... and rejuvenated George Karl, who has become a Coach of the Year candidate for steering his team away from its widely forecast place in the lottery and into contention for home-court advantage in the playoffs.
5. Go back to basics. Over the previous two seasons in Denver, Karl had focused on developing a passing-game offense aimed at creating gaps to attack the basket. He won't try making that a priority again. "I learned a lot, it was a good experiment, I'm glad I survived it," Karl said. "But there's no question I'm better when I coach the game from the defensive end of the court. My staff is more comfortable when I coach from the defensive end of the court, and deep down inside most players have a trust in that end of the court."
When his Nuggets lost in the first round last season for the fourth successive year -- having won three playoff games in that span -- Karl and his longtime assistant Tim Grgurich agreed on a new way forward: Return to the old system, based on the aggressive trapping defense that dates back to his long run of success with Gary Payton in Seattle.
"I remember the next two or three days [after the playoffs]. We said, 'We've got to go back to the old way,' '' Karl said. "There's too much freedom and openness to coaching offense. The discipline and the toughness and the soul of the game come from the defensive end of the court most of the time."
Karl understands why people say he didn't appear to be plugged in over the last couple of years: He was thinking his way through the game instead of reacting to it.
"So much of coaching is the trust and passion that the team feels from you, and if you're faking that over a 100 games a year, they find that out," Karl said. "I'm not sure I was faking it, but the last couple of years I was confused. When a problem came up, I didn't know how to address it based on my experiences. Now I think I'm back to feeling much more comfortable on how to attack a weakness that we've developed or a situation that has arisen."
4. Embrace discipline. An era of financial restraint was ushered in when owner Stan Kroenke supported the controversial decision last summer to dump Marcus Camby's salary to the Clippers for no asset in return. Kroenke wanted to stop paying the luxury tax on a team that wasn't succeeding in the playoffs.
"It should be said that [when we heard about] Stan and his edict that we've got to get under the tax and that we're not going to sign anybody except minimum contracts -- it pissed us off," Karl said. "But it also unified the organization: This is what we are, babe. This is what we are, and we can bitch about it or we can make it happen. We've always had the problem of not being unified. In a strange way, when we got under the tax this year, everybody was kind of like, Hey, we did it, and we're still kicking ass. So there was a unification of a business philosophy that rallied the troops."
So often in the NBA the best teams are those with financial discipline. As the Spurs and Pistons have shown, tight payrolls often result in championships. The Nuggets have succeeded by relying on minimum-salary signees Chris Andersen, Dahntay Jones and Anthony Carter, as well as Renaldo Balkman, who is still playing on his rookie contract.
The demoralizing nature of the Camby trade forced Karl, Grgurich and the other coaches to reach out to the players.
"We were at Grg's camp [in Las Vegas] the first week in August and he said, 'Not only do we have to go back to the defense, but we've got to go back to touching our players and telling these guys that we can still win,' " Karl said. "Because the cloud in Denver was, We're done. No one thought we could win. Everybody predicted the doom."
Each of the assistant coaches reached out to players over the summer.
"I went to Nenê the second week in August, I had dinner with him and his fiancee," Karl said. "He said some hard things to me, I said some hard things to him. Nenê has never been a guy who went to the gym until he had to. I would say within a week [of that dinner], he was in the gym five days a week from August on.
"Grg went to Dallas -- I think twice in that time -- to talk with Kenyon [Martin], and he talked about how we can't have the nonsense that we've had. And Kenyon bought into that. In our first team meeting, Kenyon stood up and said, 'I have been a problem, but I'm not going to be a problem anymore.' "
Both Nenê and Martin have had resurgent seasons. Nenê is averaging career highs of 14.6 points and 7.8 rebounds while shooting 60.3 percent, and Martin is playing his most minutes since the 2004-05 season.
3. Call it like you see it. "In the NBA we do not coach enough," Karl said. "We manage. We attitude-adjust, we call the league office, we talk to agents.
"I tell Pop [Spurs coach Gregg Popovich] all the time, 'Pop, you coach different than we coach. You have a no-nonsense, low-maintenance superstar.' How many of them exist? When you have a disciplinary problem with Melo [Carmelo Anthony] and you have an injury here and you have a dysfunctional personality on your team, that's not coaching; that's managing. The more that we have to manage what I call the de-energizers of basketball -- selfishness, non-commitment, not playing hard, attitudes in the locker room -- you're not coaching."
Though he recently had to suspend Anthony for refusing to come out of a game, Karl says his relationship with his 24-year-old star is stronger than it has been in prior seasons.
