Wednesday December 17th, 2008

To watch Kevin McHale move is to feel his pain. Watch the Timberwolves' coach hobble up and down the sideline, a particular form of movement forced upon him by arthritic ankles. Watch him conduct his pre- and postgame media interviews from a chair because he can't stand up for 10 consecutive minutes. Watch him coach a struggling team, which has lost five in a row since he took over for the deposed Randy Wittman.

OK, maybe we don't feel so bad for him about that last one.

McHale hates travel. He doesn't like late nights or the beating it puts on his body. And he's not, at least according to Nuggets guard Anthony Carter, who played for McHale in 2005, "a very good X's and O's coach."

"I do not think he wanted this job," Timberwolves forward Mark Madsen said.

But the Timberwolves are, unequivocally, McHale's mess: He drafted, acquired and signed each player on the roster, which is why owner Glen Taylor, after back-to-back blowout losses to the Nets and Clippers earlier this month, ended McHale's near 14-year run as team vice president and shipped him down to the sideline.

"If I didn't want to coach this team, I wouldn't have," insisted McHale, who coached Minnesota to a 19-12 finish after he fired Flip Saunders in 2005. "We have to get our guys back battling. It's the same in every sport: Effort and execution will get results. Our effort has been lagging."

McHale's first order of business has been to simplify the playbook. Wittman was a hands-on coach who liked to control the game. Not McHale. He has asked his players to pick up the tempo and, when they can't run, try to identify mismatches and exploit them every time down the floor. He said Al Jefferson attracts defenders "like bees to honey" and would like to see more of the half-court offense flow through him.

"I feel as though he saw a lot of guys who he drafted or acquired, the way he pictured us being used, we weren't being used that way," guard Rashad McCants said.

Said McHale: "You want to avoid the other team's top two defenders and go at their worst. Red Auerbach taught me that."

With McHale on the bench, the responsibility of rebuilding the team falls to general manager Jim Stack and assistant GM Fred Hoiberg. The latter will focus on the draft -- the Timberwolves could have as many as four first-round picks in 2009 -- while Stack will be the point man on trade calls.

Hoiberg said that even though McHale is no longer calling the shots, the team will still consult with him on potential deals.

"We consulted with Randy, too," Hoiberg said. "Kevin was in the front office for 14 years. We value his opinion."

Hoiberg said there is no plan in place for McHale to return to the front office after the season.

"I think he is committed to coaching," Hoiberg said. "Kevin has the unique ability to get in your mind and see what makes you tick. His biggest strength is that he can make you feel 10 feet tall. Hopefully he can get this thing moving and coach this team for a long time."

A source close to the 76ers told that former Pistons coach Flip Saunders is Philadelphia's first choice as a long-term replacement for Maurice Cheeks. Eddie Jordan, who worked with Sixers general manager Ed Stefanski in New Jersey, is also a candidate. But the source said, "It's Flip's job to lose."

Assistant Tony DiLeo was promoted to head coach after the 76ers fired Cheeks last Saturday. Stefanski said he would evaluate the coaching situation after the season.

The Cavaliers' offseason acquisition of Mo Williams from Milwaukee was considered a significant risk. Williams not only was owed $43 million over the next five seasons, but he also had a well-earned reputation for being a below-average defender and too ball-controlling as a point guard.

But Williams has emerged as one of Cleveland's most consistent all-around players this season, joining with Delonte West and Daniel Gibson to give the Cavs a formidable three-guard rotation. While Williams is averaging 16.0 points and 4.3 assists in 32.5 minutes, it's his defense that has been most impressive.

"Mo used to be a guy who only got up for the Gilbert Arenas types," one of Williams former coaches said. "Now he's playing with the same intensity every night."

"It's different here," Williams said in a telephone interview. "There wasn't much attention [paid] to detail on defense in Milwaukee. You can see the difference in the schemes we run. We don't let the other team get where they want to go and we force them into quick, bad shots."

Williams admitted that it's hard to not keep one eye on Boston, with both teams appearing to be on a collision course for the Eastern Conference finals.

"We're just getting geared up for it," Williams said. "We're a good team now, but by then we will be playing exceptionally well."

I spent most of last week in Denver reporting this week's Sports Illustrated feature on Chauncey Billups. Here are a few additional notes on the Nuggets' point guard and Denver native:

• Beyond Billups' significant impact on the court (Denver is 16-5 since his arrival), the Nuggets' front office believes he has made the team "likable." The feeling in Denver is that many fans viewed the team unfavorably. But with Billups, as polished off the court as he is on it, Denver now has a professional face on the franchise.

