Saturday, April 14, 2007

"East Coast sorryness"

Quick question.

How the Knicks been doing lately?

Not bad, my man. Not bad at all. They been tanking. That's right, tanking. Just like the Celtics.

Unfortunately, the Sixers didn't show up for the party, ginknat (the opposite of tanking) instead. Not cool at all. But then again, Philly's never been considered "East Coast" anyway.

And the city hasn't seen a sports team win a title since 1983. So obviously its franchises are clueless on how to be successful.

New York and Boston on the other hand? They know exactly what they’re up to. They're both tanking, both of their sorry coaches are returning next year (for inexplicable reasons) and both of them (mostly just Boston, but don't count out New York) have a shot at landing one of the first two picks in the NBA draft (which would mean - almost positively at this point - Greg Oden or Kevin Durant; Oden's father said Friday that Oden will join Durant in the draft).

On a side note, you have to love parents stepping up and helping their adolescent kids make decisions (because despite Oden's beard and all the "he's gotta be 44!" commentary out there, the truth is he's still a kid; ditto with Durant). Both of these players had to go, and their parents showed them the way.

But back to the ugly side of things. About a month ago, with the Knicks in the thick of the Eastern Conference playoff race, owner James Dolan gave coach and team president Isiah Thomas a new contract. There are only two possible explanations. Either Dolan is the stupidest man alive outside of Matt Millen and Danny Ainge (more on that in a minute). Or he is close to the smartest man alive.

Yeah, I know, sounds confusing. But don't shut down the computer yet. When Dolan made the move, the date was March 12. March Madness was two days away. As busy as Dolan is with his aspiring guitar career, he must have at least filled out a bracket or watched a little commentary on the NCAA tournament. After all, everyone except for my mom, sister, half of my fraternity brothers and every other country in the world cares about the Big Dance.

Most importantly, I'm sure that as Dolan browsed his bracket over a hot cup of New York coffee, his pencil stopped on the words "Texas" and "Ohio State," aka "Durant" and "Oden." Dolan probably strummed his goatee and thought, OK, my team is going nowhere this year. The best we could do is make the playoffs as a No. 8 seed and get spanked by Isiah's old team, which would only create bad publicity going into the postseason. After all, everyone knows that the Pistons have refused to hire Zeke in any capacity, instead opting for the more capable Joe D - a heavy punch to Thomas' ego.

If the Knicks had done that, they like would have ended up with a mid first-round pick, resulting in the drafting of another Renaldo Balkman (who, by the way, hasn't been bad; but comparing him to Oden is like comparing a mouse to an elephant).

So - and remember, we're following the second theory about Thomas’ extension here - Dolan considered the best way to tank. He could have fired Thomas. But that wouldn't have worked, because young players always initially rally around new coaches, sensing that there's a renewed hope when in reality the coach will be out of a job within weeks. He could have sent a subtle message to Thomas that losing games would be just dandy. But the problem there would have been that Thomas, without any sort of job security, would have been hesitant to go along with the plan. So Dolan came up with the best idea: give Thomas a contract extension.

That way Thomas would relax. He'd stop working so hard with his players. Basically, his competitive juices would calm down. And the players, who enjoy Thomas as coach, would have relaxed as well, not fearing for their coach's job.

So that's one of the explanations for the contract extension. The other one isn't so complicated. Dolan might have actually thought that Thomas is the answer for the Knicks and will lead them to the promised land. He might have gotten so excited watching Eddie Curry turn into a 20-point scorer that he just couldn't wait until the end of the season. He didn't want Zeke to get a bunch of new offers and roll outta town on him. So he hooked his man up.

And now Thomas is executing a perfect tanking job. The Knicks are tied for eighth right now in the Oden/Durant Sweepstakes. Not exactly an auspicious spot, but crazier things have happened (just look at the 2000, 2001 and 2005 drafts listed), and they could move up to as high as fifth by the end of the season (three games to go) if they continue to tank and Portland, Seattle and Charlotte don't.

Good thinking, James. Yeah, I'm not calling you stupid quite yet. Just dumb, sick and diluted.

A little north of the Big Apple, in the city that used to have the most celebrated franchise in sports, the situation is even worse. While the Knicks have only been tanking for a month, the Celtics have been going strong for most of 2007. Paul Pierce has missed a great deal of the season. Players have been put in games at the wrong times (and some, particularly talented point guard Rajon Rondo, not at all). And coach Doc Rivers got a contract extension.

WOW. Red Auerbach must be turning over in his grave right now. Or maybe he's the smartest man on the earth, having known how ugly things were going to get. Maybe he just needed to get out before these Celtics gave him a heart attack. You know those snowouts the Cleveland Indians hosted last weekend? There's no way they would have been tolerated at Fenway Park this week. Baseball couldn't have come soon enough for Boston sports fans. It's been that bad.

Then again, you could also say it's been that good. A superb tanking job. I've got a couple numbers for you. First of all, there was the franchise-record 18-game losing streak in January and February. That got things rolling. And now, with just three games remaining on the schedule, the Celtics have lost six consecutive games and have clinched the No. 2 spot in the lottery (which means they'll try to win the final three games to make this look like a young team plagued by injuries; not a team whose coach and general manager gave up on).

It should be said that when I mention "tanking," in no way am I referring to the players. As polluted as professional sports are, generally athletes who compete in them play hard and play to win. Especially young players like the Celtics' core group who are trying to earn minutes and the trust of Rivers (not that'd he play them anyway during a tanking mission).

But if a coach and GM put their minds to it, they can run a team into the ground, which has certainly been the case in Boston. Watching the Georgetown-North Carolina regional final last month, the TV cameras found Rivers in the crowd watching his son, Jeremiah Rivers, play for the Hoyas. As I watched the epic UNC collapse, I couldn't help thinking what was going through Rivers' mind (besides, of course, thoughts about his son's team's amazing accomplishment). It must have hit him, as the Tar Heels bricked their way back to Chapel Hill, that his Hoyas would be playing Greg Oden’s team in the Final Four. That Oden could play against his son in one game and for him in the next (if OSU had lost to Georgetown).

And I'm sure Rivers wasn't worrying about his Celtics at that moment (or even that night). He hasn't had to do much fretting lately. He's set for a while in Boston. All his team needs from him is some poor coaching (even David Hasselhoff could coach the Celtics better than Rivers, unless, of course, he had to take on the Mavericks and his beloved Dirk Nowitzki).

As it stands, two East Coast coaches are sitting pretty right now. One has a good chance of landing an amazing talent come May 22. The other has an outside shot. Both will be back on the bench come November (although there are no guarantees in today's coaching business, where contracts are disrespected more often than Snoop Dogg smokes weed). And both are making plenty of money.

The coach who could be out by season's end? Definitely Indiana's Rick Carlisle. He had a chance a couple weeks back to sink his Pacers. Instead they've clawed and fought for that final playoff spot in the East, are now on the brink of being eliminated and will have a dismal chance at lottery success.

Now that’s stupid for you.

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