Friday March 21st, 2008

Also in this column: Coaching hopefuls get crash course Readers weigh in on All-NBA teams

5. Their system. The rookie general manager hired the longtime coach last summer to make the Rockets unpredictable and dangerous offensively. "We were,'' GM Daryl Morey noted, "an average offensive team last year.''

Yet they remained, through the first half, an average offensive team this year. This, too, was no surprise to Morey. "Former players for coach [Rick] Adelman said that it can take more than a year,'' he said of the learning curve to Adelman's read-and-react offense. "We were hoping to shortcut that because we have veteran guys with high basketball IQs, but the transition for us still took longer than we hoped.''

It could not have been easy, after years of running plays to the precise choreography of Jeff Van Gundy. Adelman wasn't telling them what to do during the game so much as he was expecting all five Rockets to notice the same defensive keys and react to them. They didn't understand the nuances well enough to exploit them.

"You can get into habits where you're running the same things -- handoffs and options out of it -- that make you easier to guard,'' Morey said.

That's one of the reasons why Morey dealt Bonzi Wells and Mike James to the Hornets on Feb. 21 for Bobby Jackson, who had played in Sacramento for Adelman and would now provide Houston with a backup point guard who understood the offense thoroughly. After a 24-20 start, the Rockets had won nine in a row at the time of Jackson's arrival. That they were winning appears to have taken them by surprise.

4. The starting point guard. Rafer Alston appeared to have a horrible summer. In August, he was charged with stabbing a man at 3 a.m. in a Manhattan night club, less than a month after he had been charged with misdemeanor assault and public intoxication in Houston.

Both charges were dismissed, but they contributed to the impression that Alston was on the way out from Houston. Adding to that impression was the offseason arrival of point guards James, Steve Francis and first-round pick Aaron Brooks.

Morey offers a different take while noting that Alston averaged an exhausting 44.1 minutes during the Rockets' seven-game loss in the first round to Utah last spring. "We had a meeting after the season, and Rafer said he couldn't keep that up,'' Morey said. "He said he needed help at the spot. Maybe in his mind we brought in too much help. But he studied tape before training camp, came in in his best shape and made it clear from Day One that he should be our starter.''

"The good thing about those two incidents was that the team knew it was uncharacteristic of myself to even be involved in those things,'' said Alston, 31. "They didn't react by trying to waive me or trade me. They stuck with me, but they also brought in a lot of competition. I told them they were going to be amazed at what kind of condition I got myself in this summer. No matter where I went, even on vacation, I took someone with me to get in a lot of running full court.''

Alston credits the Van Gundy brothers with preparing him for this season, his ninth in the league and his best yet. He looks back to 2003-04 with Stan Van Gundy's Heat, when he played the majority of minutes in all 82 games after never having played more than 50 games in any of the previous four years with Toronto and Milwaukee.

"That year in Miami made me a more accountable basketball player,'' Alston said. "Stan made me understand what hard work could do ... also he was working on me keeping my temper.''

Jeff Van Gundy persuaded Alston to devote the 2006 offseason to improving his three-point range. "He made me stay in the gym all summer because it would be beneficial not only to myself but to the team if I could consistently knock down the shot,'' Alston said. "Now when I'm missing, I'm able to figure out what I'm doing wrong -- raise my arc, get low with my legs, get under the shot.''

Alston is aware that many still think of him as an unreliable point guard dating back to his legendary New York streetball days. But the numbers expose a new truth. Over these last two years in Houston, he has averaged a steady 13.1 points and 5.5 assists. During the Rockets' recent 22-game winning streak, he bloomed to 15.7 points and 6.6 assists.

"I'm doing more scoring in this stretch than I've done in my career,'' said Alston, who had a career-high 31 in a win against the Lakers last Sunday. "You get older, you become smarter: managing the game, understanding how to run a team. And I've improved at finishing at the rim over the big guys. I'm not afraid to take the hit.''

3. The rookie. Each summer since the 2002 draft, when the Spurs picked him No. 56 overall, 6-foot-9 Argentine forward Luis Scola would look forward to coming to the NBA. Instead, each season he would remain in Spain with Tau Ceramica, one of the most successful clubs in Europe.

