A dismal start, internal strife and a coaching change is no way to build a contender. But the careful plans of summer rarely play out as scripted come fall.
Few teams are more aware of this fact than the Hornets, who stumbled to a 3-6 start before dispatching Byron Scott less than two seasons after he was named the NBA Coach of the year, a move that did not sit well with star point guard Chris Paul.
Welcome to world of a head coach in the NBA, Jeff Bower.
A 14-year veteran of the Hornets' front office, Bower, the club's GM since 2005 and architect of the current roster, was called upon to salvage a "broken" team, as president Hugh Weber described, a unit lacking in energy and effort.
"We're trying to play to our players' strengths and not have them fit to a certain style of play or system, to provide a framework for them to be able to function efficiently," said Bower. "We've talked about principles and practices that I've always felt were traits of successful teams, and that's to move the ball and get players in position to play with an inside-out approach."
That means making sure the offense runs through forward David West, not only for his ability to score, but for his willingness and skill in passing out of the low post. It also means taking Peja Stojakovic off the bench and setting up the screens on the floor so he can hit 41.5 percent of his three-point attempts this season. And it means relying on Paul to be a facilitator on offense and the base of the defense while, at the same time, stressing to his teammates the importance of moving without the ball.
Bower's methods have helped the Hornets go 7-7 since the coaching change, an improvement that has been slow but expected.
"We're trying to add different things as we go and clean up things each game and shootaround and practice," said Bower, who estimated the Hornets have had time for only about four or five practices since he took over. "We've had a lot of communication with our players and we've taken their feedback on just about everything as to what they feel allows them to be successful."
When Paul was out for eight games with a sprained ankle, rookies Darren Collison and Marcus Thornton were given a chance to lead the Hornets' offense. While the move allowed Bower to gauge the team's depth, it was also a move that never happened under Scott, who failed to play either rookie in the season's first nine games.
"This isn't about me," said Bower. "I have a pretty good grasp on both of my roles. This is about the potential of this group. We've tried to look at each player as to what their specific skills are and tried to utilize them.There are a lot of goals, and it's all a series of steps that need to be taken."
For a team that didn't seem to know what the next step would bring only a few weeks into the season, any step toward the right direction is welcome.
• Fewer shootarounds for the Nuggets. Practice time during the season is precious, which makes morning shootarounds one of the few opportunities a coach has to implement new plays or correct sloppy habits. But NBA players are not attuned to 9-5 life, and Nuggets coach George Karl has given in to the theory that they're better off sleeping than lazily putting up a few shots. "Shootarounds seem to be very tedious and non-enthusiastic situations," Karl told the Denver Post. "I think we're listening to some needs of players and philosophies of some other teams, trying to get more focus and seriousness into the moments that we're together,"
• The Grizzlies. We're not joking. Not about a team that pops Dallas, Cleveland and Miami in one week and has won eight of its last 14 since waving goodbye to Allen Iverson. "Since [our] 1-8 start we had a team meeting," coach Lionel Hollins recently told reporters. "We went through some video and [the players] called each other out. Each individual is accountable for every other individual on the team." This doesn't make up for the Pau Gasol trade, but it has helped take them off the NBA's laugh track.
• Charlie Villanueva. Signed to a five-year, $35-million contract with the Pistons in the opening hours of free agency, the power forward has found a niche off the bench as a winning spark plug. Detroit has won six of the seven games it has played since the 25-year-old started playing with the team's second unit, and he has averaged 16.9 points while shooting 50.5 percent. "The advantage that I have now when I'm on the bench is that I can see what's going on with the flow of the game," Villanueva told the Detroit Free Press. "So far, we haven't lost a game with me coming off the bench, so if ain't broke, why fix it?"
• Tracy McGrady in the All-Star Game. Seriously? Fans have to know he didn't play a minute this season until Tuesday night, right? And that by voting in McGrady that means the likes of Chris Paul, Deron Williams, Brandon Roy and Chauncey Billups would have to sit? Look, we understand the Rockets are big in China, but no one could be that naïve. And if they are, they don't deserve an All-Star vote.
• Stars at the World Championships. According to New York Times columnist Jonathan Abrams on Twitter, USA basketball chief Jerry Colangelo is concerned few top talents will play in Turkey next August. He has good reason to be with next summer's free-agent frenzy surrounding LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, to name a few. While most free agents will be fishing for the richest deal, the Big Three want something more, we presume. They want the spectacle of being recruited, the mystery of keeping their fans in suspense, the reality of knowing who their teammates will be before they sign for the long term. That isn't likely to happen by July 1, and the longer each stretches out the process, the less likely their appearance for Team USA becomes.
