It began with a man who hasn’t coached in the league since May 2011. Now, the 2012 portion of this season is ending with him, too, with him and his 11 championship rings and chatter that the Nets, now, will come a-calling, in search of whatever magic he’s wrought so many times before.
It’s Phil Jackson, of course, this ringmaster of NBA drama, and the fact that the former Lakers and Bulls coach still has so much of a presence is the perfect illustration of the theme that’s emerged these past two months: When it comes to the NBA, wholesale change is not often a speedy process.
We began the season with the Lakers disintegrating, it seemed, firing coach Mike Brown after a 1-4 start, flirting shamelessly with Jackson and ultimately hiring Mike D’Antoni. Two months ago, even a month ago, they were a dysfunctional, lost cause, and their fall from grace seemed to signify that the NBA’s power structure might be up for grabs.
Now, though, D’Antoni and crew, with Steve Nash back in action, are 15-15, having won six of seven. Maybe they’re not contenders, but they’re looking more and more like they could be a playoff team. What was once a major reversal appears more like something of a gradual shift.
And on the opposite coast, now, the Jackson change paradigm continues to reveal its truth. The Nets, whose owner, Mikhail Prokhorov, is bull-headedly bent on a championship and a championship now, fired coach Avery Johnson on Thursday after the team’s record fell to .500. That wasn’t good enough for the Russian; he wants a team with a shot to contend, and when those early-season dreams seemed threatened, Johnson got the axe, P.J. Carlesimo was in as interim coach and multiple reports leaked out that the team is after Jackson.
So the upshot of this: The Lakers, left for dead in late November, very well could be a playoff team, and the Nets, having realized just how difficult it is to crack the upper echelon of the league, have decided the only solution is to continue to clean house. Change hasn’t come, not yet, not on such a grand scale as we might have imagined.
Sure, there have been the minor upticks and the small exceptions. The Clippers are one such uptick, having secured the league’s best record with their 17-game winning streak, as are the 21-9 Knicks. But neither team came out of nowhere, not after last season, when with personnel and coaching there were hints of what was to come. The Warriors might be the best example of change that’s working so far this year; they’re 21-10 and looking like a solid playoff team. But here’s the rub: They won’t contend for a championship. It’ll be the Clippers, perhaps in place of the Lakers, and maybe, just maybe, the Knicks, along with the usual cast, the Spurs, Thunder and Heat.
Same goes for the bottom of the league. Sure, the Nets have escaped that level, but with their rebrand and move to Brooklyn, that was expected. But the Cavaliers, Bobcats, Hornets, Wizards and Pistons still lurk, mired in something not quite even approaching mediocrity. True to form, the Bobcats recently lost 18 straight. The Wizards and Pistons have both somehow beaten the Heat, but they remain incapable of actually winning on any greater scale. The Hornets just got Eric Gordon back, and despite winning their first game with him on the court, overcoming a massive deficit against Charlotte to do so isn’t exactly a grand vote of confidence in their ability to make the leap into the middle tier of the league.
In the middle, of course, things shift. The four through eight seeds in both conferences are up for grabs, whether for former contenders like the Celtics or former disasters like the Timberwolves. But that’s nothing new; the chum that the contenders chew in the first few rounds of the playoffs can change from year to year.
But if that sounds boring, consider this: On any given night, the Kings can beat the Knicks. The Timberwolves can beat the Thunder, the Wizards and Pistons the Heat, the Cavaliers the Clippers. There are those flashes of parity that make it worthwhile to tune in, and, even if it’s just a regular night, when the great are great and the terrible are terrible, there are the individuals. LeBron James continues his rise to a higher echelon of player, and Kevin Durant trails ever so slightly behind. So, even in the most routine wins by the league’s best teams, we get to see two transformational players on what should end up being the league’s two best teams. Even if we can see that now, that certain teams are golden and others are done, even if we can guess the outcomes of so many games, it’s still fun to watch said outcomes unfold, to see just how far these men will push the limits of their game.
With the lockout last season, these first two months were erased, and no one seemed to miss them. This season, they’ve been the stuff of high drama, at times, but as we move into 2013, order and predictability seem to be prevailing. The shakeups will continue, in some form or another, but it seems like the lines between great, good, decent and terrible already have been drawn, and the same cast of stars has emerged.
Maybe that’s boring in theory, but watch LeBron and Durant, Carmelo Anthony, Chris Paul, Kobe Bryant and even Tim Duncan. Watch them, and it’s certainly not boring in the moment.