"Melo and I are now at the stage where I can talk to him about everything," Karl said. "Sometimes I do it with [the help of] Chauncey [Billups], and there are still the sensitive areas of shot selection and selfishness and commitment to defense, where sometimes it's easier to be with an assistant or do it through a video. But I would say Melo and I are at the stage now that whatever the headache is, even when he's [angry] he can bring it to me, and when I'm [angry] I can bring it to him. Before we always kind of walked around, holding back."
Karl admits he isn't perfect, and that he needs as much help as his team can manage to give him.
"In my career I've won 60 percent of my games," he said. "In a game, if I'm coaching 70 percent right, I'm doing pretty good. But if you want to magnify the 30 percent that I'm doing wrong, you can make me out to be an awful coach -- if you want to. After a game I can sit down and tell you three or four [decisions] I would do differently, and then I watch the film and I'll get three or four more. But adjusting and still being able to win the game is the thing, and no one gives respect when you push the right buttons with momentum: 'Well, you're supposed to do that.'
"I try to tell the team, 'You've lost six or seven road games in the fourth quarter. Some of that's my fault.' And then that's where I blame them because of their ego problems, and I say, 'You piss me off because you take my time where I think I could be really good and you [mess] it up, and now I've got to worry about who likes who. This is madness. You think I'm happy about not coming up with a trick play or a cute substitution or a rotation that will help you win one of those games? Instead I've got to worry about Melo, you're not coming out of the game. You think that keeps my focus on being really good at the end of the game? It doesn't.
"I went to Chauncey and Melo in a couple of instances [this season] and said, 'You've got to take this off my plate. You've got to police this team. You've got to take responsibility.
"People don't comprehend, it's like having a family of 12 people. Your 5-year old might not be talking to your 8-year old, and your 9-year-old threw a punch at your 12-year-old. That's what you have in NBA basketball. And then you've got to talk about confidence. OK, L.K. [Linas Kleiza] right now is in a [shooting] slump. How do you get him out of that slump? What's the touch? Is it playing him more? Is it taking him out of the lineup, starting him, ignoring him, showing him more video? You don't know which one it is, and it's a psychological analysis [based on] your experiences. Well, you know, I remember when Sam Perkins was in a slump, this is what I would do. L.K.'s a little bit like Sam, so maybe it will work.
"It has nothing to do with genius. It is experience, and sometimes it works, and sometimes it doesn't."
2. Import leadership. The Nuggets were already committed to a new (or old) approach when they dealt Allen Iverson to Detroit in November for Billups, a blockbuster trade that enabled them to eventually limbo underneath the tax threshold even as their team improved -- a most improbable dream in this recession-based league.
"I'm blessed, for the first time in a long time, of having [leadership from a player like Billups]," Karl said. "Sam Cassell was my leader in Milwaukee. Now, come on, Sam's kind of crazy. Sam believes the right stuff, but he doesn't present it on a daily basis. Chauncey presents it on a daily basis. He reminds me a lot of Nate [McMillan] when I had Nate in Seattle, and I didn't know how valuable Nate was because I was still a young coach. People ask me at the clinics, 'Who was your most favorite player you ever coached?' And I say Nate McMillan, because on a daily basis he brought winning and leadership to [our] locker room and to [our] court.
"Chauncey does that. He makes your words be listened to. And when you're coaching five or six years with a team, that's important. Because they get tired of hearing my stories and my repeats and my desires and my demands. But Chauncey has kind of lifted that up."
Karl, Billups and Martin (who played in two NBA Finals with the Nets) are preaching to their teammates that they can put together an extended run in the playoffs.
"As a coach I try to tell them, 'Don't throw it away,' " Karl said. "Because I think we're good enough to get that snowball momentum that we've had a couple of times in my career [in Seattle and Milwaukee], that if we win in the first round ...
"When we play the right way, we're pretty good. ... I'm not sure we're in that elite group; probably no one is. Except the Lakers, they know they are; Boston knows they are, and Cleveland probably thinks they are.
"There is going to be a surprise team. And what I don't want [my team] to do is throw away the opportunity because of not knowing what it takes. Because we don't have the mature toughness that a Utah might have. We do have a lot of talent that we can throw away five possessions or 10 possessions and make it up, but that's not how you win big. And too many times I say, 'OK, we won, and yeah, you didn't play those first five minutes -- but this is not how you beat L.A. This is not how you beat Houston in Houston. You don't do it this way.' "
1. Have a larger goal. Karl appeared to be nearing the end of his career last season, but now at 57 he is inspired anew. Karl has been liberated of debilitating pain by undergoing hip surgery last summer, his joy for coaching has been rekindled with this year's club and in recent years Karl and his son, Coby, have each survived cancer.
