Friday March 14th, 2008

Also in this column: Reader questions on the draft, Bulls How All-NBA teams are shaping up

5. Pack properly. "I had to wash all my clothes to make sure I had enough socks, boxers,'' said Luke Ridnour, a point guard of the Seattle SuperSonics. "That was the main thing I had to worry about.''

You did your own laundry?

"The wife took care of me,'' he said.

How long have you been married?

"Two years,'' he said.

That explains it, he was told. See if she's still doing your laundry 10 years from now.

The trip began March 1 when the Sonics departed from Seattle. Over 12 days, they would play seven games with stops in Minneapolis, Detroit, Milwaukee, Philadelphia, Toronto, Indiana and Boston. The Sonics were sitting at their lockers Wednesday in TD Banknorth Garden less than six hours away from the final flight back home. They looked like they were waiting in a bus station.

"Two pairs of sweats and two hoodies,'' rookie forward Jeff Green said, detailing his packing list. "I brought a lot of sweaters and collared shirts, dress jeans and casual shoes.''

What about underwear? Did you bring enough for every day of the trip?

"Yeah,'' Green said, with a strange look. "You've got to stay clean on underwear.''

It was meant as a question of strategy. Why not pack light on the underwear and send out laundry midway through the trip?

"You never send out underwear on the road, because it comes back five sizes too small,'' said Steve Bulpett, the long-serving Celtics beat writer for the Boston Herald.

"You don't send out your underwear,'' agreed Sonics broadcaster Kevin Calabro. "Nobody wants to wash your underwear.''

4. Get out of the hotel room. "Actually, this trip feels even longer,'' forward Donyell Marshall said, "because we're living in a hotel in Seattle.''

He was referring to himself, center Francisco Elson and swingman Adrian Griffin, who had been dealt to the Sonics last month at the trade deadline. Therefore, they were living in hotels whether they were traveling with their new team or in Seattle, where they were being boarded at a hotel down the street from the Sonics' arena and practice facility.

"You look at these guys, at least they're going to back to an apartment or a house or whatever,'' Marshall said. "We're going back to a hotel. It's small, and you've got four big, huge bags right in the middle of the floor, and you're trying to navigate around that, and at nighttime you've got to go to the bathroom, the lights are all off and you're kicking the bags and stuff like that. That's probably the hardest part of the whole thing.''

Said Griffin: "During the day, you try to get your rest. But also you've got to do something to get out. Get to a movie, walk the malls, something. Something so it won't just seem like work, work, work. You've got to relax.''

After further consideration, the newcomers agreed that the hardest part was being away from their families. Griffin's wife and four young children drove from their suburban New York home to meet him in Philadelphia, where the team was given a day off midway through the trip. He rented a connecting room for the kids. The next day he said goodbye, knowing he probably won't see them again until the end of the season.

Marshall saw his family for two nights in Detroit after they had driven up from their home in Cleveland. He and his wife have six children aged 7 to 18, and in a few weeks they'll be visiting him in Seattle during their spring break from school. Marshall wasn't sure where he would take them when they come to Seattle.

"The funniest thing was I got sick as soon as I got traded out there,'' he said. "I was in bed the first four or five days in Seattle with a 102-degree temperature. People ask me, 'How is it in Seattle?' I haven't seen the city yet. By the time I was done being sick, we left; we went out on the road. So I haven't had a chance to do anything.''

3. Stay healthy. Everybody was talking about sleeping enough and eating properly. They would play a game, fly late at night, get up the next morning in a new city and practice that afternoon or play that night in a back-to-back. Their schedule since the All-Star break had them playing 14 games in 23 days, including this trip that was the longest for the franchise since 1983.

"We've got to talk [with the league office] when the year's out,'' coach P.J. Carlesimo said. "I think there must be a philosophy [held by the league] that we would prefer to do this. Because we don't have building issues for us to go out as long as we do.''

Carlesimo was referring to the extended trips taken by the Bulls and Spurs because their arenas are rented out to other events. The Sonics have no such conflicts.

"Maybe because we're so far away,'' Carlesimo said of the Sonics' distance from the East Coast, "the feeling is that this is a good thing. But it's just too long. Everbody's got some [bad trips], but ours aren't caused by our own building. So this is disappointing.''