"The NBA, it was my dream since I'm a little kid,'' said the 27-year-old Scola, the MVP of the Spanish league two of the past three seasons. "As time goes by and you get older and more important in the team and in European basketball, you've got to start looking at the whole picture and being happy for what you have. If you would tell me I would have the career I am having in Europe, I would be surprised. I would say it's impossible.''

Each summer, Scola's enormous contract buyout combined with the Spurs wealth of talent to prevent him from moving overseas. "I tried to take it with more philosophy; I want to be there [in the NBA], I'm not going to lie,'' he said. "But if it doesn't happen, do I want to cry all day? I've got to be happy with what I have. I'm with one of the best teams in Europe, they like me, I'm happy in the city ... that's how I took it.''

He was ready to give up on the NBA last summer. "I got the extension contract offer from Tau, and I was about to take it,'' he said. "The deadline was July 15, and if nothing happened by then [with an offer from the NBA]? I'm 27, I was drafted five years ago, and if nothing happened until now, what makes me think it's going to change in the future?''

Instead, Scola's rights were traded to the Rockets on July 12. He had a difficult first half of the season adapting to the way the NBA game is officiated -- because he plays so aggressively -- but he wasn't necessarily disappointed. "He only has one gear, which is, like, fifth,'' Morey said. He kept pushing to discover how to maintain his physical style on the court, and in his free time he would go sightseeing. San Francisco appears to be his favorite American city thus far.

The Rockets have gone 22-3 since introducing Scola's energy to the starting lineup in late January. Today, he appreciates those extra years in Spain.

"Four or five or three years ago, I didn't think like that,'' he said. "I was always feeling I was ready, I have to come, I deserve it. But now, when I'm 27 and five years after, I realize that it was good. I wasn't ready when I was 22. I think I'm more prepared mentally now, more settled down with my family and everything.''

2. The 22-game winning streak. Morey believes the second-longest such streak in league history can be traced back to the extended absence of Tracy McGrady in December and January, when the Rockets went 7-4 without him. "That was the first time we had been successful when Tracy was out,'' Morey said, referring to previous years. "That was a key to us picking up the offense. While Tracy was out, we couldn't rely on his supreme talent. The rest of our team had to cut and move and run the offense for us to succeed. It really started clicking when Tracy was out, and when he came back, he integrated to what we were doing.''

The Rockets had won 12 in a row when Yao Ming was shut down to undergo surgery on a stress fracture in his left foot. But they had learned to win without him before -- they were 20-14 in his absence last season -- and all of the moving parts were working in their favor. McGrady was more comfortable within the offense. Alston was capable of more scoring. Scola's hyperactivity was helping to replace Yao at both ends of the floor. The schedule was favorable with only eight of the victories during the streak coming against legitimate playoff teams (not including the Nets and Hawks, who are hardly worth mentioning).

Shane Battier's leadership was maintaining the defensive standards of Jeff Van Gundy. Morey maintains that Adelman has been undervalued as a defensive coach -- "He's had top-five defenses over his career four times'' -- but his teams have usually been superior offensively. What has made the Rockets especially dangerous has been the emphasis on defense that was established by Van Gundy. They rank fourth in scoring defense (91.7 points) and second in field-goal defense (42.9 percent).

"We still hear the voice when we're out there on defense,'' Alston said of Van Gundy. "We still keep the principles. We love the things Rick and his staff have brought to the defense, but we still hear Jeff's voice. It makes you want to defend the ball or you know you're coming out.''

1. Their playoff hopes. "We're trying to play well enough -- it's going to be hard -- to get home-court [advantage] in the first round,'' Morey said. "We're not as concerned about seeding because every first-round matchup will be tough in the West. Our goal is to have home court in the first round and to advance. It's going to take a very strong finish, and we'll have to play better than we played our last two games.''

