There is a sense of cool in Brooklyn Nets general manager Billy King, a Billy Dee Williams type of cool. Seemingly in control of his emotions at all times, King carries a sense of security and confidence, regardless of how his team is faring.
King even appeared cool when the Nets were a disheartening 10-21 after Dec. 31. They were the NBA’s biggest disappointments, a laughingstock after King made the daring deal with the Celtics to acquire Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, and Jason Terry for three first-round draft picks and the right to swap a fourth.
By New Year’s Eve, coach Jason Kidd already had demoted assistant Lawrence Frank, relegating the former Celtics assistant coach to writing game reports miles from his former seat on the bench. The Nets already had lost All-Star center Brook Lopez for the season with a fractured right foot. They have gone 28-12 since Jan. 1, and King, with coolness intact, addressed the media last week to discuss a new surgical procedure on Lopez, this time to his left ankle.
King probably would have been a bit more stressed about the situation had his club not catapulted up the Eastern Conference standings the past three months. Now the Nets are the team nobody wants to face in the postseason. With Pierce rejuvenated after a rough start, DeronWilliams reaching full health, and Mason Plumlee filling in admirably for Lopez and an ailing Garnett, the chaos has settled in Brooklyn.
“I think if you look at it, it took us a long time. We had the new players, the new coach, new style, and we had injuries,” King said. “I just thought we’d play well. I think we’ve played extremely well since the first of the year. Defensively has been the key.”
The question is Garnett, who has missed 15 consecutive games with back spasms. There is growing concern that he may not be healthy for the postseason. Former Celtics coach Doc Rivers used to give Garnett time off before the postseason and Kidd appeared to be following suit, but at 37 Garnett may need to shake off the rust before the playoffs begin.
What his absence has done is create playing time for Plumlee, one of the league’s most surprising rookies.
“I told Kevin to take as much time as you need to because we need you 100 percent,” King said. “And I think it’s helped Mason to get some key minutes now so when KG comes back, we’ve got another big who has played in a key situation. He’s been a sponge. He’s been willing to accept all their teaching.”
Kidd looked overmatched during the first couple of months but maintained his stoic presence and allowed his veterans to get comfortable with his system and style.
“I think some of the young guys have developed and the biggest thing with Jason is we have a system and identity,” King said. “So now putting a team together, I know which players to add. That’s something we’ve been searching for for a while, is getting an identity so now in the offseason, Jason and I have already talked about the type of players he wants and have a feel for.
“That’s the key, you have a system. A lot of the credit, the players have played well, but Jason has been amazing. That one scout that took a shot at him early in the year, I wish he’d speak up now because it’s easy to criticize somebody when you have injuries, you have a new team, and you’re trying to put it together. Now, nobody’s saying how great of a job he’s done.
“A lot of success that we’re having is directly related to him.”
Kidd refuses to accept any credit for the recent success. Rather, he has maintained his poise and stuck to his convictions and the doubters have quieted.
“It’s a marathon and that’s the nice thing about the NBA season,” Kidd said. “You can be judged on the first game, but the ones who know best, you’re not judged until the end, and that’s when you look at our team. We’re a veteran ball club and no one in that locker room panicked. We kept playing. No one used any excuses. We kept getting to know one another from coaches to players, and we all felt that it could turn.
“We just had to keep working the process and that’s what guys did, and I don’t think we would like it any other way. I know it was tough there early on, but we understand what it feels like when things go bad so we can always reflect, and I think in the last couple of games, we’ve reflected and hopefully we’ve improved from those mistakes that we’ve made.”
Raptors geared for first playoff spot in six years
The Toronto Raptors have clinched their first playoff spot since 2008. The senior member of the team, DeMar DeRozan, is just 24 but experienced four consecutive losing years before this season. He speaks as if he has been in Toronto as long as the CN Tower. DeRozan has slowly watched the organization transform into a winner.
“You can tell me we’re in [the playoffs] but I’m not going to take grasp of it until you tell me who we are playing in the first round,” said DeRozan. “When we’re getting prepped for defensive coverages, then I’ll look at it like we made it to the playoffs.”
The Raptors entered this season being picked to finish in the draft lottery again. General manager Bryan Colangelo was demoted and then resigned. New GM Masai Ujiri moved offense-clogging Rudy Gay to the Sacramento Kings, which appeared to be a sign of building for the future. Instead, Gay’s departure opened up opportunities for DeRozan and 2013 dunk champion Terrence Ross, who burned the Celtics on Wednesday with a couple of critical 3-pointers down the stretch.
“I’m on T every single day, honestly,” DeRozan said. “I praise him when he’s playing bad. I keep his confidence high. I tell him don’t worry about it because we need Terrence out there. The things he did [Wednesday against the Celtics], he can do that on a nightly basis.”
DeRozan has grown into an All-Star-caliber player, improving his game in all facets after spending his early years as purely a scorer.
“I haven’t won here since I’ve been a Raptor and it feels good, man, to get that off your shoulders,” he said. “We’ve got to keep moving forward. It’s not just the franchise [this means something to], it’s the whole city of Toronto. Canada, really. With me being here five years and seeing how passionate the fans are, it definitely means a lot because we feed off them, especially at home.
“I’m still learning. This is still new to me. I’m trying to learn from the guys who have been in the playoffs what it’s like. It’s been a long road coming. We just can’t settle for making the playoffs. We have to go in there and definitely make a name for ourselves.”
The Raptors are 34-19 since trading Gay Dec. 9, and that’s when the club began to jell behind DeRozan, who in years past had been the second option behind Chris Bosh, Gay, and Andrea Bargnani. Ujiri traded the latter two, allowing DeRozan to become the face of the franchise.
