It's certainly an interesting coincidence that Kobe Bryant and LeBron James have each been given leave to miss several games as the regular season winds down, even though the league's two best players are relatively healthy.
The positives of these simultaneous decisions are quite obvious:
- Every player who's been in his team's regular rotation throughout the season is suffering from some kind of nagging ache, pain, strain and/or bruise. This is par for the course. So resting Bryant and James gives their minor boo-boos time to fully heal.
- There have been plenty of miles traveled and games played since both the Cavaliers and the Lakers opened the season Oct. 27. And given the awesome responsibilities that Kobe and LeBron have to bear for their respective teams, they can't avoid being weary. The rest will go a long way toward refreshing their bodies as well as their minds.
- The Absences-With-Leave also give the teams' second-unit-players more game time than usual, which will certainly sharpen their skills and their concentration. These increased minutes will also prepare those players who are normally at the end of the bench to be ready to make positive contributions if/when emergency situations arise in the playoffs.
- The possibility of a tired, somewhat disinterested player performing in what are essentially meaningless games greatly increases the possibility of his suffering a serious injury.
The negatives may not be quite as clear:
- It's not always easy for a team to get back into sync when their star player returns to action. After the Lakers went 4-1 during Kobe's absence a while back, his reappearance on the court resulted in his teammates' standing around and watching him perform -- something that happens all too frequently anyway. In any case, the Lakers had difficulty establishing a winning rhythm for several weeks. Who's to say that the identical process won't be duplicated when Kobe makes his latest dramatic return?
- There's always the additional risk that the voluntary absences could slightly dull the highly competitive edge that fuels Kobe's and LeBron's common greatness. If teams cannot willfully switch on their "A" games when the spirit moves them, neither can players.
- No matter how many undefended jumpers they may launch in practice, there's no way that even the best shooters (which neither Kobe nor LeBron happen to be) can maintain their touch. Given that LeBron is more of a streaky shooter than his counterpart, he's much more vulnerable to this possibility than is Kobe.
- And what about the disappointed fans who spent beaucoup bucks far in advance to see their heroes play?
Of course, there's no way to predict how these similar scenarios will turn out. Good, bad or neutral, everything depends on how the Lakers (and Kobe) and the Cavs (and LeBron) will react once the "real" season begins.
Coach K has said that he's staying put at Duke. But given the failures of some many college coaches in the NBA, how would he have fared in the pros? - Paul B., Toronto
Mike Krzyzewski's success in leading Team Redeem to a gold medal in Beijing would not necessarily guarantee that he'd have similar success in the NBA.
The Olympic team was together for only a short period of time, and the players were easily motivated to submerge their individual goals for the sake of bringing glory to America. In other words, the ego demands that always emerge during the course of the longer and much more grueling NBA season were absent -- so was the intrasquad competition for playing time, money, women and whatever.
What else was missing?
Losing streaks that serve to increase tension.
The inevitable unsuccessful tactical decisions that every NBA coach makes from game to game. The very first time that Coach K made a misstep in a clutch situation, the reservoir of goodwill and respect that accrued on the part of his players because of his past accomplishments in the NCAA and the Olympics would have instantly evaporated.
Pressure and interference from the front office.
Backbiting from overly ambitious assistant coaches and unemployed coaches.
Having to make roster judgments on the basis of salary-cap and future free-agent situations.
Moreover, behind closed doors, Coach K is infamous among his peers for occasionally employing cynicism and verbal abuse both to correct and to motivate his players. Such tactics would quickly alienate hardened NBA veterans.
Throughout the Olympics, Coach K's game plan was fairly elementary and did not require significant between- and in-game adjustments. On the other hand, a coach's strategy during a full NBA season necessitates increasingly complicated systems, as well as continuous tweaks to those systems, at both ends of the court.
Coach K might very well have been an excellent NBA coach, but it would have taken him several seasons to learn the hows and whys of the pro game. That's why he's much better off staying exactly where he is.
TRAVELS WITH CHARLEY
Part 3 of 3 ( Part 1 and Part 2 )
After breakfast on Sunday morning -- and before we return to the college gym for one last morning's hooping -- we'll meet in our home cabin for another traditional ceremony, one that dates back to the days when Phil ran the show. Over the years, it's come to be called "Charley's Sunday Morning Sermon."
It's different every summer, but I always start by reviewing the reasons why basketball is superior to other sports: The continuous action. The exquisite balance between offense and defense. The necessity of players having to make so many decisions on the run. The fact that all of the participants in every level of basketball competition need a certain, minimal mastery of all the basic skills -- as opposed to baseball, where catchers don't pitch, and football, where defensive tackles don't throw forward passes.