I can’t believe I’m writing this for two straight weeks, but the Raptors. They have the NBA’s best offense over the past two weeks and have won seven of their past eight games, pushing their record to 11-20, which is quite a feat for a team that on Dec. 12 was 4-19.
The Heat, Knicks and Thunder, who are still among the best teams in the league but seem far more fallible after this past week. Miami beat Oklahoma City on Christmas, yes, but since then it’s lost to the Pistons and Bucks. The Thunder, on the other hand, lost to the Timberwolves on Dec. 20 before that Heat loss and then had to go to overtime to beat the Mavericks. Finally, the Knicks lost to the Lakers on Christmas and to the Kings on Friday, the second loss obviously more shocking than the first. It’s not that these teams aren’t title contenders or are something other than great, but they’re showing their flaws and that they are in fact beatable even in the situations you’d least expect.
Best of the week
The Clippers, yet again, because you really can’t argue with a 17-game winning streak from the league’s best team or a plus-10.1 point differential, especially when said team is capable of coming back from a 20-point point deficit to maintain said streak like Chris Paul and company did Friday.
Player: Detroit’s Will Bynum, a reserve point guard who came out of nowhere, this week, scoring 31 points on Wednesday and then 25 on Friday when his Pistons beat the Heat. On the week, Bynum averaged 21.3 points on 52.9 percent shooting.
Shot: Well, it was something closer to a desperate heave, but Darren Collison’s 3-pointer at the buzzer for Dallas against the Thunder on Thursday was a thing of sloppy beauty. The Mavericks ended up losing 111-105, thus dulling Collison’s glory, but it was still quite the moment.
Worst of the week
The Bobcats, with their 18-game losing streak. They blew a 21-point lead to the Hornets on Saturday for that 18th straight loss, in a game against a team that was 6-23 at the time and should have been an easy out to the snowballing streak.
Player: Michael Beasley, who has the third-worst plus-minus in the league, minus-157, and has 14 more field-goal attempts than points. He’s been benched by the hapless Suns, and in his return to Minnesota for the first time since the Timberwolves declined to re-sign him, he scored two points (on a goaltending violation, to boot) on 12.5 percent shooting.
News conference: Former Nets coach Avery Johnson, who spoke at length after he was fired on Thursday. It just seems wrong that Johnson should have to speak after getting canned, and the entire thing was inherently awkward. Oh, and it was his wife’s birthday, which, though irrelevant, adds an extra barb to the whole situation.
Telling stats of the week
On Thursday night, Boston’s Paul Pierce scored 12 points, passing Elgin Baylor (23,149) on the NBA’s career scoring list. He’s since passed Adrian Dantley (23,177) and is now 23th on the list of all-time scorers. Realistically, if Pierce keeps up his scoring pace, he could pass Robert Parish and Charles Barkley and assume the 21st all-time spot by the end of the season.
30.1: Kobe Bryant is scoring that number of points on average per game this season. If he continues that pace, he’ll be the first player age 34 or older to average 30-plus points in a season.
58.1: The Pistons shot that field-goal percentage against the Heat on Friday. It was the second-best field goal shooting by an opponent against Miami since James and Chris Bosh joined the team in 2010. Remember, this was done by the Pistons, who are now 11-22.
What we heard
“On the brighter side of things, it’s my awesome moms birthday and my tweets made a bunch of national news outlets and ESPN. #LOl”
— Former Nets coach Avery Johnson’s son, Avery Johnson Jr. (@itsaveryjohnson) on Twitter Thursday after his tweets were picked up by most major news outlets. The teenager tweeted that the firing was an “outrage” and that the Nets’ expectations were too high, along with a sarcastic message stating that players not hitting shots was his father’s fault.
“I think it is the right call. I don’t think it was extensive enough to warrant a one-game suspension, but I believe it was a flagrant.”
— Kobe Bryant after Dwight Howard was ejected from the Lakers’ 126-114 loss to Denver Wednesday after a flagrant foul on the Nuggets’ Kenneth Faried. Howard, however, took issue with the ejection, saying that he’d been fouled harder than that before without having anyone ejected.
Lakers vs. Clippers, 10:30 p.m. ET Friday. The idea that the Clippers could be better than the Lakers was planted early last season, but it dissipated down the stretch as the Staples Center’s more esteemed tenants ended up edging the Clippers out of the Pacific Division title by one game. This year, though, the Clippers clearly have the edge, and it’s going to take a lot to change that, but a Lakers win would speak volumes about their ability to rebound from a harrowing two months.