“The move was a good situation for both of us,” DeRozan said of Gay. “We always hate to see our close friends get traded. I think he’s definitely going to help the Sacramento Kings out a lot, and we’re moving in the right direction, as well. I think it was a win-win situation. You can’t dwell on it too much. I know he’s happy to be in a new situation and get his career restarted. I’m happy for him.”
DeRozan said Gay encouraged him to take more responsibility for the team’s fate after the trade.
“The last four years here, I’ve always been under somebody and I had to learn from them,” DeRozan said. “And the player he is, I just learned from him. He just took me under his wing and I just always listened to Rudy and got a lot of insight. When he got traded, the first thing he told me, ‘This is your time and it’s time to take advantage.’ That meant a lot, just coming from somebody like that.”
When asked if he attended playoff games the past few years, DeRozan said, “Nah, it always used to be so hard. But I always watched [on television]. I didn’t want to [go to playoff games] because every year I was seeing my friends I went to school with or I grew up with, and seeing them being in it and having to hear it from their mouth in the summertime, it was definitely tough.
“We’ll see how it goes this time around. I could probably brag to a few people and get them back.”
Rose has unique take on league’s age limit
Jalen Rose has become an authority on pro and college basketball as his popularity has risen as an ESPN analyst. And he has a unique perspective on the age-limit issue, given the former University of Michigan star likely would have been one-and-done 22 years ago if the climate was similar to today.
Let’s face it, Rose, Juwan Howard, and Chris Webber led the Wolverines to the Final Four as freshmen, and that trio likely would have all entered the NBA draft in 1992. Rose and Howard remained at Michigan for three years, while Webber, considered the most NBA-ready of the group, left after his sophomore season.
“In my opinion, you should be able to enter the NBA draft for all of the same reasons you can enter any other professional field or endeavor right after high school,” Rose said last week. “But if you choose to go to college, you should have to stay two years. Not only to improve as a basketball player, but to improve emotionally. There is nothing wrong with getting a little bit closer to your degree.”
His theory, which is interesting, is that the longer players stay in college, the more they are going to want to eventually pursue their degrees. NBA commissioner Adam Silver pointed out that in the current one-and-done system (a term the league office despises, by the way), players generally blow off class for the second semester of their freshman year to concentrate on the NCAA Tournament and NBA draft.
“Normally if people go two full seasons, two full school years, there are going to be a large portion of those people that feel like, I went to school for two years, I’m going to go back and get my degree,” said Rose. “When I left after my junior year, that was my thought process. I wasn’t going to school in the middle of winter in Ann Arbor, Mich., not to finish. So with that being said, earlier this year on our ‘College GameDay’ show, we kind of put up the statistics that I averaged as a freshman vs. the top-tier freshmen this year in the game. The only person that scored more than me their freshman year was Jabari Parker.”
Rose averaged 17.6 points, 4.3 rebounds, and 4 assists as a Michigan freshman. With those numbers now, the assumption would be he’d be done with college. But he doesn’t think so.
“Was I ready to come out after my freshman year? No way,” he said. “I was not ready emotionally, physically, and it would have been a poor decision. The time was different, the league was different. I was entering a league that 9-15 on the roster, these normally were eight- to 12-year veterans. Nowadays, based on salary, they’ve pushed the veterans out and made those spots for one-year guys who are a lot of times either on their first contract or just journeymen in and out of the league.
“So I do think it’s going to be a tough decision for Jabari, tough decision for [Kansas freshman Andrew] Wiggins. It’s almost an embarrassment for those guys, and I know they’re feeling it, getting bounced [from the NCAAs] on the first weekend. So I agree with the commissioner, two years, but I do think after high school you should be able to enter the draft.”
The declaration of Syracuse guard Tyler Ennis to enter the draft is a major development, considering this year’s draft is short on premium point guards. Dante Exum, from Australia, was considered the lone point guard who would crack the top 10 picks but that is expected to change with Ennis available. He went to Syracuse as perhaps a three-year player but the way he developed during his first season, essentially becoming the team leader, made it apparent that he was likely to enter the draft . . . Celtics assistant coach Walter McCarty is indeed interested in the Boston College coaching job. School officials are going to need to act fast on hiring a coach. Their first choice is Harvard coach Tommy Amaker, but McCarty is an intriguing candidate because of his potential ability to recruit in the Boston area. Local recruits have generally stayed away from BC for the past several years and that has to change for the Eagles to become competitive in the ACC. Remember, McCarty, 40, learned the recruiting ropes from Rick Pitino and is young, played in the NBA, and has NBA and college coaching experience as an assistant. Hiring McCarty would mean BC would be taking a risk, but no more of a risk than hiring a coach from Cornell . . . When Golden State coach Mark Jackson was asked about assistant coach BrianScalabrine earlier this month, he called the former Celtic a “basketball guy” and nothing more. We found out why his compliments were so limited as Scalabrine was demoted to the Warriors’ NBADL affiliate in Santa Cruz, Calif. Scalabrine, who will likely be relieved of his duties following the season, didn’t seem to be the right fit with Golden State. Jackson, similar to other NBA coaches such as Doc Rivers, does not allow his assistant coaches to speak with the media, and Scalabrine is one of the more affable former players in the league. Scalabrine will be an attractive coaching candidate for other clubs . . . The Celtics will place a summer league entry in Orlando this year and could potentially field another club in Las Vegas, given the amount of players who are expected to participate. Coach Brad Stevens said he would encourage Kelly Olynyk and Jared Sullinger to play in addition to Chris Johnson and Chris Babb — along, potentially, with the team’s three draft picks and perhaps even 2013 second-rounder Colton Iverson, who played this season in Turkey.