• Anthony Randolph's future in Golden State. During the summer, Randolph was reportedly the Warriors' most important building block. Nowadays, he's received sparse minutes and is rumored to be on is way out of the Bay Area. Randolph is being cast as a difficult, mistake-prone player whose stock has fallen in the eyes of potential suitors. Last we checked, he was also only 20 years old and 6-foot-10. Isn't it a little early to be bailing on a player who dominated the Las Vegas Summer League? And if you have decided it's time to ship him out, there are better ways to smooth those skids than by already floating the excuses you'll need to justify any impending deal to your fans. All in all, another questionable move for a team making more and more of them.
Brandon Jennings has played his way to the lead in the race for Rookie of the Year. But with each game he plays, opposing teams gain insights into slowing the Bucks guard down. An NBA scout offers the early book on what challenges Jennings faces ahead.
"In shooting such a high percentage from three and as quick as he is, it makes him a tough cover. He can shoot behind picks if you go under him, because you're worried about his speed, and he can beat you off the dribble. But he's a slight kid, and people will put him in pick-and-rolls or run him off as many screens as possible to bang him up a bit. That would wear on anybody, but when you're 160 pounds, that'll really wear on you. It also will take him off the ball, where his quick hands are often involved. He'll still have some bursts because he can shoot threes but it's going to be hard for him to be consistent at the level he has played."
• "Let me ask you a question. What do you guys get out of asking me these questions? You guys get a better story? You guys feel better about yourselves asking me these?"-- Nets swingman Terrence Williams rips into reporters asking about the rookie's increasingly regular spot on the bench. He later apologized.
• "I know every time I play, I've helped this team. Every single time. It's tough. Especially since -- and I hate saying this -- seeing these other guys [Steve Blake and Andre Miller] doing what they are doing. I know I can help this team. I know I can."-- Blazers second-year rookie Jerryd Bayless offers a too much of his mind to The Oregonian's Jason Quick about his frustrations with playing time in Portland.
• "Sometimes I don't know what he's doing out there on offense, to be honest with you."-- Lakers coach Phil Jackson expresses his frustration with Lamar Odom's play of late.
• "Why carry luggage when [you] can be the luggage? It is eye, big luggage man."-- Shaquille O'Neal jokes with fans on his Twitter account after posting an image of himself wearing a Louis Vuitton coat.
• "No disrespect, but, Mikki Moore, he gets to start and I don't."-- Elton Brand expresses his displeasure at being moved to the bench to Sixers beat reporter Kate Fagan.
•NYMag.com: Six writers, NBA-related and otherwise, explore and opine on Bill Simmons' Book of Basketball. The debate over the ESPN.com star's book is as fascinating as the book itself.
•New York Times: No one stays young forever, which makes the lack of a pension plan in European leagues an increasing concern for those who bypass the NBA.
•Orlando Sentinel: What sets elite teams, such as the Magic, apart from the others? A tireless video scouting department.
•SLAM:Tim Donaghy offers even greater insight into his mindset/paranoia about why some news organizations have spent a lot of time trying to discredit Donaghy's claims.
•Sacramento Bee:Reggie Theus doesn't look on the job Paul Westphal is doing with the Kings with envy. No, he regrets not finishing the job last season. And for that he's angry at one person, in particular.
1. Want to know why the Bobcats will never win in the playoffs with Michael Jordan running the front office? Because he's out on the golf course 20 times a month playing Lawrence Taylor, who revealed as much in a recent radio interview on WFAN in New York City.
2. Magic coach Stan Van Gundy earned a large chunk of his salary in keeping his cool when Rashard Lewis refused to enter a game in the second quarter last Thurday against the Jazz. Yes, Ryan Anderson may have been playing well, as Lewis argued in refusing Van Gundy's order, but that's not Lewis' call to make. To his credit, Van Gundy let the affront pass without a fuss, describing the incident as "no big deal" while explaining how strong his relationship is with Lewis. In a season as long as the one facing the Magic, there are bound to be many standoffs between the players and the coach. Letting a few of them go the players' way early in the regular season will earn Van Gundy the currency to win those battles when he needs to in the spring.
3. Shameless plug alert! But a worthwhile one for anyone interested in understanding what makes the modern NBA work. Rockets GM Daryl Morey will again gather most of the league's statheads for his annual Sports Analytics Conference at MIT in March. Now in its fourth year, the conference is wonky, to be sure, but also fascinating in revealing how antiquated traditional stats are for evaluating players.