Make-believe mailbag: NBA coaches solicit advice
In lieu of answering readers' questions this week, we decided to mix things up and open up the mailbag to NBA coaches, who took the time out of their busy schedules to submit these totally fictitious questions. Without further ado, let's dive into the mail.
What should I do with J.R. Smith? Did you see I benched him and we beat the defending champions? He's our second-best player on offense, but he's far and away our leader in distractions. Is he worth the trouble?
-- Mike W., New York
You'll notice, Mike, that Smith's negative impact has grown in the absence of leadership in the Knicks' locker room. Last season, when he was surrounded by Jason Kidd, Kurt Thomas, Rasheed Wallace, Marcus Camby and Quentin Richardson, Smith was at his best and was named Sixth Man of the Year. Now all of those guides have vanished, and out the door with them has gone Smith's common sense.
Actually, you can trace Smith's turning point to the end of Game 3 in the opening round of the playoffs last April in Boston. The Knicks were on the verge of a 3-0 lead when Smith reverted erratically to form by throwing an elbow at Jason Terry. Smith was tossed immediately and suspended for the next game, and ever since then he has been shooting 33.8 percent (160-of-473 in those remaining playoff games and so far during the ensuing regular season) while his team (17-28 overall) has struggled as well.
The Knicks aren't going to win unless they import some seasoned leadership in support of Carmelo Anthony. Let this be your lesson: If the Knicks don't promise to make amends by bringing in experience, then Anthony may leave too. And then what will you be left with? Smith, with up to two years left on his contract, will be your top offensive player.
Should I be more worried about home-court advantage throughout the playoffs or making sure my old guys are fresh come springtime?
-- Erik S., Miami
Grab home court if you can, Erik -- you're only 2½ games behind the East-leading Pacers -- but make health your priority. You've done well by resting Dwyane Wade from back-to-backs and other taxing situations; he's shooting a career-best 54.5 percent, including 42.1 percent from the three-point line. LeBron James at 29 isn't old, but he has absorbed huge minutes while taking on all kinds of responsibilities at both ends of the floor in the NBA as well as the Olympics. So, if his lingering injuries force him to be sidelined in April, then by all means rest him, even if that means having to play Game 7 at Indiana. The more you rest your two stars, the more opportunities for Chris Bosh to remind himself of his ability to take over offensively in their absence -- and empowering Bosh could be your silver lining.
If James, Wade and Bosh are all lively in the playoffs -- if, in other words, they don't look worn down by their pursuit of a fourth straight NBA Finals and third title in a row -- then you may not need to win a Game 7 at Indiana. You may be able to finish off the Pacers in Game 6 at your place.
My best player is out for the season. My second-best player was just traded to the Cavaliers. We signed a guy some other team waived and played him 26 minutes in his first game. Is there any way my team makes the playoffs?
-- Tom T., Chicago
In the East, Tom, you always have a chance at the playoffs. Especially you.
I know there is all kinds of talk about you being driven out of Chicago by your frustration, but where else are you going to go? Do you think you could win in New York? James Dolan has more advantages than any owner in the NBA, and yet his record in charge of the Knicks is 473-613 in the regular seasons of the new millennium. The Lakers? You are not of their style. Miami and the Clippers aren't opening up. Houston owner Les Alexander already tried your role model Jeff Van Gundy and the Rockets aren't likely to go there again. The Nets have little to no future. And on and on it goes.
Stick it out in the NBA's No. 3 market with one of the few franchises that has a championship pedigree. If Derrick Rose returns to health next year, then you'll feel better too.
No need for desperation, Doc. Your team has gone 4-1 since Chris Paul has been out, and J.J. Redick is working himself back into rhythm. Don't you have your hands full already getting your players to commit to an edgier, defensive-minded playoff style? That transformation was never going to happen quickly.
If you believe your players have created an environment that will compel Bynum to play with a focus on behalf of the team, then you're ready to contend for the championship and Bynum should be recruited as a finishing piece. My guess is that your team isn't there yet. In which case it makes no sense to complicate your mission of encouraging everyone to be on the same defensive-minded page.
Why am I still starting Kendrick Perkins every night? I've been doing it for so long I can no longer remember why I do it.
-- Scott B. Oklahoma City
Because he gives your team an edge, Scott, that goes above and beyond his statistical production. Remember not so long ago when Rivers looked back on the 2011 trade of Perkins and said it was a mistake? He reached that conclusion because the Celtics lost a big part of their defensive, physical identity and were never the same intimidating team after they lost Perkins.
The point of this isn't to rehash that trade (which wound up supplying the Celtics with promising Jeff Green, who is crucial to their new era); it's to remind you that you have one of the best defensive teams in the league because Perkins helped you establish that edge. If Perkins were to leave, then your fellow contenders would be less worried about playing the Thunder. Not only does Perkins make opponents feel uncomfortable, but he also enables you to bring rookie Steven Adams off the bench, which makes your second unit more formidable as you continue to build a new identity in the aftermath of former sixth man James Harden's departure.
Not to brag, but did you see our recent five-game winning streak? We beat the Thunder, Warriors and the Heat! Are my Nets out of the woods or do I need to keep the sodas handy?
-- Jason K., Brooklyn, N.Y.
Is this all you wanted out of this season, Jason? Ten good days? Of course not.
That brief stretch amounts to a long-overdue first step away from the apathy of your opening two months. But the bottom line is that this team was assembled at great expense to challenge Miami and Indiana in pursuit of a championship. Will your team show the resolve necessary to challenge the Heat or Pacers in a seven-game series? If the Nets are drummed out of the second round in four or five games, then this season is going to be written off as a highly expensive disappointment, regardless of any progress that might be shown over the weeks ahead.
What should I do with the trio of Josh Smith, Greg Monroe and Andre Drummond? They've been terrible on the floor defensively. Do I ride out the big-man experiment or do I shift one to the bench?
-- Maurice C., Detroit
Which one of them will accept the demotion, Maurice? Smith won't. Monroe will be pursuing a new contract as a restricted free agent this summer. And Drummond is a potential All-Star. As a coach, you're stuck in a state of purgatory between featuring three of your best players and trying to do whatever you can to win now. Your priority is to build up the value of your players so that one of them -- probably Monroe -- can be moved for a wing who will improve team chemistry and lead ultimately to a brighter future than you can see right now from Smith, Monroe and Drummond.
Can we still make the playoffs without Eric Bledsoe? Or do you think we'll cool off with him on the sidelines?
-- Jeff H, Phoenix
You'll cool off, Jeff, and you shouldn't let it define you. You've shown what you, your team and Bledsoe can do together. Spend the rest of this year playing hard, building the value of your players in pursuit of program-improving trades and look forward to the lottery rookie who will help you make an even stronger run at the playoffs next year.
I love the guy, but Ricky Rubio is shooting under 35 percent and teams don't respect him as a shooter. Can I make the playoffs with him as my starting point guard?
-- Rick A., Minneapolis
He can help you get there because he competes hard, Rick. Your team is terrible at the other end of the floor -- dead last in defensive field goal percentage -- but it's the stops-and-start offensively that are a mystery. I keep waiting for your young players to come together for one of your signature winning streaks. I have no answers for you except to be patient.
Are we done yet?
-- Gregg P., San Antonio
As the standings prove once again, Pop, your team is never done.