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There have been three coaching changes in the N.B.A. this season. New York teams have accounted for two of them.
It’s just the third time in their N.B.A. histories that the Knicks and the Nets have made changes on the bench during the same season. Consider that bit of trivia — courtesy of the Elias Sports Bureau in the wake of Coach Kenny Atkinson’s sudden exit from the Nets — one of the better illustrations of how funky 2019-20 has been for Gotham basketball.
While Los Angeles basks in the Lakers’ renaissance and the Clippers’ bid to outperform the league’s most glamorous franchise for the eighth consecutive season, it has been a downbeat slog on the other side of the country.
The Knicks, of course, have been Knicks-ing in earnest since a woeful start in November. Yet everything that has happened since their disastrous free-agent summer should not obscure the fact that the Nets — proclaimed by some to have won the N.B.A.’s off-season — have generated their own steady stream of unflattering headlines capped by Atkinson’s leaving.
Alarm bells were sounded recently after heavy losses to Atlanta and Memphis, but Atkinson’s Saturday morning departure made roughly zero sense to outsiders on a performance basis — especially since it so closely followed Caris LeVert’s 51-point eruption in an overtime victory at Boston and a Friday night rout of San Antonio.
In coaching circles, mind you, there was less surprise. That’s because Atkinson was increasingly regarded as a prime candidate to be fired after the season, in the belief that some within the Nets want to hire a more high-wattage name to oversee Kevin Durant’s likely return next season from an Achilles’ tendon tear.
Rumblings about Atkinson’s shaky job security had been circulating to such a degree that numerous league observers have seemed willing to buy the Nets’ notion that the parting with Atkinson was as “mutual” as it gets. Such proclamations from teams are typically greeted with considerable skepticism, but in this case there is a sense that Atkinson had cause to ask out now if he knew the end was near anyway.
That’s even after Atkinson had steered the Nets into playoff position despite a 2-12 skid just after Christmas and an array of injuries that limited his three best players (Kyrie Irving, LeVert and Spencer Dinwiddie) to less than 100 minutes on the floor together. Knee and shoulder issues, remember, limited Irving to 20 games in his debut season as a Net.
The Knicks’ woes certainly run far deeper, given the state of their starless roster and the latest public-relations disaster they absorbed in the Spike Lee flap. And, no, disaster is not too strong. Even if you find Lee’s protests about which Madison Square Garden entrance he is allowed to use to be unbecoming rants from an entitled celebrity, be advised that such a takeaway probably does not mesh with how Lee’s anger landed with players around the league.
To that crucial audience, it surely appears as though the Knicks are mistreating their most loyal supporter — with memories of Charles Oakley being thrown out of the Garden also still painfully fresh.
I get so many messages from Knicks fans asking why the news media focuses so much attention on their team’s missteps, but it is not done for sport. The intensity of this coverage stems from the fact that, with James L. Dolan as determined as ever to keep hold of the franchise — “I am not selling,” he wrote in a Feb. 6 statement — it is a two-decade pattern that shows no signs of abating.
Dolan made his “I am not selling” statement while the recent hiring of Leon Rose as the newest Knicks president was still underway. Among the reasons Rose was chosen, I’m told, is that Dolan had grown sick of people telling him he needed to pursue an experienced executive such as Toronto’s Masai Ujiri and turned to Rose instead after a decade of frequent business between the Knicks and Rose’s former employers at Creative Artists Agency.
You’ll recall, though, that the Garden drama began long before we ever heard Rose’s name. A 2-8 start this season had led to an unplanned news conference in which Steve Mills, then the team president, revealed that he felt “an obligation” to speak to reporters and announced that the front office was “not happy” with the team’s start.
No Knicks official has spoken publicly since, but David Fizdale was fired as coach soon thereafter, and Mills’s own ouster followed, two days before the trade deadline in February.
The Knicks then cannibalized the first win of the Rose era, over Houston on March 2, by alienating Lee and escalating the conflict after Lee criticized Dolan in a “First Take” interview with ESPN. Dolan’s new branding consultant, Steve Stoute, likewise had a rocky interview on the same ESPN show just before the All-Star Game, which earned a rebuke of its own through a Knicks statement.