Those lopsided losses by a combined 41 points to the Celtics and Hornets can be written off as natural lulls following the 22-game streak. The issues for the Rockets remain unchanged since Yao's season-ending injury, however. They lack size -- especially with 6-9 rookie power forward Carl Landry missing the last seven games with a sore right knee -- against the big playoff teams like San Antonio, Phoenix and the Lakers (who can still go to Pau Gasol inside even if Andrew Bynum is unavailable). Can they consistently outscore teams like New Orleans, Utah or Golden State in a seven-game series?

"They have very little inside,'' a Western Conference scout said. "What more can you expect from them? They've already overachieved.''

After watching the Rockets play a perfect quarter of the season, it would be wrong to assume that they can't play team basketball over the month ahead. But this talk during the streak of whether they're better without Yao has been ridiculous. They're going to miss Yao badly in the postseason, and -- unless they recreate the makings of the streak, or an opponent suffers an injury of importance similar to Yao's -- they're going to struggle against all of the potential opponents in the West, each of whom should enter the playoffs with more talent.

The NBA held its second annual Assistant Coaches Clinic in Secaucus, N.J., last week, inviting 15 former NBA players (including Kenny Anderson, Doug Overton, Bo Outlaw and Johnny Newman) to participate in a two-day crash course to help them begin new careers as coaches in the league. The camp instructors were four former NBA head coaches: Terry Stotts, the coaches consultant to the D-League, as well as Rick Carlisle, Dwane Casey and Bob Hill. I attended the clinic for a story that will appear soon in Sports Illustrated.

4. Be a teacher. Unlike its forebears, the new generation of NBA players arrives with a skimpy grasp of the fundamentals. There is a need for young assistants who can demonstrate the footwork and angles on the court. "Coaches are looking for ex-players to teach, to work with guys and get out on the floor and sweat with them,'' Carlisle told the campers during a Q&A. "If you want to get a coaching job, make sure you look like a guy who can still play.''

In other words, lose the extra pounds and get back in playing shape. "A head coach is much less likely to hire somebody who can't get out on the floor and sweat,'' Carlisle said. "It may sound demeaning, but player development has been the wave of the last 10 years, and in the future it's going to be even bigger.''

3. Be loyal to the head coach. "Relationships are very important,'' Stotts said. "I'm the first to admit that I got my break because of my relationship with George Karl. Getting your foot in the door is the hardest thing in the game.''

As Stotts and the others pointed out, a good relationship won't matter unless the head coach believes his assistant will help the team win games.

"One thing as a head coach you look for is a friend who is going to be loyal,'' Casey said. "Not just to repeat what you say, but someone who can be an advocate for you. Because with young guys, they're going to come to you [as an assistant] and say, 'What's up with coach? He's screwing me. I can't get any playing time.' So what are you going to say? 'Oh, hell, coach is crazy, he don't know what he's talking about anyway.' Or are you going to be an advocate for the coach?''

2. Put in long hours. "I learned this a long time ago from one of my heroes in life,'' Hill said, "but you know sometimes when you wake up at 2 in the morning and you're wide awake. What do you do? Do you try to go back to sleep? That's when you should get up and go to work. When you're coaching and you wake up at 2:30 in the morning and you're wide awake, instead of looking at the ceiling and trying to go back to sleep, that's when you should go to work. And I promise you that's when you get your best work done, because no one bothers you.

"It's the same thing on airplanes. When you get in this league and you've got flights, you have to learn to use that time on the plane to work and to grow, to keep growing and to stay ahead of your players. You should never, ever walk on that court and not be a step or two ahead of your players, and be able to answer any question. Sometimes you've got to b.s. them a little bit, but be prepared to answer any question, no matter what it is.''

Stotts gave the former players an overnight assignment to break down game films by diagramming plays and accumulating statistics that aren't kept on the box score. The next morning he asked for the number of contested shots and fast-break opportunities; some of the players hadn't assembled those stats even though it was part of the assignment.

"It's like being in school,'' Stotts told them. "You need to make sure to give the coach what he wants. He might let you get away with it once, but after that, you need to give him the information he needs to know.''