2. Be sociable. "I went out and rented a bunch of movies,'' Ridnour said. "They're all overdue by now. But Blockbuster, they've got that [offer], you can't turn them in late. I got Beowulf, Mr. Woodcock, Rendition and ... what else did I get? Something else. And me and Nick [Collison] watched How I Met Your Mother, the TV show, so that passed the time too.''

During the stay in Detroit, Sonics assistant general manager Scott Perry -- a former executive with the Pistons -- invited the entire team to his house for dinner. In other cities, Carlesimo and his staff would go out for a meal whenever possible.

"Usually I go by myself,'' Green said of his dinner plans on the road. "Or I ask Kevin [Durant], but he normally does room service. Or I go with some of the old guys, like Donyell Marshall or maybe Damien [Wilkins] once in a while.''

"That's really how you get to know people,'' Marshall said. "If I'd come in [after the trade] and we'd had a two-week homestand, it probably would have been a bit more difficult. Being on the road, you're forced to hang with each other because that's all you have. I was able to get some time to talk to Jeff and talk to Kevin. I sat down and had talks with Nick. I always talk to Luke on the bench.

"It's been good to go on the road to be able to talk to those guys and know how they are. Because when I was in Cleveland I was a very vocal leader, and being here with these new guys, it's hard because you don't know how they are. You don't know which guys can take criticism and which guys can't. So this trip is probably a good thing because I've been learning a lot more [about his teammates].''

Such as?

"You can tell by the way they respond if P.J. says something to them,'' Marshall said. "Some of it you can just tell by conversation. You sit there, you really talk to them. You go up the first time and say, 'Kevin, that's not a good shot, you've got to take this or whatever ...'' And if he responds, 'You're right,' then that's how you know how to approach them. Or you can tell by a certain look they give you, like they're saying, 'You're not going to come in here new [and tell me what to do].' You can tell by certain looks you get.''

1. Compete. The young, rebuilding Sonics were 1-5 on the trip, 3-10 since the All-Star break and 16-48 overall this season as they awaited the game in Boston against the league's winningest team. The Sonics had won their road opener 10 days earlier at Minnesota 111-108 in overtime, and they'd lost tight games at Detroit and Indiana. There was no way of telling whether they would be competitive against the Celtics.

"My experience in coaching is whenever you show up and there's excitement in the arena and there's a full house, the players don't know the difference,'' Sonics assistant coach Paul Westhead said as he stood on the court during the pregame warmups. "They don't know that no one likes them or that it's all for the other team. It's just noise and excitement and it makes you play. But if you show up in a half-filled arena, it plays into you playing tired.''

"Excitement,'' fellow assistant Scott Brooks said, dribbling a basketball. "There's excitement.''

"I don't know what's going to happen,'' Westhead said. "We could lose by 40, we could win by two. But I would guess that they'll play with some excitement. That's my guess. But I've been wrong before.''

The Sonics proved him right early by taking a 19-17 lead. Then Boston tore off a 23-6 run, opened up a 37-point lead and won 111-82. The flight home was scheduled to leave as soon as possible afterward.

One month ago, Marshall had been living with his family in Cleveland and looking ahead to a potential return with LeBron James to the NBA Finals. Now he was a bit player on one of the league's worst teams, feeling out new relationships with teammates of college age and bracing for a redeye flight back to his hotel room in Seattle.

"The thing that ended up working out is with my 18-year-old,'' Marshall said. "She's a senior, and we were trying to plan her graduation party. The thing that was funny, when I was in Cleveland we had a chance to go to the championship [finals], so we didn't know if I was going to be home for graduation. Now we know. I guess that she was kind of happy about that.''

4. You offered this assessment of Italian prospect Danilo Gallinari: "The NBA will see that he's a true 6-9 (they don't inflate heights in Europe as they do over here), an excellent athlete with three-point range, playmaking abilities and a post-up game." OK, so I guess he will be the greatest player ever if he can do all of that. When will the media stop overhyping European prospects? Darko Milicic is a complete bust. Andrea Bargnani is decent, but he's not going to be an All-Star. Certainly there are some great European players like Dirk Nowitzki, but every year you guys overhype some 6-9 softy who can shoot but can't play defense or rebound. -- Craig, Minneapolis

I can't speak for the rest of us "guys.'' All I'm trying to do is convey where players might be chosen, and I'm guessing that Gallinari is going to be a high pick compared to the other candidates in the draft. What in my story created the impression that he'll be the greatest player ever?