Yet it’s only right that the Nets, after their own run of foibles, are kept under the microscope, too. Landing Durant and Irving in a same-day swoop remains a glorious achievement. It’s the sort of rebrand that has eluded the Knicks for ages, but the Nets still have plenty to fix, starting with the hiring of a coach (Tyronn Lue?) who can get the most out of Durant’s eventual partnership with the mercurial Irving.
Joe Tsai, the Nets’ owner, is passionate and is said to hunger for championship contention. Sean Marks, the general manager, remains a well-regarded lead executive despite the unconvincing explanations he has offered in the wake of the Atkinson announcement. But the culture and stability that the Nets have been touting since last season, which presumably helped them lure Durant and Irving, have been utterly rocked.
The turbulence in Brooklyn began when Wilson Chandler was hit with a 25-game suspension in August for taking “small doses” of a banned growth hormone that the league named as Ipamorelin. David Levy, the prominent former television executive, lasted less than two months as the Nets’ chief executive before the sides parted company in November under murky circumstances.
In between fell the N.B.A.’s China controversy sparked by a tweet from Houston Rockets General Manger Daryl Morey in support of pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong. In the initial stages, Tsai received some backlash for writing a Facebook post that was critical of Morey and supportive of the Chinese government.
The Nets may have moved into a different stratosphere after beating out Dolan to Durant and Irving’s signatures, but after what we’ve seen over the past six months it is certainly fair to ask: Are they ready for the big step up? Can these Nets really manage two A-listers now that they have them? Does the return of Durant, if he is sufficiently healthy, fix everything? How much is Tsai pushing for moves to try to speed up the timetable comfortable questions.
It’s not just the Knicks who have to face uncomfortable questions. Not after this season.
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You ask; I answer. Every week in this space, I’ll field three questions posed via email at firstname.lastname@example.org. (Please include your first and last name, as well as the city you’re writing in from, and make sure “Corner Three” is in the subject line.)
Q: Is there a reason why Becky Hammon wasn’t the Spurs’ acting head coach when Gregg Popovich missed a recent game in Charlotte? — @MattBrutnell from Twitter
Stein: This was an understandably popular question after the Spurs, without warning, announced that Tim Duncan would step in for Popovich on March 3 in what became a crucial road win after San Antonio fell behind the Hornets by 17 points.
Upon rejoining the Spurs, Popovich predictably declined to explain his reasoning, describing the process of selecting his replacement in his usual secretive manner.
“It’s basically our business and nobody else’s,” Popovich said.
The following, then, are my own best deductions. The Spurs never announced this, and Popovich hasn’t said so to me or publicly to any other reporter, but I believe he has considered Duncan his top assistant from the start. San Antonio shocked the league in July with a matter-of-fact news release announcing that Timmy was coming out of retirement to join Pop’s staff.
Hammon certainly has more coaching experience than Duncan. Ditto for Will Hardy, San Antonio’s other on-the-bench assistant coach, who worked last summer as part of Pop’s U.S.A. Basketball staff. But Duncan is the most important figure in Spurs history. He was the fulcrum for five championship teams.
So the theory here is that Duncan became Pop’s top aide — no matter how thin his coaching résumé was — as soon as he agreed to fill the void on San Antonio’s staff created by Ettore Messina’s return to European basketball with Olimpia Milano.
There are lots of Hammon fans out there who undoubtedly saw Duncan’s one-night elevation as a significant slight to the first woman to land a coaching job in N.B.A. history. I understand that viewpoint and imagine that my theory may only add to the disappointment for some. Hammon, on pure coaching merit, has certainly earned a shot — and didn’t get it.
Yet I can’t say, as a longtime Spurs observer, that I was stunned by how this played out.
By bypassing Hammon, Popovich has invited a fresh round of criticism in what has been a difficult season, with San Antonio’s run of 22 consecutive playoff appearances in jeopardy. But you can never be surprised, in the Spurs’ universe, when Duncan is at the front of Pop’s line. Whatever the circumstances.
Q: The Bucks have been destroying their opponents this season, so close games have been few and far between. Could that be a bad thing? Could a limited amount of crunchtime during the regular season cause late-game issues in the playoffs? — Mike Chamernik (Chicago, Ill.)
Stein: I am the sort of alarmist who, yes, sees this as a potential issue.
