Wednesday, January 19, 2005
Updated: May 31, 2:28 PM ET
Still ... Behind the Bench
By Bill Simmons
If you're a gambling man, here's a tip for you: The Clippers season is about to fall apart faster than the last 20 minutes of "Collateral."
When you play 23 of your 39 games at home, and you aren't even .500, that's an ominous sign. When you lose five guys out of your nine-man rotation, that's an ominous sign. When your point guards are Rick Brunson and Darrick Martin, that isn't just an ominous sign, it's a cry for help. Throw in a terrifying 8-game road swing right before the All-Star break, as well as the fact that the Clippers GM isn't aware that he can make trades during the season to improve the team, and we're looking at a potential train wreck over these next six weeks. Whatever. I'm still getting my money's worth.
Since the last installment of "Behind the Bench," the Clippers have played nine home games. A quick review:
Dec. 19, Memphis (loss)
The ten-man rotation thing was cute, everyone bought into it for a year ... and then they tried to milk another year out of it. Not happening. You can't ask NBA players to be selfless for more than one season because the egos are just too big -- it's like asking Matt Damon to keep making ensemble movies like "Ocean's 11" for five straight years. After awhile, he needs to be Jason Bourne and carry the show, you know? In Memphis, Hubie Brown realized this within a few weeks and hightailed it out of there.
Here's what happens when teams play too many guys: Either the coach makes some hard choices and creates a real rotation, or someone ends up getting hurt, then the team takes off and everyone says, "Wow, look at Memphis, they're playing well lately!" With the Grizzlies, they were 12-17 heading into Christmas before guys started dropping -- Swift missed a game, then Posey missed a few, and Miller got hurt ... suddenly they had a normal nine-man rotation, Battier and Gasol were playing more minutes and they won nine of their last 10. Once everyone comes back, I bet they start losing again.
I always thought the '86 Celtics had the perfect rotation: Five great starters playing 35-38 minutes a game, with Walton as the 6th man and two more decent bench guys (Wedman and Sichting) who could play multiple positions. Everyone knew their roles, everyone got enough minutes, everyone was happy. That's just how basketball works. Not only do the Grizzlies have too many guys, they're in a position where they can overpay for an All-Star. For instance, you think the Hornets would walk away from a deal netting them Jason Williams, Bonzi Wells and Stro Swift for Baron Davis and Jamal Mashburn's contract (expiring next season)? Really, that's not a good trade for both teams? Or what about going after Jason Kidd? Or even taking a chance on someone like Paul Pierce? What is Jerry West waiting for?
Dec. 21, New Orleans (OT win)
I skipped this one -- partly because I couldn't stomach the thought of seeing the Hornets, partly because the Sports Gal threatened, "I'll go, but if it goes into overtime, I'm going to stab you to death."
Well, it went into overtime. I could be dead right now. But this game was the start of the Hornets playing three guys who I've always liked -- Chris Andersen, Lee Nailon and Dan Dickau. There are like 50 guys in the league trapped on benches who could put up stats if they ever played, as witnessed by the Mo-Pete Era in Toronto right now, or even Kendrick Perkins's 13-rebound game last month. I had a reader call this the "Tony Campbell Corollary" once. Remember when Campbell was wasting away on the Lakers bench, then Minnesota grabbed him in the expansion draft, and he ended up scoring 23 a game? As long as you have one skill -- like Dickau (who can shoot), or Andersen (who can jump out of the building) -- that's usually enough if you're getting enough minutes. Just check out some of those Charlotte guys this season.
Dec. 29, Utah (win)
Skipped this one as well; I was sick. But while we're here, three points about the Jazz:
1. They were 8-5 heading into the Spurs game, when Kirilenko got hurt. Now they're 14-26. And if you don't think he was the glue for that entire team, check out his plus-minus on a godsend of a website called 82games.com -- the Jazz were +12.3 with Kirilenko on the court and -8.8 with him on the bench. That's astounding.
2. What in God's name happened to Carlos Arroyo? Four straight DNP's???? I know he's feuding with Jerry Sloan, and he may be even worse defensively than Steve Nash -- if that's even possible -- but why would Sloan allow the season to go down the drain with Lopez and McLeod? And why wouldn't they trade him? Is anyone else outraged by this? It's like Sloan was a prison warden sending Arroyo to The Hole.
3. I like Boozer, I think he's a good player ... but the Cavs haven't missed him at all. Not even remotely. And now they have the cap space this summer to get Ray Allen or Michael Redd. Worked out pretty well for them. There's been an unexpected resurgence by the Paxson Brothers this season, wouldn't you say? I hate losing one of my favorite punchlines.
Dec. 31, San Antonio (loss)
All right, I skipped this one, too. In my defense, they scheduled the game for 6:30 p.m. on New Year's Eve. What the hell? Who would go to a game on New Year's Eve? Only the Clippers would do this.
(Note: the Spurs come back on April 9th. We'll get to them then. But while we're here, didn't I tell you that everyone was overrating that Brent Barry signing? Good offensive player, terrible defensive player. I bet Devin Brown takes his playoff minutes.)
