Sunday, April 13, 2008

Wanting the Team to Lose

A reader wondered aloud why any fan would purposely want their team to lose. I want to address that. Consider this cautionary tale:

From 1984-1989 the San Antonio Spurs had been quite like the Nets - a bad team that occasionally made the playoffs, only to be bounced out in the first round. (They actually made the playoffs with losing records twice, once with only 31 wins, the other with 35 - the latter after having made it at 41-41. sound familiar?)

After an abysmal 21 win season in 89, they got David Robinson in the draft, and immediately became contenders. Over the next 7 seasons they won 56, 55, 47, 49, 55, 62 and 59 games. Altho they made it to the Western Conference finals in 95, they never made it to the Finals. Then the Admiral got injured, out for the 97 season.

Had he not been injured, the Spurs very likely would have won at least 50 games in 97, probably 55, their average with him the previous 7 seasons. Still, without him they probably could have won at least 30 or 35. They were not that bad of a team.

Instead they went into the tank. A deep funk that cost their coach, Bob Hill, who had taken them to their only Western Conference Finals appearance, his job, even tho he did not have his star player for all but 6 games of the year.

This abysmal losing, this embarrassment of an underachieving team, gave the Spurs the first pick in the draft. They got one Tim Duncan. And Greg Popovich.

Since then the Spurs continued their regular season winning ways - winning high 50s or low 60s games a season (except for the strike shortened 99 season, when they won a league high 37 games. And winning 4 NBA titles.

How did the Celtics get Larry Bird? Going 29-53. That's how.

Now, if you were a Spurs fan on the eve of Game 77, in 1997, with your team at 20-57, and you had a crystal ball that showed the glory to come with Pop and Tim, but in order to get Tim you'd need to lose your last six, would you be rooting for your team to lose?

Or better - if you were 3-15 on the eve of Game 19, and your coach, who had just lead your to 62 and 59 wins, your first trip to the Conference finals, and probably more shots at it once the Admiral was healed, was to be fired, would you think that was high handed and unnecessary? Now, suppose you had that crystal ball and it said, look, there is a coach out there who will lead you to 4 titles in the next decade, but you have to flush the most successful coach you've ever had, even tho he's struggling this year in the absence of your best player, would you still think it was high handed and unnecessary?

Tuesday is the last home game of the season. I am going, bringing the family and I also have two other tickets. They're playing the Bobcats. They should win easily. I want them to win easily. I want to have fun.

I got these tickets, my first full season tickets for any sport, for a song this year. The same deal is available for next year. If they were still in playoff mode, it would be a slam dunk. If they had poor talent, I still would probably do it.

Right now, I am probably not gonna do it. And for one reason. The head coach, Lawrence Frank.

I'm sorry, but altho I don't like losing, I really hate it when games are lost unnecessarily. I get aggravated when I and most other fans in the stands are screaming for timeouts that never get called, timeouts that do get called when they are irrelevant or even counter productive. I get upset and angry when talented players that could help the team like Sean Williams sit on the bench and clear duds like Trenton Hassell get non-trivial playing time. In crucial situations. And then don't come thru.

My family has told me several times they don't like going to the games with me. I brood. I scowl. They are like I used to be - they cheer the team on, they try to give the team support late in games. They, to their credit, rarely want to leave early.

But they are sick of me and my negative attitude.

Know what? I'M sick of me and my negative attitude.

I don't want to be that way. Perhaps if the Nets decided to unload RJ and let Nenad go via free agency, perhaps if Devin Harris went down with an injury in the summer, or Josh Boone had to get a knee job that required him to miss the season, you know, the things that happened in 99 and 2000, my expectations would be set low, and Frank's stupidity wouldn't bother me. Perhaps his clutching onto timeouts like Gollum does the ring might actually come in handy on those rare nights when the Nets find themselves in the game with 2 minutes to go and needing a rare victory. Perhaps then.

This isn't fantasy. I remember the year 2000 when (I counted) 20 games came down to the last 2 minutes with them in the lead or down by 2 or less and they lost. That was hard to take. But the Nets were decimated with injuries. I had no expectations for the team to win more than the 31 they did win. They had a guy who never should have been coach. The owners pushed him into it. He left the NBA for good after that season. Marbury showed great heart in trying to lift that team single handedly.

I hated the losing but I wasn't negative. I wasn't, oh brother, here they go again. Or rather, here HE goes again.