Coby's career, in fact, has a lot to do with Karl's new vigor on the bench. The former Laker left the D-League in January to play for DKV Joventut of Spain.
"You could see me coaching five more years," Karl said. "I could see me coaching more than that. Or I could see, if my son said, 'Coach me in Europe, let's go to Europe,' I would do that.
"I want to coach my son. And that's got to happen probably in the next two or three years. Everybody says it would be bad, but Coby, to me, he's good enough to play [in the NBA]. And if I can't get it done in the NBA, I might do it in Europe."
4. I'm a Raptors fan and don't understand why they have such a hard time winning. To me, it seems they don't have that killer instinct to finish opponents. But more Chris Bosh doesn't have it. More and more, I think they would be better off dealing him. Not in a dump, but in a rare deal talent for talent. What do you think?-- Matt Harris, Dartmouth, Nova Scotia
I think Bosh needs to be paired with finishers. I've said this before, that the same complaints were made of Kevin Garnett at Minnesota. Only when he was surrounded in Boston by Paul Pierce and Ray Allen was Garnett accepted for his strengths.
(Don't get me wrong: Garnett is in a different class than Bosh in his energy level and defensive commitment.)
If you pay Bosh a maximum salary as a free agent in 2010 and don't pair him with the right mix of talent, then you'll be accused of overpaying him because his presence won't result in a winning team. The Raptors should do anything they can this summer to fix the team around Bosh, but for another point of view see below.
3. What has become of Jermaine O'Neal? He wasn't a good fit in Toronto and he hasn't upped his production in Miami. Have the injuries he's suffered robbed him of what he once was? At age 30, it would seem he would still have plenty left in the tank, but the numbers don't say so.-- Dale Cary, Brunswick, Ohio
This is going to be an interesting time for him in Miami. The Heat demand high effort in practice, which has been a complaint about O'Neal in recent years as he has struggled to recover from injuries. If he can contribute in a big way to Miami in the playoffs and next season (if they don't move his expiring contract this summer), then contending teams may view him as a valuable asset when he becomes a free agent in 2010. But this is a crucial make-a-stand time for him.
2. In your list of complaints about the NBA, you left out the most glaring: The NBA's officiating is awful. I thought the Tim Donaghy situation was supposed to improve the officiating situation? It didn't. Traveling/lane violations/jump ball violations/etc. are called as arbitrarily as ever, and the star system hurts the credibility of the league.-- Harold Nealy, Ottawa, Ontario
Ian, you write a great column, and I thought your answers to five common criticisms of the NBA were particularly insightful. But there's one criticism you left out that I really think should be addressed more. What about the criticism that the NBA refs give favorable treatment to the superstars? Is that really true, and to what extent does it happen? If it is true, why isn't a bigger deal made of it? It seems to me that if the officials are consistently and intentionally calling the game so as to give certain favored players advantages over their opponents, this should undermine the league's credibility more than anything Tim Donaghy ever did. I've always been amazed that it's often treated as a foregone conclusion that the stars will get the calls and the no-names won't, and no one really seems to get outraged over this and try to change it.-- Karl Martin, Powell, Ohio
The referees in Europe share your complaint. They believe stars are favored far more often in the NBA than in Europe. (Overall, however, there is no doubting that the NBA has the best officials in world basketball.) There are a lot of complaints to be made about the officiating in any sport. I don't dismiss your criticisms, but on the other hand I see no simple way to address them either.
1. There has been some speculation that some of the 2010 free agents might re-sign with their teams this summer. Any chance of that happening? Why would they jump the gun before they've had the chance to play the market?-- Brett H., Fort Lauderdale, Fla.
Each of the top free agents faces a different situation. LeBron James will drive the market, and so he can sign or not as he pleases this year or next regardless of other influences. Even if he thinks a new CBA may be installed earlier than expected, I doubt he would let that influence him to extend his deal with Cleveland unless he's certain it feels right. Lesser stars may feel compelled to go for the sure thing ASAP in fear that the same offer may vanish a year later. But stars such as Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh and Joe Johnson can afford to make decisions based on their own timetable.
3. Past.Othella Harrington, a 35-year-old big man with a dozen years of NBA experience, signed with the D-League to prove he has recovered from knee surgery last season. "I was surprised by this," said Harrington's agent David Bauman, "but we had to get four or five NBA teams calling up Chris Alpert [VP of basketball operations for the D-League] and saying they needed to see Othella in action."
It turns out to be not so easy for an older player to find work in the D-League, even at the $13,000 salary Harrington will be making.
"We occasionally have some veteran players who will play in our league," Alpert said.