I can't account for the rest of the "media.'' But if you're asking me, I will tell you that international players are a low priority in the draft. Over the last five years, only four have gone in the top 10 of the draft: Milicic, a bust at No. 2 in 2003; Bargnani, No. 1 in 2006, who is decent as you say; Saer Sene, who was No. 10 in that thin '06 draft; and Yi Jianlian, the No. 6 pick last year, who is viewed as an excellent prospect by rival executives.

Of the top 50 picks over the last five years, 46 came out of American colleges or high schools. A big number of them were overhyped and turned out to be busts.

3. Nothing against Derrick Rose. How in the world can you keep disrespecting O.J. Mayo? He plays in one of the better leagues in the country and gives it to you game in, game out. He can score at will, create for others and, more importantly, can defend. What more do you want in a player? -- Berdo, Cincinnati

You're going to have to explain how I could possibly "keep disrespecting'' Mayo, when I've written about the draft only two times this season. I was thinking about including Mayo among the top five picks in a column from last week, but a few trusted NBA scouts talked me out of it. At the moment, he's seen as a top-10 player who does a lot of things well and will be productive in the league, but they don't see a lot of upside.

2. The Spurs didn't incite the Suns to leave the bench? Are you kidding me? Robert Horry's foul wasn't incitement? Yes, the Suns should have known better, but the Spurs sent in a goon to commit a hard foul hoping to get just the reaction they got. The Spurs are a bunch of dirty near-cheaters. I don't think they'd blatantly break the rules like the Pats did, but would they blatantly twist the rules in a despicable way? Absolutely. That's their M.O. -- Kenyon Colloran, Hiroshima, Japan

Since when has Horry ever been a goon? The man is a three-point shooter. Goons are not usually 6-10 guys who play on the perimeter. In addition, Horry was 36 years old at the time of that foul. Gregg Popovich is a smart coach, but I doubt he had the imagination to tell his 36-year-old forward to chase down the quickest opponent on the court and hip-check him into the boards because that would compel Amaré Stoudemire to leave the bench.

1. Didn't John Paxson also make huge mistakes by making the Ben Wallace signing in the first place instead of keeping Tyson Chandler and not getting a true low-post presence such as Pau Gasol? [This is in reference to my recent column about the Bulls.] -- Larry, Boston

The Bulls had LaMarcus Aldridge; his name was Joe Smith. Your "no doubt" theory [that Ben Wallace would have looked like a better signing for Chicago had he been teamed up front with Aldridge or another productive power forward] is doubtful. People watch NBA games a lot more than you do and record every little thing that happens. For instance, the Bulls lack an inside scorer, not a scorer from the PF spot. There's a difference. Aldridge and Smith take an inordinate amount of jump shots greater than 8 feet away from the basket, and neither rebounds particularly well. If the Bulls had taken Aldridge, all you "experts" would be bitching that the Bulls just took another jump shooter when they really needed a back-to-the-basket guy. -- Ty Dilts, Omaha, Neb.

When Ben Wallace was contending with the Pistons, who was their so-called inside scorer? The answer is Rasheed Wallace. In the equivalent of four full seasons with Detroit, roughly one-third of Rasheed's field-goal attempts have come from the three-point line.

What I hear from people in the league who watch NBA games more than I do and record every little thing that happens is that Ben Wallace -- to be most effective -- needs to be paired up front with length and offensive skill. Teaming him with a purely back-to-basket guy, as Mr. Dilts so courteously suggests, would not be the best approach. The right partner for Ben Wallace would have been a power forward who could do a bit of everything, who could score in a variety of ways while enabling Ben to space himself accordingly. Or is Mr. Dilts going to argue that Rasheed Wallace wasn't an excellent complement to Ben Wallace?

I also hear from people in the league that Aldridge is the second coming of Rasheed. The Trail Blazers are working with him on his low-post game as well as his three-point range; coach Nate McMillan insists that Aldridge will be a big threat down low as he matures. Does Aldridge command a double team down low? He doesn't today, but he should in the future.

Aldridge won't be the same player at 25 that he is now as a 22-year-old NBA sophomore. He'll continue to improve along the lines of Rasheed, in part because Aldridge is a reliable personality and an extremely hard worker. When Mr. Dilts asserts that Aldridge doesn't rebound well, then I suppose he would make the same complaint about Rasheed, who throughout his career has averaged one rebound every 4.9 minutes. Over his two years, Aldridge is producing a rebound every 4.6 minutes.