• Some teammates believe Billups should run for mayor of Denver when his playing career is over. Billups downplayed the idea. "I know exactly who told you that," Billups said with a smile. "Politics have never been my thing. I got involved with the presidential election because of who the candidate [Barack Obama] was, but I don't think I'd run for office." One career that does interest Billups is real estate. He's working on setting up his own company.

• Billups acknowledged that when he heard rumors that he might be traded last offseason, he asked Pistons presidents Joe Dumars to consider Denver. "Joe and I are very friendly," Billups said. "I told him, 'If you're going to trade me, this is where I'd like to go. Don't just ship me off somewhere. Let me have something to do with it.' "

Two D-League point guards who could draw interest from NBA teams:

Dontell Jefferson, Utah Flash. "DJ is the guy most NBA scouts ask me about," Flash coach Brad Jones said. "Defensively, he is already an NBA player." Jefferson is a big (6-4), heady playmaker who has developed by leaps and bounds since graduating from Arkansas in 2006. He has blossomed into one of the D-League's most poised point guards, averaging 16.4 points and 5.3 assists in eight games this season. "I'm trying to be more conscious of my decision-making," said Jefferson, who was released by the Grizzlies in training camp last year and was one of Mike Dunleavy's final cuts at Clippers camp this season. "I feel like that's the thing that has been keeping me out of the league."

Coby Karl, Idaho Stampede. "Coby has really taken to the point guard role," said George Karl, Coby's father and the Nuggets' coach. "He's playing like a veteran out there." Coby Karl spent the 2007-08 season with the Lakers but was waived in October. A deadeye shooter, Karl has been honing his playmaking skills in Idaho (where he is averaging 17.8 points and 5.6 assists in eight games) with an eye toward signing a 10-day contract with an NBA team in January. The Lakers are keeping tabs on him and he still has his No. 1 fan in Denver. "He can play in this league," George Karl said. "I think we should pick him up."

OK, so everyone knew letting Chauncey Billups go was a bad idea. Will bringing Antonio McDyess back give the Pistons some relief? -- Pam, Michigan

Absolutely. When I talked to scouts after the trade, they pointed to McDyess' ability to hit the perimeter jump shot as a huge loss for the Pistons. Moreover, even at 34, McDyess is still a solid defender whose presence helps relieve pressure from Rasheed Wallace at that end of the court. I still don't think the Pistons are going to make much noise this season, but getting McDyess back certainly helps keep them in the discussion.

I don't know why people are questioning Greg Oden so soon in his career. It was known everywhere that his defense was his calling card. He'll get you 8-15 points consistently while grabbing 10-15 boards and blocking 2-4 shots each night when he gets the minutes. On his team, he doesn't have to score. He's still learning the game, getting in shape and starting to trust his leg more. Never underestimate a leg injury to an athlete. He'll be a great player for years to come. -- Reginald, Memphis

I don't hear too many informed people questioning Oden's abilities. I think the general understanding is that Oden is a work in progress. Everyone I talk to says he is already one of the best defensive centers in the game. The only question is, How will his offensive game develop? It was unfair to place such high expectations on Oden this season, because he was coming back from a serious knee injury and hadn't played high-level basketball in a year and a half. He'll be fine. Check back in three years and I think we will all share a good laugh at those who doubted Oden's talents.

The Wizards signed the wrong star, drafted the wrong players and fired the wrong person. It is good to be the owner's favorite. But losing with a high payroll, can GM Ernie Grunfeld last long? -- JP, Virginia

I don't think Grunfeld is in any trouble. He and Eddie Jordan were like oil and water. Jordan was an extremely gifted offensive coach but Grunfeld preferred a tough, defensive-minded man on the bench. That's why he chose Ed Tapscott to replace Jordan. Though lacking coaching experience, Tapscott believes winning starts with defense and he's trying to give the team a new identity. And if you think Tapscott considers himself a stopgap solution, think again: He told me he would "love" to coach the team long term.

As for Grunfeld, he is considered one of the brightest executives in the NBA and, as you pointed out, has the ear of ownership. And let's not forget, this Wizards team has made the playoffs in each of the last four seasons. With a few tweaks (say, a high draft pick) and some good health (hello, Gilbert Arenas and Brendan Haywood), Washington could thrust itself right back into the mix next season.

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