At his suburban San Antonio home, Bob Hill shares a unique perspective on the NBA Finals. A career-long basketball coach with the undeniable zest to still teach the game at age 65, Hill was the coach of the Spurs before Gregg Popovich.
And he was also partially responsible for the emergence of Heat forward Rashard Lewis, who was a productive player for the Seattle SuperSonics before Hill, then the coach, instructed him to spend the entire summer of 2006 working on his ballhandling to make him more of an offensive threat. In 2006-07, Lewis turned in a career-best season and eventually signed a maximum contract with the Orlando Magic.
Lewis has been perhaps the second-best player on the Heat during the Finals, despite being just two months shy of his 35th birthday. He was greatly helped by Hill, who also coached San Antonio for two-plus seasons — reaching the Western Conference finals and semifinals — before being fired by Popovich, the general manager, who named himself coach 18 games into the 1996-97 season. Six months later, the Spurs drafted Tim Duncan to join David Robinson, who missed all but six games of the 1996-97 season following back surgery.
Seventeen years later, Popovich is a likely Hall of Fame coach with four NBA titles and one win from his fifth. Hill has lived in San Antonio for the past 11 years and has spent several years coaching in China, Taiwan, and Japan.
“It’s part of life —
“When you play that well, you have to give them credit. They deserve it. What you’re witnessing with this team is real.”
When asked if he had any relationship with Popovich, Hill laughed and said, “No.”
Hill said he doesn’t lament San Antonio’s success under Popovich.
“If it was that hard [to deal with] I wouldn’t live here,” he said. “It’s not hard for me. I know what happened. It’s been interesting to watch the team grow. The great thing about the Spurs is they have a great team but they have really great people. It’s all come to fruition right now.”
But when asked about those years, when the Spurs were in transition with an aging Robinson and before Duncan emerged as a possibility, Hill wishes things had turned out differently.
“I didn’t have any idea [Popovich wanted to coach], I had an idea after the second year [in 1995-96] and two teams called and asked for permission to talk to me and they wouldn’t give them permission,” he said. “I had a pretty strong feeling at that point if he had a chance to fire me, he was going to. I probably should have just resigned and got out of here. I stayed and he got the job. I’m sure he had that in mind all along.”
Hill said he has “watched every second of the Finals” and that includes the revival of Lewis, who was a 26-year-old prospect when Hill coached in Seattle. After stressing ballhandling to Lewis, Hill had the idea of allowing the swingman to play point forward during the last 16 games of the season when RayAllen underwent double ankle surgery. Lewis averaged 24 points and 5.6 rebounds.
That summer, new general manager Sam Presti, who had fired Hill and replaced him with P.J.Carlesimo, sent Lewis to Orlando in a sign-and-trade deal, with the Magic rewarding Lewis with $118 million over six years.
“I think his hard work improved his confidence with the ballhandling and the things he did for us [in Seattle] when he came back for that summer, he took games over in the middle of the floor and won them for us,” Hill said. “He became a phenomenal floater shooter and scorer. And then in the low post forced double teams and got us jump shots. He was a multipurpose guy that last year, he was phenomenal. That’s what got him the contract.
“I’m a huge Rashard fan and Ray [Allen] fan. They were both great for me. Ray was an All-Star and Rashard, if we would have won more games, he probably would have been an All-Star.”
Though he doesn’t receive much credit, Hill said he harbors no bitter feelings. He has taken great satisfaction in his stints overseas and also watching all three of his sons become head coaches, including Casey, the coach of Santa Cruz of the NBADL.
“I love coaching. I love teaching and I probably always will,” Hill said. “The Spurs are not the only team I coached. I have great pride in what we accomplished in Seattle. I have great pride in what we accomplished in Indiana and New York and Orlando, so San Antonio is certainly important, and winning 121 games in two years was pretty good. But that’s not all I did.
“It was an honor and pleasure to coach those teams here in San Antonio. My boss wanted my job and that’s a bad position to put yourself in.”
Fisher’s hiring latest example of new trend
The hiring of Derek Fisher by the New York Knicks was an indication that the Brooklyn Nets taking a chance on Jason Kidd to coach a year ago proved an effective game plan. Kidd struggled during the early weeks at his new position, fresh off a 19-year playing career, but the potential Hall of Fame point guard stabilized himself, learned the game from a different perspective, and led the aging, banged-up Nets to the Eastern Conference semifinals.
Fisher is coming off an 18-year playing career and is mere weeks removed from a long playoff run with the Oklahoma City Thunder, but he prepared for this moment by being president of the NBA Players Association. It was a role that allowed him to bond with former commissioner David Stern, much to the chagrin of former players’ union executive director Billy Hunter.