It goes without saying that some players, depending on their high school and college experience, never received the training that would help them with the academic challenges that are integral to NBA coaching. "One of the stigmas about ex-players is that they don't like to work,'' Carlisle said, encouraging the players to overcome the stereotype.

1. Network. A large portion of the camp was spent on teaching the retired players how to compile a résumé, answer questions in a job interview and approach some of the bigger names in the NBA in search of job opportunities. "This is my 30th year," Casey told the group. "I started coaching in 1978, and my job as a grad assistant at the University of Kentucky was to go get coach [Joe B.] Hall a cup of coffee, make sure [assistant coach] Leonard Hamilton's plane ticket was ready, drive to the airport to pick up John Thompson. One thing that got me in the NBA was that George Karl was scouting and so I met George in that way.

"I didn't play in the NBA, so mine came the hard way through networking. There's never a job that's too small for you to do. And that's the hardest thing, I think, in being a [former] star, is to say, 'OK, what do you want me to do? I'm checking my ego at the door, and what do you need me to do?' "

"You've got to be ready for anything,'' Hill said.

"You might be in summer league and a coach might come up to you and tell you to go out and work with our guys,'' Carlisle said. "They find out about you right then.'' After the workout, Carlisle added, go right up to one of the famous coaches or GMs. "Go say hello,'' he said. "They're as full of it as anybody.''

3. Gavin and Joe Maloof. The Kings' owners donated $100,000 each to seven people, who in turn were charged with giving it away to those in need. Of course, you will be able to see the whole thing Sunday on TV on Oprah's Big Give. A less philanthropic and predictable reality show of a different kind airs every night that Ron Artest takes the court in search of his next big contract. Will he opt out? Will he return to the Kings next season, which would enable them to trade him to a contender at the deadline a year from now? We can't wait to see how it all turns out.

2. Hedo Turkoglu. A group of 300 people from Turkey plans to be in Orlando for Friday's game against the 76ers. Each year they travel to a different country for the annual meeting of their manufacturing company Onduline Avrasya, and this year they chose to be in Orlando to watch their countryman Turkoglu, who is being touted by the Magic as a candidate for Most Improved Player for averaging 19.7 points (up 6.4 from last year) with a pair of triple-doubles.

The surprising Turkoglu leads the even-more-surprising Magic with 6.3 points in the fourth quarter alone, including 15 closing periods of double-digit scoring. His Turkish fans will be sitting in one section wearing 300 T-shirts bearing Hedo's picture as well as the usual Turkish flags and banners that seem to follow Turkoglu everywhere he goes in the NBA. And yes, he will be meeting with them after the game.

1. Bob Hill. The former coach of the Knicks (1986-87), Pacers (1990-93), Spurs (1994-96) and Sonics (2006-07) is interested in moving to Europe next season. "I told my agent I want to win the Euroleague,'' said Hill, 59. "It's the second-best league in the world.''

Hill would also like to coach in the NBA again, but winning in the Euroleague is something he doesn't take lightly after coaching Virtus Bologna in the Italian League in 1988-89. When Hill returned to the NBA two decades ago, his place at Bologna was taken by Ettore Messina, who has since become one of the great coaches in the history of Europe.

"The league has matured over there, and it's so much better now,'' Hill said. "You can't coach NBA guys the same way you can coach guys over there.'' Which is to say that players in Europe are less resistant to firm coaching.

2. On my recent All-NBA picks:

I think you open up a can of worms by announcing your picks for All-NBA teams. I realize that it is up to this point and can change. But would you really leave off Tracy McGrady considering Houston is on a 22-game winning streak [before Tuesday's loss to Boston] and Yao Ming is out for the season? I think you have to let the month play out and see how things go. I don't like having both Allen Iverson and Carmelo Anthony listed when their team might not even make the playoffs. Yao had a great season, but he will miss close to two months. Does he really deserve to be listed? Deron Williams and Carlos Boozer do seem to be getting the shaft. -- Allen, Washington, D.C.