This wasn't 20 years ago when the Nets had no talent, when they had traded away a potential Hall of Famer for a sure fire Hall of Shamer. This wasn't the days of the empty RAC. This wasn't the days of the Butch Beard embarrassment or the screaming John C. This was less than a decade ago. I was positive.

As recently as 2006 I had been positive. I laid the blame for their collapse to the eventual NBA Champion Heat at Cliff Robinson's doorstep. The Nets had nearly swept the Heat in the regular season, but nearly got swept out of the postseason by them. The Heat had a hot hand. They had Shaq. They had a hot Duane Wade playing way over his head, a game he had not evinced since. Okay. Retool and try again in 2007.

At the beginning of the 2007 season I told the guy who eventually sold me season tix this year that I "had a good feeling" about the upcoming season. But by mid-season I was getting disturbed by an unsettling trend. The Nets were losing a lot of games due to questionable coaching decisions.

In 2003 when the Nets cruised to the Finals and were about to face the Spurs, I was jubilant. For the first time in their NBA history they had a great shot at winning it all. The 2002 season had been miraculous, but they did not match up well with the Lakers. I had little expectation that they could win. But in 2003 it seem that things were set up for them.

In my opinion, then and now, Byron Scott single handedly squandered that chance for them. With bafflingly abysmal coaching decisions.

A team plays well. It's a close game. Your best player has the ball in his hands to take the last shot but misses, and you lose by 1. That's basketball.

A team comes out for the championship game and is just cold as Iceland. They lose in a romp. That's basketball.

At the end of a close game that can go either way, a player tries to call a timeout when you have none left, the other team gets a technical and the ball, and you lose. That's basketball.

A team is in the finals, Game 7, on the road, and a player who has been doing it all season for you goes unbelievably cold. Time and again he takes shots and misses while the other team capitalizes. You lose the championship. The coach says, He's done it for us all year - I wasn't about to take it out of his hands this late in the season. It was his to win or lose. We win or lose with him. Ok, maybe. That one hurts and is questionable, but at least he leaves it up to the guy who brought them there. That's basketball.

But a coach that allows big leads to be squandered while his team is clearly floundering, a coach who clutches onto his timeouts so that he can have them at the end of the game when it is too late and using them only humiliates the team further, a coach that sits a red hot player when you have a 9 point lead going into the last quarter of a Game Six after having defaulted on at least 2 earlier games by not playing your only 7 footer against a team with 2 talented ones, those are not basketball inevitabilites - they are reversible, avoidable bad decisions. Unforgivable mental coaching errors. Stubbornness. Unwillingness to coach the game in front of their eyes. Those coaches are not basketball coaches. They are liabilities.

The Nets lost 30 games this year when they had considerable leads deep in the game. 30. And in those 30, Lawrence Frank acted in ways that virtually ensured those would be losses. He did NOTHING to stop them. In fact, he did everything to make the inevitable. And if that were not bad enough, forced his team to play foul ball, doing nothing but elongating the sting and increasing the humiliation.

He did a similar thing last year, before the trading deadline. The team had struggled in the beginning when finally they got to 20-20 before going on the road for a West Coast swing. The history of the team on those swings, even in the glory years of 2002 and 2003, had not been good. Yet there they were, with the lead with under a minute, 3 games in a row. They lost all 3.

I'm sorry, you can't tell me the coach was not involved in those losses. He was. All 3.

Kidd had seen enough. He wanted out. Thorn could not pull the trigger on a deal. After the trading deadline Kidd willed the team to the playoffs. Ok, one bad.

But here we were again, for the 4th consecutive season, a surprisingly bad start, a team "searching for an identity". A good coach establishes an identity. A team does not have to search for one.

Especially a team loaded with talent.

I began to see, in that dismal 2007 season, that Frank was costing the team several victories. Despite that, their talent dispatched the overrated Raptors with some ease and had a shot at making it past the vastly overrated Cavs to reach at least the Conference Finals. Talent did that. But Frank undermined it. They bowed out in 6, with two of those 4 losses easily avoidable and winnable. They should have won that series in 6, not lose it in 6.

Perhaps they could come together again with a healthy Krstic and a new season. But the 2008 season began just as the previous 3 - a surprisingly bad start, and this time against poor struggling teams at home. Once again, the talk was about searching for an identity. 30 games into the season, still searching for an identity.

