Full-Court Press: New coaches finding success

The fall of 2012 began as the season of the coach, or, more specifically, the season of the bad coach. First Mike Brown was unceremoniously fired just five games into the Lakers’ hapless season, replaced eventually by Mike D’Antoni, who finally has his team on the winning stretch he (and it) needed. But he’s still under scrutiny, and he will remain as such, pretty much no matter what.


Then there’s the somewhat humorous and utterly appropriate attacks on the Wizards’ Randy Wittman, whose team has a whopping three wins in 25 tries. It’s the same mark as last year’s Bobcats had on Feb. 8, and they were widely regarded as the worst team the NBA had seen in years.


The best team of the past decade has been mediocre, the worst team is abysmal and the requisite coaching dramas and barbs of those situations can overshadow all that is good. Indeed, it has.


So here’s a look at the other side of the NBA’s coaching world, where nearly two months into the season, two coaches in particular look like early frontrunners for Coach of the Year: the Knicks’ Mike Woodson and the Warriors’ Mark Jackson. Others, too, deserve credit: Jacque Vaughn in Orlando for making the post-Dwight Howard Magic something other than an abomination, Rick Adelman in Minnesota for dealing with too many injuries to count and maintaining a winning record for the league’s worst team of the last five years and Vinny Del Negro in Los Angeles for going from on the brink of being fired to a franchise-record win streak for the Clippers.


And of course there are the usual suspects. Scott Brooks should be lauded for keeping the Thunder the Thunder without James Harden. Gregg Popovich is his typical cantankerous self and has kept the Spurs their typical cantankerous selves, all the while drumming up a healthy dose of controversy. And George Karl, despite early struggles in Denver, may be poised to lead his team into something approximating what many expected in the preseason.


But here’s why Woodson and Jackson stand out: They’re new (newish), their systems are working, and their teams are flirting with greatness. That’s not to say that the luster won’t fade from the Knicks or the Warriors (or both), but right now Woodson’s 20-7 record and Jackson’s 18-10 speak for themselves. Players have bought in, it seems, after one of New York’s weirder seasons last year and a miserable 66 games in Northern California, and yet the sense of being underdogs (or at least upstarts, in the case of the Knicks) has not quite faded.


These are feel-good stories. Sure, the blemishes will come. But right now Woodson is the coach who took the ever-present and often-unfulfilled expectations of New York and lived up to them. Jackson is the man who took no expectations, a seemingly too-large contract for an oft-injured point guard and a forgettable franchise, and he made people care. It may be early, but that’s still saying something.


Cranky superstars


The Hornets announced this week that Eric Gordon has been cleared to practice, and coach Monty Williams urged fans to give the guard a second chance when he returns after his passive-aggressive war with the team and the city this summer. It’s been an acrimonious relationship, but it made me think: Gordon’s situation, albeit at a higher level than most, is just one of many between a superstar and his city fraught with animosity.


There’s Gordon in New Orleans, of course, and Kevin Love in Minnesota after his critical comments earlier in the month. Then there’s Pau Gasol, who, granted, is one of many stars in Los Angeles, but he’s bearing the brunt of the blame for the Lakers’ struggles and getting an earful from all sides. More minor cases exist, too: Andrea Bargnani in Toronto, for example, Amare Stoudemire in New York, and DeMarcus Cousins in Sacramento. The grievances are obviously borne of various circumstances from both sides, but it’s always intriguing to watch how teams and players deal with these issues that are as much about PR and image as they are winning.


What happened to Charlotte?


I’ll admit it: I bought in a little bit to the Bobcats’ early season success, and I was wrong. They were 7-5 on Nov. 24, looking like a halfway decent team, but they haven’t won since, dropping 15 in a row. Now, if Charlotte loses three more games, its streak will be in the top 20 longest in league history, and with the Heat and Nets looming, two more losses are becoming a very real option. Luckily for the Bobcats, though, they get the 5-22 Hornets for what could be that 18th straight loss, so maybe they won’t make the record books after all.

Trending up


The Raptors, who have won five games in a row, against Dallas, Houston, Cleveland, Detroit and Orlando. Granted, these haven’t been the highest caliber of opponents, but the Raptors started the stretch 4-19 and hadn’t even strung together two consecutive wins before it began. I’m not saying they’re playoff contenders, or even that they’re particularly good, but Toronto is clawing its way toward mediocrity.


Trending down

The Nets, though they won a close game over Philadelphia, 95-92, on Sunday, suddenly seem like less of a threat than they did two weeks ago. Brooklyn lost three straight before the win, and they’re 3-8 in their last 11 games. Deron Williams is looking like a shadow of his former self and blaming others for it, and there’s no question that right now, the Knicks are winning the battle for New York.


