VIDEO: Fast Break from Dec. 27
NEWS OF THE MORNING
No. 1: Suns in disarray — One loss to the lowly and previously one-win Philadelphia 76ers destabilized things in the Valley of the Sun. And the hits just keep on coming. The news that point guard Eric Bledsoe would need surgery to repair a torn meniscus and would be out indefinitely was followed by the reported firing of two assistant coaches (Mike Longabardi and Jerry Sicthting) in an effort to shake up Jeff Hornacek‘s staff. And Hornacek, who took a towel to the face from Markeiff Morris last week, is also reportedly on the hot seat. Just two years ago Hornacek had the Suns were on the edge of the playoff picture in the Western Conference and now it all appears to be on the verge of coming apart, as Marc Stein of ESPN.com reports:
Sources told ESPN.com on Sunday night that the Suns are promoting longtime NBA guard Earl Watson and former NBA D-League head coach Nate Bjorkgren to the bench to work closer to Hornacek and will dismiss veteran assistants Mike Longabardi, who was heading up Phoenix’s defense, and Jerry Sichting.
Earlier Sunday, ESPN.com first reported that the Suns’ 5-15 nosedive, including a home loss Saturday night to the 2-30 Philadelphia 76ers, had put Hornacek’s job security under immediate threat.
It is believed that the Suns are taking this measure instead to give Hornacek, who is held in high esteem by owner Robert Sarver, another chance to turn the club around.
But that figures to be difficult after the harsh news Sunday that star guard Eric Bledsoe is out indefinitely and will require knee surgery Tuesday to repair a torn meniscus in his left knee.
Sources told ESPN.com that the Suns, despite the organization’s well-known fondness for Hornacek, have been forced to contemplate a coaching change far sooner than they hoped because of a slide that has dropped them to 12-20 and 11th in the Western Conference. There is also a growing fear within the organization that the team is no longer responding to its head coach.
Phoenix began the season with playoff aspirations after posting records of 48-34 and 39-43 in Hornacek’s first two seasons and the offseason signing of center Tyson Chandler.
But the Suns have dropped 15 of 20 games since opening 7-5, seemingly bottoming out in Saturday night’s home loss to the Sixers as Bledsoe also exited with his knee injury in the second quarter.
Adding to the sting of the Philadelphia loss: It was the first game on the Sixers’ bench for former Suns coach Mike D’Antoni, who was hired recently by new Philadelphia chairman of basketball operations and former Suns owner Jerry Colangelo to serve as associate head coach to Sixers coach Brett Brown.
“Obviously, it’s probably a low point for us,” Hornacek told reporters after the game. “Now the confidence is lacking.”
No. 2: James grumbling about Cavaliers’ lack of rhythm — Back-to-back losses has a way of raising the dander of LeBron James in the way little else can. As the leader of the superstar band in Cleveland, James never shies away from delivering critical analysis about his own crew. And after losing to the Golden State Warriors on Christmas and the Portland Trail Blazers a day later, LeBron vented his frustrations about his team’s lack of rhythm. Joe Vardon of Cleveland.com has more:
The Cavs still lead the East at 19-9, but they’ve had a bad week, with problems deeper than perhaps their 2-2 record would indicate.
You could chalk it up to the knuckleball effect, which is, after trying to hit a pitcher who throws knuckleballs, it can take a big leaguer days to catch up to 95 mph fastballs again.
The Cavs hosted the 76ers – who won their second game this season – last Sunday. They haven’t played well since, needing to hold on for dear life at home against a Knicks team sans Carmelo Anthony and then suffering through consecutive porous shooting performances in these two losses.
Cleveland followed up its 89-83 loss to the defending-champion Warriors – in which the Cavs shot 31.6 percent – with a 28-of-77 clunker against the Blazers.
James is shooting 14-of-39 in his last two, with the 4-of-13 effort for 12 points he turned in Saturday night.
“Offensively we’re just in a funk right now,” James said. “We just got to find our rhythm.”
There’s that word again, rhythm.
James used it after the Cavs lost to the Warriors, when he said “it’s going to take some time to get back into rhythm, and all of us, not just the players, but everyone, to get back in rhythm.”
I wrote in Oakland Christmas night to monitor this – James calling for Blatt to bring clarity to the Cavs’ rotations.
Last Sunday (when the Cavs faced the knuckleballer 76ers) was Kyrie Irving’s first game back. Iman Shumpert returned, too, after missing a game with a groin injury. The next game, against the Knicks, was Mo Williams’ first after two absences because of a thumb injury.
With all these players at Blatt’s disposal, the Cavs look discombobulated. No one disputes it and both James and Blatt said it’s to be expected, to a certain extent. And Irving didn’t even play against the Blazers, per the team’s decision to protect his surgically repaired knee from the rigors of games on consecutive nights this early in his comeback.
But Blatt said he spoke with his coaches after the loss Saturday about the impact the changing lineups was having on the team, and James had already taken it a couple steps further after the Warriors game, mentioning the lack of rhythm and continuity because of the uncertainty in Cleveland’s rotations.
Now, consider what James said about this very same topic on Saturday:
“For the first eight weeks we had built chemistry, we knew who was playing, we knew who wasn’t playing,” James said. “We had rotations, coach had rotations down, so we got to get back to that. We have no rhythm. Guys are, we have some guys who don’t know if they’re going to play, or if they are going to play, and it’s hurting our rhythm a little bit.”