Jan. 2, Philly (win)
This one coincided with the Week 17 NFL games ... so sent the Sports Gal (and her friend Sarah) in my place. She came back raving about Kyle Korver, saying that he looked just like Ashton Kutcher in "The Butterfly Effect" and calling him "My new favorite player." Let's just move on.
Jan. 5, Portland (win)
Hey, I went to this one! Seven reasons why this was probably my favorite random game of the year.
1. I'm 60% sure that the entire Blazers team was high.
2. Zach Randolph went through the motions in the first half, was benched for most of the second half, and was openly watching the Jumbotron and cracking jokes to teammates during timeouts. And his extension hasn't even kicked in yet. This is going to end badly.
3. There's comedy, there's high comedy, and then there's seeing someone on the Blazers running around with the name "OUTLAW" on his jersey.
4. You're not going to believe this, but Joel Pryzbilla and Richie Frahm seem to enjoy one another's company.
5. With the Blazers in danger of getting blown out in the second half, Cheeks threw Sebastian Telfair out there ... and he turned the game around. I loved this kid. Seriously. Unbelievable vision in the open court, unstoppable off the dribble, surprisingly good defensively, and best of all, his teammates really respond to him. Sure, he can't shoot yet, and he needs to finish his drives better. But he's no bust. I can't even imagine what this kid would have done in college this year.
6. Cheeks played Telfair, Stoudamire and Van Exel at THE SAME TIME near the end of the third quarter -- it was like the Euro slash-and-kick game at warp speed. I loved it. Really interesting to watch. By the way, Stoudamire and Van Exel (both free agents after the season) seem to be in good shape and playing hard -- they could help somebody at the deadline. In fact, the following week, Stoudamire sprung for a classic box score against the Hornets: 54 points, 1 assist, no rebounds. Needless to say, they lost.
7. After seeing these guys in person and watching them during timeouts, I would bet even money that Mo Cheeks snaps like the French student in "School Ties" soon. Everyone's going to be looking around one day saying, "Hey, where's Mo?" and they're going to find him standing in the coach's office in front of a blackboard covered in jibberish, going over some game plan where he's speaking in tongues, and then they're going to carry him out on one of those Hannibal Lecter stretchers so he doesn't hurt himself. I'm telling you, this is going to happen. Mark my words.
Jan. 8, Phoenix (loss)
I wrote about this in last week's NFL column, but it's such a pleasure to see the Suns in person ... I just couldn't miss out on them. There was also a time-sensitivity issue with them because Nash and Q are so injury-prone; in fact, Nash went down a few days later and they quickly dropped three games, then he finally injured his back in practice on Monday (he's out indefinitely). So who knows with them? When you're building a contender around five starters with no bench, and two of those five starters have bad backs, that seems a little dangerous to me. On the flip side, for two months, they were as unstoppable offensively as any team in 15 years. Were the Nash-Q contracts worth the risk? I guess we'll find out in May if they're still playing.
Three more notes on these guys, and only because I haven't seen these things mentioned anywhere else:
1. I feel vindicated by the 2005 Suns because I've been a longtime proponent of the "Just play your 5 best guys together" theory. Who cares about positions? For instance, everyone thought Shawn Marion was a small forward - in reality, with his long arms, he can defend most post players, and keeping him near the basket takes advantage of his rebounding and shotblocking. Plus, he's not standing in the corner hoisting up bad threes. Looking back, he should have been playing at the "4" all along. And with Stoudemire, he's an impossible matchup for just about every "5" in the league. So why didn't they try this sooner? You got me.
2. Remember the 2004 Draft, when the Suns gave away that No. 7 pick to Chicago (for a future No. 1) because they were afraid of the luxury tax? Well, that pick turned out to be Luol Deng, who would have fit in perfectly here as a sixth man (and insurance for Q). Throwing in the way the Bulls are playing - odds are, with that group of young guys, they're not cracking the Top-7 of the lottery any time soon - and that had to be one of the worst moves in recent memory. Whether they took Deng or Igoudala with that 7th pick, it's pretty safe to say that either guy would have been 100-200 times better than Casey Jacobsen. If I were a Suns fan, this would tick me off beyond belief.
3. Everyone forgets this now, but during the 1990-91 season, the Celtics started out 29-5 and were the talk of the league. Bird was healthy, McHale and Parish were still there, Reggie was playing like an All-Star, and the young guys (Brian Shaw, Dee Brown, Ed Pinckney) were really giving them a spark. Check out their game log from that season on basketballreference.com, or buy Jack McCallum's book "Unfinished Business" on Amazon: These guys were running teams off the floor. And this was a league that was especially loaded with Hall of Famers and quality teams that season.
Looking back, it was the last great run by a Celtics team. So what happened? Shaw accidentally undercut Bird in practice, Bird's back went out, and the season were never the same. Let's just say that the similarities between the Shaw-Bird collision and the Barbosa-Nash collision are pretty creepy. I'm just saying.
And on that note, I've reached my 2,000-word limit for this column. We'll pick up the rest of the games (Seattle, Miami, Sacramento) next week.
Bill Simmons is a columnist for Page 2 and ESPN The Magazine. His Sports Guy's World site is updated every day Monday through Friday.