With only five teammates on the court at the same time, it's also easier for each basketball player to know the strengths, weaknesses and personal habits of the other four guys in the same uniform. Along with this is a basic need to understand the extent and the limits to our own skills, which translates into understanding different kinds of shots we are most likely to make and which we will inevitably miss. The same self-knowledge must be applied to all the other aspects of the game: passing, dribbling and setting and using screens. The point is we must know the role we'll play, especially within the context of the assorted skills and shortcomings of our team. Of course, this role might change to a certain degree -- for example, although our ball-handling skills might be erratic, we might be the best ball-handler in a particular combination of teammates. In general, however, we should try to avoid doing things we are not suited to do. Practice is where we woodshed and work on the lesser parts of our games.
An essential part of knowing your teammates and knowing your own limitations is being able to trust your teammates. Take Michael Jordan, for example. Before Phil Jackson became the Bulls head coach and implemented the triangle offense, Jordan would most often try to win ball games by himself. In several playoff series against the Celtics in the mid-80s, Jordan would fill up his stat sheet with 56 points and then 61 points, yet Boston still prevailed. Flash ahead to the NBA Finals between Chicago and Phoenix in 1993, where, with the sixth and deciding game on the line, Jordan passed up a contested jumper and delivered the ball to John Paxson, who connected on the game-winner. Even Michael Jordan, arguably the greatest player who ever lived, had to learn that he was unable to impose his will on most games.
The unselfishness that's such a basic element of the game is specifically one of the lessons we can take with us when the buzzer sounds and we re-enter the rest of our lives. Teamwork. Trust. Self-knowledge. Physical, emotional and mental resourcefulness. Being so much in our bodies. Respect for all participants, including (gasp!) referees. And, most importantly, the awareness and enjoyment of the living moment. It's so much easier on the court than most other places to just "be."
All of these things are easier to see and assimilate within the boundary lines of the game than they are in the so-called "real world." We can know the rules of basketball. We can understand exactly what the various markings on the court signify: the timeline at midcourt, the stripe at the foul line, the delineations of the 3-second lane and so on. And it's child's play to read and understand both the scoreboard and the game clock.
Outside of the boundary lines, however, the rules are confused, the scoreboard is difficult to decipher and the roles we have to play are infinitely variable. We might be sons and daughters, parents, grandparents, employers, employees, drivers, passengers, pedestrians, decision-makers, decision-implementers, laughers, criers, lovers, haters, players or pretenders. Everything. Nothing.
So, like every undertaking that's possible to all of us -- from chopping wood to fetching water -- basketball can also be a way to peace, love and happiness.
Indeed, I've often been asked if there's a secret to being a successful coach, and if there is, what that secret might be.
I'm sure as hell way down on any list of successful coaches, but I do know the secret.
Truly caring for your players.
This was somewhat easier in the CBA than anywhere else, simply because it was easy to either trade or simply cut guys I couldn't connect with. In the NBA, there are salary-cap equations to be considered. In amateur competition, there are angry parents to be dealt with.
The key to what we can learn from the game and take with us into our civilian lives is preparation. Just lacing up our sneakers and jumping onto the court doesn't give us the time to adjust our expectations.
After Eddie Mast passed away about 15 years ago, I got into the practice of pausing before I was ready to play, just long enough to remember him and to remind myself too of how lucky I was to be alive and to still be playing.
Whatever we do, when we cross over on to a basketball court, we have to leave almost everything else behind. Our bosses. Our jobs. The bills we haven't paid yet. Politics. Telephone calls. What we should keep is the consciousness of love.
So, we've been here for part of three days already, with one last section set aside for us to play. I can tell by watching all of you play that you've learned to enjoy each other and yet still compete -- that the camaraderie that has developed has gone a long way in enabling all of us to transcend our egos. That -- regardless of own individual skill-levels -- by playing the game correctly and with a correct attitude, we can raise our own consciousness and the consciousness of our teammates.
And it all comes down to realizing that we can take all of these understandings and all of these blessings with us when we leave the court.
Let me just conclude with a discussion of the universal appropriateness of some fundamental basketball numbers.
Four quarters, which represent the four seasons.
Each quarter is 12 minutes, half of the diurnal cycle.
And, of course, the 24-second clock represents the totality of that cycle.
Among many other things, the three-second lane stands for thesis, antithesis and synthesis -- the resolution of differences.
Here are some more numbers that should be considered. With two teams, two sets of uniforms, offense versus defense and two opposing baskets, the game could be seen as a dualistic enterprise. Made shots are good if made by the good guys and bad if made by the bad guys. However, given proper attitudes on both sides, the game can and should be seen as 10 players playing one game.
Bill Russell talks about this kind of thing periodically happening during his NBA career. Both teams playing with all-out effort, with respect for each other and with total concentration ... when suddenly the final buzzer sounded and they all had to look up at the scoreboard to see who won the game.
That's what we're aiming for.
Last, but most significantly, here's another number that's fraught with cosmic significance: NBA teams now have eight seconds to bring the ball across the timeline. And, eight, of course, was Scott's number with the Celtics.