No. 3: The decline of Dwight Howard — The slow, physical erosion of the body and skills of one of the league’s best big men is real. Dwight Howard, the man formerly known as “Superman” to an entire generation of NBA fans, is no more. So says TNT and NBA TV analyst Chris Webber, who lived through a similar fade during his star-studded career after he crossed over from young physical freak to mere mortal. Gary Washburn of the Boston Globe explains:
The decline of Dwight Howard is one of the NBA’s most compelling developments. The onetime self-proclaimed “Superman” was for years a physical freak, the model of how a center was built and how a center defended.
Now 30, Howard is slowing down, bothered by years of back and knee issues. He doesn’t have the offensive effectiveness of past years and his durability has waned. So, what happens when physically gifted players lose a step, are no longer able to soar as they once did or defend above the rim?
Former NBA star and current NBA TV analyst Chris Webber, who was a superb athlete coming out of Michigan two decades ago and played until he was 34, offered his thoughts on Howard.
“I wouldn’t just say this for Dwight, I’d say this for all players, me personally, I learned it from Karl Malone. You cannot stay in this game without skill,” Webber said. “Because after five years in this league you will no longer be the most athletic at your position. It’s impossible. That’s including injuries. You have to have more skill, you have to create value for those times you’re on the court.”
Webber said there are ways to compensate for a decline in athleticism by using intelligence.
“You have to maybe help defensively a little bit earlier since you can’t go up and get the blocked shot,” he said. “Some guys start taking charges or some guys just get out [farther] on the floor since they can’t move laterally anymore, maybe develop an 8-foot jump shot. You can learn how to make a move without dribbling because now you can’t just dribble by everybody anymore.
“You have to think the game through and just be that much more efficient. You won’t get the number of looks you have anymore. Mentally, you have to change and hopefully your skill set will allow that. If not, the game will pass you by.”
Perhaps the biggest adjustment for any NBA player is the deterioration of physical skills. For some it’s sudden, for others it’s gradual. The result is never easy to digest.
“It’s especially tough, for me going to Philly, a place that had a different [playing] style, that means you have to learn all over again,” Webber said. “If you’re Tim[Duncan], he’s one of the greatest players to have ever played this game, but because he’s allowed to age in a system.
“Let’s say with a Dwight Howard, his numbers are still incredible but you need a system around him that allows him to do that and those not just be wasted numbers. That can be wasted numbers on a team that doesn’t suit his system.”
The Rockets are one of the league’s more confounding teams, with a record hovering near .500 after reaching the West finals last season.
“Houston is the most disappointing team that we have in the league, more disappointing than the Philadelphia 76ers, and I don’t know if anybody can thrive in that system,” Webber said. “I definitely know it’s tough to age when the system does not include your age in the system.
“If I’m [Howard], I’m trying to offensive rebound a little bit more. If I’m him, I’m running right down the middle of the lane on a secondary break, posting up in the middle, and turning for a jump hook because you’re going to foul me. I’m going to put myself in positions where you have to get me the ball, and when I get the ball I’d be stupid to pass it back out. There’s ways, and he’s one of the best big men in the game still. He should be the second-most-targeted player on that team.”
No. 4: A warm reception for Kobe in Boston? — The farewell tour for Kobe Bryant has had some interesting stops, to say the least. And nowhere is a fading Los Angeles Lakers’ legend loathed more than in Boston, where Kobe will visit for a final time (as a player) this week. But instead of a vicious chorus of boos, might Kobe be in for a much warmer reception from the Celtics loyalists? Mike Bresnahan of The Los Angeles Times sets the stage:
With Philadelphia out of the way, it could be the most attractive road game left on his farewell tour.
The setup started a few days ago, when Bryant revealed he listened daily to Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin'” for two years because he wanted to remember the depth of the Lakers’ embarrassment in the 2008 NBA Finals.
Fans couldn’t stop singing it after the Celtics‘ 39-point Game 6 victory, so Bryant couldn’t stop listening to it.
He found his revenge two years later in the NBA Finals. Will Celtics fans be salty?
Lakers Coach Byron Scott, who battled Boston in three memorable NBA Finals in the 1980s, predicted a warm reaction.
“As much as the Celtics hate us and we hate them, I think the Celtics fans are some of the most knowledgeable fans in the world. I think they’ll give him the same type of respect that he deserves and that he’s been given everywhere else,” Scott said.
Perhaps a precedent was set when Kareem Abdul-Jabbar played his last game in Boston in 1988. Abdul-Jabbar, 41 at the time, was given a framed slab of the Garden’s parquet floor by Celtics legend Red Auerbach.
Abdul-Jabbar also received a one-minute, 35-second standing ovation from Celtics fans that night. Scott was there as Abdul-Jabbar’s teammate.
“It wasn’t a standing ovation for [his] 20 years, but it was a standing ovation when he decided to retire,” Scott said, developing a one-liner. “Maybe that’s because he was whooping them so much.”
Fans cheered Bryant loudly in Philadelphia, Washington, Detroit and Toronto. They weren’t so kind in San Antonio, but he has another game there before bowing out.
He had not announced his retirement when the Lakers played in New York last month. Other notable road games for him include Sacramento on Jan. 7 and San Antonio on Feb. 6.
SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: The Los Angeles Clippers needed Paul Pierce to turn back the clock with Blake Griffin out for two weeks … Globetrotters legend Meadowlark Lemon, 83, dies … Bradley Beal is expected to resume basketball activities this week for the Washington Wizards … The Golden State Warriors will get a first-hand look at the new and improved Sacramento Kings tonight … The future remains bright for Glenn Robinson III in Indiana …