, though, since, many times, they deserved it. Skiles definitely deserved to get yanked this season. Down With Dictators — that’s a motto of mine; and The L has no room for Napoleonic campus-coaches masquerading in the pros. Skiles should go whip Indiana into shape. I think he’d be an incredible, task-mastering college coach. Pros? Uh-uh.
But here we are, past the curve, on the season-end straightaway and only one coach got canned. That means one got away. Not the well-meaning, but fumbling coach/exec in Gotham. The Love & Basketball line offended my cool and Eddy Curry offends Oliver Miller and Steph is off his meds and, well, it‘s an undeniable mess at The Garden; but I’m one of the few that admires Dolan’s willingness to let Zeke see this through. The man responsible for the league’s worse record didn’t necessarily “get away”, either . We all know Riles isn’t going to fire himself and I don’t think the squad’s record is as much a product of his coaching, as it’s the result of his personnel decisions. Eddie Jordan was on the hot seat early on. Then Gil went down and the Wiz went on a resourceful run. Mike Brown’s position was precarious for a while. Then ‘Bron came back and began acting an utter fool. And what real good would it do to fire coaches in their first years, coaches like Sam Vincent or Randy Wittman or PJ or Jim O’Brien? Shoot, Mo Cheeks got an extension!
The one that got away was a dude that has his team 10 games above .500; on pace to win 48 games in what may be the toughest conference in NBA history. Still, I’ve been looking for Sandman’s cane to cup Karl’s neck for about a month now.
No team, at the moment, is underachieving like the Denver Nuggets. During the preseason, Denver was a halfway sexy pick to hoist the trophy at season’s end. And why not? They had/have a Former Franchise Player and a Possible Franchise Player in AI and Melo. They had/have size, depth, inside-outside scoring — they have all the tools needed to get four wins first in a seven game series…against anyone. Yet, they tend to play scrub-ball. Their games can resemble the pace and tone of rec-league scrimmages. In the first quarter of last night’s game against Detroit, the Pistons hung 30 on the Nuggs. That was the eighth time, in the previous nine quarters, when a team dropped 30 or more points on Denver. The 8th!!!!!!!! That’s how Chicago — of all squads (!) — could hit up the Nuggets for 135, when it’d normally take the Bulls something like, maybe, six games to score that much. Have you seen them play? Denver, I mean. This squad — full of well-compensated veterans — doesn’t rotate on defense, they don’t get back on the break, they get out-rebounded because they don’t block out. Melo’s averaging a career best 7.4 rpg, but that’s because Denver’s pace is so ridiculously brisk that their games feature close to 175 shot put up each night.What’s enraging about Denver is that they could be much like the Lakers: A well-rounded squad that does everything well. L.A. shoots it well, they can run, they have low-post options, they rebound well, the play smart defense, they play hard. Denver, meanwhile, balls like the Wizards Of The West (with Gil). It’s best described as “tomfoolery on the court.” Zig, zag, lag, squirt, spurt, shoot, get duped, hang, sling, oops, wow, nope, zoom, gasp…“whatever, is it my turn to shoot?” I don’t mind such mindless play from the Wizards, they have a ceiling. The Nuggets, on the other hand, could be League Monsters.
We can hang the blame on the players — recent SLAM cover boys AI and Melo, specifically. But I’m going the other route and putting Karl on blast. Karl is not a first-year coach. He’s not a second-tier coach. He’s veteran coach, regarded as one of the best in the league. I just can’t see Phil or Pop or Avery or any other coach of Karl’s ilk, residing over a squad that plays this version of Clown Ball. Denver wouldn’t be hooping like a late-80s Loyola Marymount, if Karl were on his gig proper.
His day was coming, too. Houston was streaking, G-State was treading and Denver was sinking. Then the Yao News happened, which almost assures Denver a spot in Playoffs and, who knows, maybe they smack some sense into their heads and sneak a series — something they’re entirely capable of doing.
But owner Stanley Kroenke needs to remember this pre-Yao Injury stage for these Nuggets and make the right decision in the off-season. He’s had his chances, yank Karl (he’ll pop up with another team weeks after, he’s still a commodity) and entrust this squad to a dude that might be able to teach and whine them to some real success. You feel where I’m going, here? That’s right. Let’s make it an Allen Iverson/Carmelo Anthony/Larry Brown Reunion. Make it happen, Kroenke.
Vincent Thomas is a columnist for SLAM Online and a contributor to SLAM Magazine. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.