While Randy Livingston and others are occasionally invited to play, the league prefers to keep as many roster spots as possible for players who are still developing.
"Jeremy Richardson [who has spent time with the Magic this season] is a young player who maybe wouldn't have had the opportunity to play in our league if we allowed [older] players who were past the developmental stage," Alpert said. "We needed to hear from NBA teams that there is interest in seeing Othella play."
Harrington is one of those experienced players who will set a strong example for his young teammates
"Cory Alexander helped Matt Carroll become a very good player [in the D-League]," Alpert said. "It's helpful for our younger players to have those veteran players who have been around."
2. Present. Not that I'm in the business of watching the D-League, but I wished I'd seen the final minute of the Los Angeles D-Fenders' game last Saturday in which they blew a five-point lead with 10 seconds remaining at Tulsa. Gary Forbes of the Tulsa 66ers was fouled on a three-pointer with 9.2 seconds remaining; his four-point play brought the home team within 96-95. L.A.'s Brandon Heath hit a free throw, but Moses Ehambe drained a three at the buzzer for the 97-96 win.
1. Future. Next month the D-League will enact its plan allowing the top four playoff teams with home-court advantage to pick their first-round opponent from the bottom four seeds. "When I first heard about it, I was a little skeptical," Alpert said. "But the more I think about it, it makes sense. If your team works the hardest to become the No. 1 seed, you've earned the right to choose your opponent. A lot of bulletin-board material will be created. There will be some rivalry stuff starting before they play the games."
Will we someday see the NBA try a similar rule to create more interest in the opening round?
"I don't know how the NBA will respond," Alpert said. "It has been very well received by our teams and coaches."
Other D-League trials have yet to be picked up by the NBA, such as the international goaltending rule or a limitation on the three-point shot until the final two minutes of each quarter and all of overtime.
"We are the research and development element of the NBA," Alpert said.
I asked an outside-the-box executive from a rival team for his strategic thoughts on a couple of underachieving teams.
2. Los Angeles Clippers. "Well, they're stuck with Baron Davis," the executive said. "I don't think they like him and I don't think he likes them. They have a few guys they can't trade, between him and Zach Randolph and Chris Kaman, who I don't think has much value."
Kaman missed 48 games this year, and he is owed $34 million over the next three seasons.
"I think they still believe they can have a good team if they're healthy, but I don't agree," the executive said. "They have a lot of talent -- a lot of scoring, including [rookie] Eric Gordon, who is going to be a really good scorer -- but then you watch them play and you realize it doesn't fit together. They overhauled it last year when they brought in Marcus Camby and Baron Davis, and they can't keep changing.
"They probably have a better chance of winning with Camby, and there is going to be a lot of talk by teams hoping to get him [in a trade] this summer. I think the Clippers will go around the league and see what kind of interest there is for Camby or Kaman, and then move one or the other for an asset to go along with the high pick they'll get in the draft. Then they'll go into next year hoping their guys will be healthy. I don't see a lot else they can try to do without tearing the whole thing down."
1. Toronto Raptors. "Chris Bosh has to be traded," the executive said. "They are another team that can't make a lot of moves to improve the team around Bosh, and if they go into next year winning 40 or so games and maybe getting the No. 8 seed in the playoffs, is that going to convince Bosh to re-sign with them as a free agent in 2010? Of course not. He's going to say, 'Get me out of here.'
"They could wait until next February, but there will be fewer participants in trades at the deadline. Going into the draft they need to look around and see what they can get for Bosh, but I'm not saying it's going to be easy. No team is going to give up two or three assets for Bosh unless they're convinced they can re-sign him."
If Toronto is in fact willing to investigate trades for Bosh this summer, will we see the Knicks pursue a bird-in-the-hand deal in June rather than wait for him to become free in 2010? They could persuade Bosh to sign an extension and use him to recruit LeBron James or another star the following summer, provided they could develop the necessary cap space.
"The other question is what they should do with Shawn Marion," the executive said. "If they renounce him and let him walk, they could get some decent cap space and try to improve the team around Bosh that way. Maybe they could make a trade with one of the teams that will be looking to unload talent in a fire sale. Even then, Toronto is basically just trying to replace Marion.
"Either way, they at least need to see what kind of a market there is for Bosh. If they can get a draft pick and two players for him, and then add another good player with their lottery pick, then they're moving forward."
1. Six men will no longer be permitted to score. After Portland scored a basket that was allowed to stand despite having six men on the floor in a controversial Dec. 30 game against the Celtics, the league realized there was no rule that permitted the referees to take the points off the board. Better to change it now than wait until the summer. The opposing team will now be able to choose whether to accept or nullify the play that took place under illegal circumstances.