Who can still stand tall?
In a few precious hours, I will celebrate this betrothen holiday upon the same block as Stephen A. and Capone. No lie. Indeed, this offal spirit runs slow and locally.
On this day of primal gratitude, I wanted to take the chance to turn a critical eye toward one of my favorite NBA melodramas: the often subtle management/coach turf war. Publicly, the two are chained at the groin, as team success hails both and most varieties of ruin tarnish them equally. If nothing else, fan and fan-guided media perception are such that separating the two is, for the most part, a task best left to those likely to recognize the vast gulf between them. Namely, the front office makes personnel decisions and the coach is left to live with them; at the same time, the coach has final say over how the floor appears to the huddled eyeballs of the homecourt audience, and thus can effectively distort, inflate, destroy, or eulogize any one of these choices. Front offices operate in the hypothetical, going off of things like CAT scans, wondrous history books, and fashion. Coaches, on the other hand, operate primarily accordingly to ego, hunches, and gee-whiz results.
This is mostly a difference of time. One party needs to win on a nightly basis, the other is given a window of three years to let their plan unfold. Coaches care not what could be on their bench, or what they've ideally been blessed with; they are in the business of winning and losing, albeit with varying degrees of myopic rage. Because no one wants to pay to watch a team develop, most organizations bark out loud according to this rudimentary stance. That's why it was so refreshing to hear Bryan Colangelo come out and say this the other day:
"In order for him to improve and get a feel for what it takes to be successful at this level, you have to play minutes," Colangelo said of Bargnani. "Needless to say, that will be happening. If we're sitting here at [2-8] trying to win ball games and lose Andrea Bargnani in the process, we've lost twice."--Globe and Mail, via Inside Hoops.
As much as Sam Mitchell is known throughout this country as a coach, it's for being a gruff operator who once bodyslammed his starting point guard just to keep his rep. Colangelo, on the other hand, may or may not have been key to one of the most visionary teams in the annals of basketball. This could be seen as prime NBARS, but instead I'm thinking it's more one of the most honest examples I've ever seen of the coach/GM disconnect. Colangelo's being paid to have a bountiful dream, and A-Bar obviously represents a major piece of that puzzle of hope. In fact, you could argue that the NBA is as interested in seeing the Raptors become something coherent, if failed, as they are in seeing Toronto scrape together some victories here and there. Of course, this is strychnine to Mitchell, who is betraying his faith and sawing at his toes by keeping a floundering alien on the floor. Never mind that he's something of a permanent lame duck; were he to accept this tide of possibility, he would find his future subject to the virtues of a brash gamble. Colangelo is praised for being willing to move like this, but Mitchell risks irrelevance and extinction by going along for that ride.
In effect, he would turn out like Doc Rivers. The Good Doc, as we all know, now perennially finds himself knee-deep in a swamp of what-if's, could-be's, and skittering prayers. SI's Ian Thompson observes that six of Beantown's top eleven scorers are still of what was once known as college age, with very few of them getting any more defined as NBA pieces. Delonte West may or may not ever receive a position; Gerald Green might take over; the beauty of Al Jefferson needs to be seen for all its cracks and shambles; Telfair and Rondo are sapping each others' souls. The Team of Bird loses profusely, Pierce ails inside, Wally drinks alone, and Ainge, not Rivers, is held responsible for long-term sanity.
In this situation, the coach has been reduced to a caretaker, a jolly fellow who runs a year-long combine for the benefit of a GM mired in prospects. There's no victory to be had now, and certainly Rivers will not be credited with whatever order emerges from this madness. He's a good shepherd, maybe, but one whose value lurks exactly in his willingness to take rebuilding without a peep. As soon the new light rises, he'll be cast aside in favor of someone who knows how to work the game, since his failure to win with a sloppy day-care will be taken as a sign of folly. Such is the lot of the "players' coach," like Silas in Cleveland, put on this earth solely to provide those players reassurance through the early fog of uncertainty. More guidance counselor than man, he bears the scars of their immaturity, implicated in it through his very ability to listen, while the front office claims whatever long-term grandeur emerges.
But this is hardly solely a problem of these two minimal and discarded franchises. Up in Seattle, FD favorite Chris Wilcox has failed to re-materialize after cashing in. The Sonics are now stuck with him FOREVER, even if he never recpatures his late-last season form. Yet he was signed on the assumption that he would, and that tease will hang in the mind of those who did it—if nothing else, as a means of justifying their actions (see also Miles, Darius). Marbury, whose consummate downfall is as boring as it is inexplicable, lives in MSG for two more agonizing campaigns, and can hardly be ignored PT-wise. And in Portland, whoever the GM is has managed to handcuff himself with improvements: Joel Przybilla was signed on to help secure the future, but Aldridge is now looking like he deserves Roy-like status in the organization. Suddenly, McMillan is in the unique position of having no choice but to make the front office look bad. Magloire can be submerged or liquidated, but only one of these two promising young employees can start. Lines will be drawn, bonfires will kindle, and a city will be torn apart by one man's insistence on covering his bases to a fault.