Your omission of Tracy McGrady, the best player carrying the best team in the West, gives your opinion no credibility. -- Mike, Houston

When will the Steve Nash love affair stop? Please explain to me why you have him on your All-NBA second team. Chris Paul, Deron Williams (who didn't even make your three teams), Baron Davis and Allen Iverson are having better years than Steve Nash is. Deron Williams should be a lock on an All-NBA team, period. -- Collyn Ripley, Newark, Del.

How can two Nuggets make an All-NBA team when they most likely will not make the playoffs, but you leave off Deron Williams and Carlos Boozer and they play for a division-leading team? That makes no sense at all. -- Brad Hudson, Sandy, Utah

Why exclude Chris Bosh from your All-NBA third team in favor of Yao Ming? He plays a lot of center in the Raptors' small lineup. While Yao's Rockets continue to win in his absence, the Raptors have looked horrible with Bosh out of the lineup. -- Jeff Craig, London, Ontario

As mentioned last week, I put out those picks to give an early indication of the individual races heading into the final month of the season. Some players might yet play their way onto or out of the All-NBA teams over the concluding weeks.

As for McGrady, it was a difficult choice to leave him out. The streak was amazing, but these All-NBA teams represent a full season of work. Look at Houston's 44 games before the streak, and you'll see that McGrady played in 30 of them -- and not at his normal level, either. The resulting speculation was that the Rockets might be looking to unload him. They were never planning to do so, and it turns out to be a good thing that they didn't. The short of it is that McGrady has been terrific since February and still could earn a spot on my ballot -- not that it matters much to him either way, I'm sure.

As for the "Steve Nash love affair,'' I believe it's a universal condition. Is there something in the water in Delaware, or maybe a virus contained to Newark, that prevents you from enjoying the way he plays? He's the NBA's most entertaining point guard while averaging 11.3 assists and 17.5 points (47.3 percent from three-point range) for a team that's a half-game out of the lead in the West.

As for Williams, you're all correct. There is no easy choice among point guards, but Williams is the best player on a contender with a better record than the Warriors, and that latter point should have served as the tiebreaker in his race with Davis. We'll see how the race settles over the weeks ahead, but at this stage I regret not awarding the third-team spot to Williams.

As for the Nuggets, I awarded players according to the five positions. Therefore, Anthony qualifies as one of the top three small forwards. Boozer is a power forward, and he ranks just behind Kevin Garnett, Tim Duncan and Dirk Nowitzki. But when the NBA asks for my official ballot at the end of the season, I won't have to differentiate power forwards from small forwards -- on each of the three All-NBA teams, I'll be asked to name two forwards, regardless of whether they play big or small, and that should result in a happier verdict for Boozer.

As for Bosh, I've asked him in the past about playing center. He hasn't liked the question. He has said, "I am not a center.'' But it wouldn't be a week in winter if I didn't get a desperate letter from Canada complaining about the lack of respect for the Raptors.

1. I don't have anything substantive to ask about, though your column is usually quite good. I just wanted to say that either you get more negative e-mails than any other mailbag publisher (which I find unlikely given your column's usual quality and avoidance of hyperbole or needless controversy) or you are the rare columnist who likes to confront those who criticize you rather than pick nothing but cupcakes or repetitive inquiries to answer. If it is, indeed, the latter, you should be commended. Great work as always. -- Jeremy S., Arlington, Va.

Jeremy S., you are a genius. (Unless the "S" stands for Shockey.)

It's obvious from the e-mail I receive that a lot of people get angry when I say that Isiah Thomas isn't necessarily going to be fired by the Knicks, even though it's now seven seasons since they had a winning team, they soiled themselves and the NBA in the sexual harassment trial brought by former executive Anucha Browne Sanders, and they've reportedly been engaged in talks with Pacers CEO Donnie Walsh.

There are all kinds of objective reasons to replace Thomas, and in most other NBA cities, he would have run out of opportunities by now. But the Knicks are not run like any other team. Owner James Dolan is going to do as he pleases, and based on his record of loyalty and stubbornness, I can tell you that there are more than a few credible people in the league who assume that Thomas will be back with the team in some capacity next season.

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