Mark my words - if Frank stays, as he is likely to do, the Nets will start the year just as they have the past 4, unaccountably struggling against teams with lesser talent, losing in blowouts to good teams. Someone, probably RJ if he is not traded, will say "We're still trying to discover our identity as a team".

A pattern has been established, and by then, what would the only common denominator be?

Not JKidd. Not Vince Carter. Not RJ (remember, he was injured most of 2005 after picking up the slack for the injured JKidd at the beginning of 2005).

The common denomiator is Lawrence Frank.

This is not just statistical. If you watch all the games, like I do, it's easy to see the patterns. The announcers see all the games as well, and altho they are trained and compensated not to call out players and coaches, you could hear the mystification about why certain players are sitting, why timeouts were not called, why the team should not have an identity deep into the season.

Players make mistakes. In the heat of the battle, physical mistakes are made. Occassionally mental mistakes are made. If mental mistakes are made with frequency the coach is very quick to sit the player. That's basketball.

Coaches make mistakes, but none of them are physical. They are all mental. Sure, sometimes you gotta roll the dice and things don't pan out. Sometimes you make errors in judgement and you deal with the consequences.

But when mental mistakes are made not just with frequency but in a predictable pattern, that coach needs to sit.

This coach needs to sit. He is not helping the team; he's hurting it. In the standings, in the locker room, in the handling of its talent, in its prospects. He is not learning from his mistakes. He is not helping his players learn, because he himself does not learn.

I know the realities - I've written about them at length. The owner does not care. The president cannot act on his own. The coach has 2 more years on his contract and the owner doesn't want to pay him for nothing. His grandiose development scheme, of which the team is just a pawn, is floundering, and he is in no mood for basketball, except to get them in that goddam arena in the hope that that might put things back over the top. The last thing he wants to do in that atmosphere is part with money and get nothing in return.

But having a hamstrung team be deconstructed and embarrassed in an empty building is not something. Losing $30 million a year (per the NYT) is getting less than nothing.

There is talent here. A starting five of Carter, RJ, Harris, Boone and a healthy Nenad, with Boki, Swift, Sean Williams and Marcus Williams in the wings is quite a good and deep team. With decent, not great, but decent, coaching, this is a 50 win team, especially in a weak East. That might fill the building more. That will get you to the playoffs. If nothing else, that will make the team much more attractive when you sell the team in 3 years, 2 if your project collapses.

That is, you eat $5 million but lose only $20 a year. That's a net (sic) savings of $5 million.

I don't get Sean Williams sitting. I don't get Trent Hassell playing. And I don't get Thorn thinking that Frank is a good coach. All I do get is that the owner doesn't give a Ratner's ass about basketball. He cares about real estate development.

So Bruce - look, man, your project is dangling by a thread. You're losing $30 mil a year. You can save conservatively $5 mil of that just by doing the right thing - lose the coach.

I don't want the Nets to lose, per se. I want them to lose the coach. Losing might give them a better draft status, but if Frank remains that talent will just be squandered, wasted. However, if losing meaningless games at the end of a mean season results in losing a losing coach and giving a talented team a better shot at winning, who wouldn't want that?


bobbo said...

Cut down on your cliches and be a better fan. No one wants to read this arrogant stuff, day after day after day.

"If you watch all the games like I do."

Spare us your flawed expertise.

This isn't a good team.

Gavino said...

If "no one wants to read this stuff, day after day", pray tell, Mr. Literary Critic, why in the world are YOU?

I presume this means you're no one...

And here's the way to be spared of my "flawed expertise" (oh, which, by the way, in your stunning lack of style, you might realize is a contradiction in terms), all you have to do is STOP READING. Just don't come here. It's that simple.

You've contributed NOTHING of content other than "This isn't a good team". And, of course, you haven't defended the assessment.

I, however, will address it simply - the way the team was constituted at the beginning of the season was as a 50+ win team, and I am not alone in that assessment. The way the team is constituted now is NOT a 34 win team, either. Again, I am not alone in that assessment.

I have staked a claim - Frank is a poor in game coach, responsible for at least 10 losses personally. Most of them (and an argument can be made that ALL of them) came before February. A 10 game swing (out of 20 games that could have gone either way) would have made this team the 4 seed in the East.

I've been playing, watching and COACHING basketball for nearly 50 years. I am quite sure I know what I'm talking about.

You're merely a sniper. Put up, shut up, or just go away if this blog bothers you so much.