Best of the week

Team: The Clippers, who were the only team to see their double-digit winning streak survive the week. With 13 straight wins, it’s the longest such streak of any team this season, and it broke the previous franchise record for the longest winning streak, which had been 11 games, set in 1974-75 when they were the Buffalo Braves.


Player: The Bulls’ Joakim Noah, Friday ejection aside; he logged a triple-double on Tuesday and shot 50.0 percent from the field this week. In fact, Noah hasn’t scored fewer than 10 points since Dec. 4, and his Bulls are an impressive 15-11.


Streak: LeBron James’ foul-less streak, which stretches back to Dec. 10. James hasn’t committed a foul since Dec. 8, and he has only six fouls in the month of December.


Worst of the week

Team: The Wizards, who lost 100-68 to the Pistons in Detroit on Friday. You’d think that big a loss to a team that’s similarly atrocious would have fueled Randy Wittman’s team, but it didn’t; they played the Pistons again the next night in Washington and lost again, 96-87, pushing their record to 3-22.


Player: The Nets’ Deron Williams, not necessarily for his performances – he averaged 15.3 points and 6.7 assists this week – but for his overall poutiness during the toughest stretch of his team’s season. He blamed his struggles this season on coach Avery Johnson’s system and said he played better under Jerry Sloan in Utah, the very coach that he ousted. And if that’s not silly enough, it’s also irresponsible; the Nets need their best player, the face of their franchise, to step up and lead right now.


Disciplinary action: This is “worst” in the sense that whatever DeMarcus Cousins said or did must have been pretty awful, not in the sense that I disagree with the Kings’ actions. The big man was suspended indefinitely Saturday for a halftime altercation with coach Keith Smart on Friday, and since then, it’s come out that he broke ties with his agent and that he may not be untouchable in terms of trades. Cousins is the player whom Sacramento’s protracted rebuilding effort is centered on, and the more strained this relationship gets, the worse things become for the Kings’ future.


Telling stats of the week


5,029 assists: Against New Orleans on Wednesday, Chris Paul logged his 5,000th career assist, becoming the third-youngest player all-time to do so, behind only Magic Johnson and Isiah Thomas. It took him just 510 games, which was fifth-fastest of any player to do so behind Magic, Isiah, Oscar Robertson and John Stockton.


Three players, 28+ points: Golden State had three players score 28 or more points – David Lee (29), Stephen Curry (32) and Jarrett Jack (28) – and lost, 131-127, to the Kings Wednesday. In doing so, they became the first team with three players scoring 28+ points in a non-overtime game to lose since Jan. 15, 1995, when the Trail Blazers did so on Rod Strickland’s 32 points, Clyde Drexler’s 30 and Clifford Robinson’s 30.


0-of-22: The Nuggets went 0-of-22 from long-range on Thursday in a 101-93 loss to Portland. In doing so, they set a record for the most consecutive 3-point attempts without a make in a game, set earlier this season by those very Trail Blazers


What we heard


“It was a funny, comical thing, but we’re in a situation right now where it’s not funny. You can’t joke around with things like that. Too many people are dying because of guns. We have a problem here with guns, so I’m trying to be a little compassionate.”


– Bulls center Joakim Noah on Tuesday, on why he’s finished with his “guns of glory” celebration routine in the wake of the tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary in Connecticut Dec. 14.


“If I wanted to, I could lead the league in scoring, but that’s not my job here. My job is to do a lot of everything… so that takes away from my scoring. I’ve done (the scoring title) before. I’m capable of doing it, but my game sometimes doesn’t allow me to have those big nights.”


– LeBron James to ESPN.com, explaining his career-low 18.2 field goal attempts per game this season and his need to rebound, pass and defend, as well as score.


“I told the coaches to frame this one. Nine for 20, that’s like a dream for us.”


– Timberwolves coach Rick Adelman on Thursday, after his team shot 9-of-20 from long-range. Minnesota is dead last in the NBA in 3-point shooting percentage, 30.1 percent on the season.


What’s ahead

Denver at Memphis, 8 p.m. ET, Saturday: The last time these teams played, on Dec. 14, it was a one-point game with 10 seconds remaining. The time before, Nov. 19, it was within a point with 33 seconds to go. They’ve been gripping, fun-to-watch games, and Denver has won both; with the Nuggets showing renewed signs of life and the Grizzlies still trucking along in their exemplary early-season form, there’s no reason to think the third go-around won’t be just as fun.

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