I’ve asked a handful of coaches, and the majority disagree. The Bucks are known for having a pretty clear offensive identity devoid of execution issues — so long as Giannis Antetokounmpo is healthy and in the lineup. The (purportedly) impartial observers I consulted didn’t echo your concern.
But I stubbornly cling to the antiquated notion that every team has a crunchtime persona, good or bad, no matter how many times analytics experts tell me there is more randomness to one-possession basketball games than old-guard reporters care to acknowledge.
Entering Tuesday’s play, Milwaukee had played a league-low four games decided by 3 points or fewer, going 3-1. The other seven teams in the East which currently hold a playoff spot have all played at least nine.
Please remind me to revisit this in June so we can evaluate how much it did (or didn’t) affect the Bucks to so rarely face a push in the regular season.
Q: You wrote in last week’s newsletter how “no one feels sorry for the rich owners of big-time sports franchises.” I would suggest that no one is much interested in them, either. So could you tell me why do you feel compelled to write about them? — John Mundie (Ottawa, Canada)
Stein: It would appear that John was not a fan of my recent missive about Wes Edens, who doubles as a co-owner of the Milwaukee Bucks and a co-owner of Aston Villa in the English Premier League.
I am particularly fascinated any time the N.B.A. and top-level international soccer intersect, or when the N.B.A. and tennis intersect, because those are my three favorite sports. I reject the notion that no one wants to read about N.B.A. team owners, but even if I were to agree with you, these would have qualified as special circumstances.
I certainly appreciate that my interests or topic choices may not be universally embraced. Having an ownership stake in an N.B.A. team that is chasing a championship, while also owning a soccer team in England facing the costly prospect of relegation out of the most popular sports league on the planet, made Edens’s story ripe for deeper examination — to me.
This is just the third time since the Nets joined the N.B.A. for the 1976-77 season, according to the Elias Sports Bureau, that both the Knicks and the Nets have made in-season coaching changes. In 2003-4, Lenny Wilkens replaced Don Chaney (and the interim coach Herb Williams) with the Knicks and Lawrence Frank replaced Byron Scott with the Nets after Scott had made back-to-back trips to the N.B.A. finals. In 2015-16, Kurt Rambis replaced Derek Fisher with the Knicks and Tony Brown replaced Lionel Hollins with the Nets.
Bradley Beal’s recent scoring tear in Washington has doubled the number of players averaging at least 30 points per game this season, though it is highly unlikely that he can catch Houston’s James Harden for the N.B.A. scoring title. Harden entered Tuesday’s play at 34.3 points per game, with Beal up to 30.4 after averaging 36.2 points in 10 games since the All-Star break.
Although Houston has stumbled to an 0-4 start in March, Russell Westbrook’s February production deserves another citation here after he lost out to the Los Angeles Lakers’ LeBron James for Western Conference player of the month honors. The much-maligned Westbrook, 31, played some of the best basketball of his career last month, averaging 33.4 points, 7.3 rebounds, 6.0 assists and shot 54.9 percent from the field in eight games.
Miami’s Duncan Robinson, with 240 3-pointers and counting, has already set a record for made 3s in a season by an undrafted player. Six other undrafted players, according to Basketball Reference, have made at least 200 3-pointers in a season: Damon Jones (225 for Miami in 2004-5), John Starks (217 for the Knicks in 1994-95), Raja Bell (205 for Phoenix in 2006-7), Joe Ingles (204 for Utah in 2017-18), Robert Covington (203 for Philadelphia in 2017-18) and Wes Matthews (201 for Portland in 2013-14).
The Mavericks paid a fee of $10,000 to lodge their unsuccessful protest of the final 10 seconds of Dallas’ Feb. 22 loss in Atlanta. The defeat, of course, was far costlier for the Mavericks’ team owner Mark Cuban, whose $500,000 fine for his “public criticism and detrimental conduct regarding N.B.A. officiating” afterward took his 20-year tally for publicly known fines from the league office beyond $3.1 million.
The Nets’ Jacque Vaughn is the seventh head coach for Kyrie Irving in Irving’s nine N.B.A. seasons. Irving played for four coaches in six seasons in Cleveland (Byron Scott, Mike Brown, David Blatt and Tyronn Lue); one for two seasons in Boston (Brad Stevens); and two since becoming a Net. Vaughn replaced Kenny Atkinson, who “mutually agreed to part ways” with the team on Saturday.
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