My point on the 6-11 Aldridge is that he might have provided the length and offensive balance that Ben Wallace needed in the short term. Plus, Aldridge could have grown and improved for the long term with the Bulls' young core of Luol Deng, Ben Gordon and Kirk Hinrich, who in turn would have benefited from playing with a power forward who is averaging 17.4 points in the Western Conference. (Joe Smith averaged 11.2 for Chicago.)

As for e-mailer Larry (which is a good name to have in Boston), I'm sure the Bulls would like to have Chandler now. But it's fair to ask whether Chandler would have elevated his numbers by remaining in Chicago, where his relationship with coach Scott Skiles had reached its ceiling. Skiles was doing a terrific job with the Bulls at that time, and they signed Ben Wallace in hopes of accelerating their progress in the weak East. I still say that the Bulls have been undone by the impending free agency of Deng and Gordon along with the absence of a frontcourt scorer. That they've been derailed so easily also shows how fragile they've become, and that they need to import or develop leadership for their locker room.

Here's an early look at how my All-NBA ballot would look if it were due today. Fortunately, I don't have to turn it in for another month, and a few positions may yet change by then. Note that the official All-NBA teams categorize players simply as centers, forwards and guards; they don't differentiate shooting guards from point guards, or power forwards from small forwards. But I prefer to break it down by specific position as follows.

3. Third Team

C Yao Ming, Rockets PF Dirk Nowitzki, Mavericks SF Carmelo Anthony, Nuggets SG Allen Iverson, Nuggets PG Baron Davis, Warriors

2. Second Team

C Amaré Stoudemire, Suns PF Tim Duncan, Spurs SF Paul Pierce, Celtics SG Manu Ginobili, Spurs PG Steve Nash, Suns

Stoudemire spent most of the season at center. He ranks third among all players in statistical efficiency.

1. First Team

C Dwight Howard, Magic PF Kevin Garnett, Celtics SF LeBron James, Cavaliers SG Kobe Bryant, Lakers PG Chris Paul, Hornets

I can't believe Nash isn't the first-teamer, but as of today Paul is having a better year statistically and his Hornets have won more games than the Suns.

Garnett edged out Duncan based on the Celtics' full-court dominance of the regular season.

2. Tracy McGrady, Rockets. McGrady is averaging 22.1 points and 5.6 assists for a team that has won 20 in a row (including eight without Yao). He also missed 16 games while taking months to adapt to new coach Rick Adelman. It's hard to ignore him, though another month may result in a different choice. In the meantime, Iverson's production at shooting guard must be acknowledged.

T-1. Carlos Boozer and Deron Williams, Jazz. Boozer is rated No. 4 in efficiency among power forwards, and there is no rationale for including him at the expense of the three leaders in that category -- all Hall of Famers in Garnett, Duncan and Nowitzki. It will be easier for Boozer on the official All-NBA ballot, where he'll contest with Pierce and Anthony for the two spots at forward.

As for Williams, he's in a photo finish with Davis for the final spot among point guards. I put Baron ahead by a nose for being even more valuable to the Warriors than Williams is to the Jazz, but I reserve the right to change my opinion at season's end.

"They've just aced one-fourth of their season,'' an NBA advance scout noted after the Rockets won their 20th straight Wednesday at Atlanta.

How are they continuing to win without Yao? Of course they have McGrady and a versatile roster with Luis Scola picking up the extra minutes. But style may have more to do with it than anything.

When Jeff Van Gundy was compelling the Rockets to defend, you'd watch them and say, "How good would they be if they were more fluid on offense?''

When Rick Adelman had his strong offensive teams in Sacramento, you'd watch his Kings and ask, "How good would they be if they played defense?''

Now we're finding the answers to both questions. The Rockets are No. 2 in field-goal defense (42.9 percent) and No. 4 in scoring defense (91.8 points) as if Van Gundy were still coaching that end of the floor. And after a first half of the season in which they had difficulty establishing their new offense, they're now scoring like an Adelman team.

Don't assume that this marriage of styles will extend beyond this season. The longer they go without Van Gundy's demands, the less likely they'll be to maintain their high standard of defense. This is one of those rare NBA honeymoons and the Rockets need to max it out -- even without Yao.

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