The transition seems natural. Fisher won five NBA championships, including the Lakers’ dramatic seven-game Finals win over the Celtics in 2010 with coach Phil Jackson. Fisher will run the Jackson-endorsed triangle offense in New York. What’s critical for Fisher — and something that shouldn’t be an issue — is surrounding himself with veteran assistants who know the game from the bench. Kidd trusted former Celtics assistant Lawrence Frank with that responsibility and the two clashed, with Frank apparently trying to take more control than originally designed.
“Preparing myself to be a coach of an NBA basketball team is something that started at 6 years old,” Fisher said last week. “I’ve very rarely been the best player, the most talented, the tallest, the highest-jumping, the best shooter on the basketball team. I had to think how I could be most effective. The last 18 years as an NBA player, that’s the only reason I’ve been around for 18 years is that I’ve thought the game as a coach.”
Jackson, in his first few months as Knicks president, was close to a deal to hire Steve Kerr as coach before Kerr decided on the potential championship-caliber Golden State Warriors. So the job remained uncomfortably open for weeks, with Jackson being assessed a $25,000 fine for discussing the possibility of adding Fisher during the Thunder’s playoff series with the Spurs. Fisher’s eventual hiring was the worst-kept secret in Manhattan.
Jackson and Fisher’s most pressing issue is encouraging All-Star forward Carmelo Anthony to opt in to the final year of his contract and not explore free agency. He has until June 23 to make the decision. Rumors swirled last week at the Finals that the Miami Heat were plotting ways to add Anthony to their Big Three.
Jackson apparently is not convinced Anthony is worth a five-year maximum contract and may not push as hard as perhaps expected to retain him long term.
“I think I’ll have Derek wear all five rings the first time he comes in and talks to Carmelo,” Jackson quipped. “There’s a feeling that Derek has and I think Carmelo will have. Derek represented something when he was head of the union at one time for these players, fighting for the whole league, and the leadership he showed in that phase was remarkable and I think the players all appreciate that.
“Derek was one of those players who was unique in the ability to speak to the players both in their spirit and their hearts,” Jackson added. “Not in a selfish manner but in a team form. It was a straight-ahead conversation with no hiccups in between.”
Fisher won’t have much of a grace period in New York. Knicks fans have grown impatient and perhaps disenchanted. The club has reached just two NBA Finals since 1973. Jackson was hired to make the organization a contender again, but it won’t be easy. They are salary cap-strapped and still have players such as aging Amar’e Stoudemire and Andrea Bargnani on their roster. At least the hiring of Fisher gives the team a glimmer of hope.
Draft hopeful Johnson has strong bloodlines
Nick Johnson is attempting to create his own legacy in the NBA. The Pac-12 Player of the Year from the University of Arizona entered the draft following his junior season and is trying to break into the first round. Johnson worked out for the Celtics two weeks ago, and it was a special stop — he is the nephew of Hall of Fame guard Dennis Johnson.
Nick Johnson was 14 years old when his uncle died of a heart attack in February 2007, and he regrets never really getting a chance to talk basketball and soak in his knowledge.
And there are more family ties with Johnson, whose father is “Jumpin’ Joey” Johnson, known for his astronomical leaping ability while at the College of Southern Idaho and Arizona State, and who once grabbed a nail on the wall of a Moscow, Idaho, bar that was reportedly 11 feet, 6 inches high. Johnson was legendary in West Coast basketball circles for his play above the rim, something that rubbed off on his son, who has jumped as high as 47 inches and reached 41½ at the draft combine last month.
“When I was younger, I obviously knew that he was a really good NBA player; Larry Bird called him the best teammate he ever had,” Nick said of Dennis Johnson. “And I remember going to California and I would visit my dad and we’d be walking around at the mall and people would come up and said, ‘Oh, my God, you’re Jumpin’ Joey,’ and they’d say your dad did this and that, and grabbed a nail and all those stories . . . but I think it wasn’t until I got into basketball, and unfortunately for myself and my uncle it was after he passed away, that I started getting serious.
“I never had a chance to talk to him about my game and what he likes, and pick his brain and get some insight on basketball.”
Nick Johnson has heard countless stories about his father’s leaping prowess, as Joey was listed by one publication as one of the five greatest leapers of all time. On his cellphone screensaver, Nick has a picture of his father grabbing a rebound for Southern Idaho where his upper torso appears above the rim.
“But he wanted more for me, he didn’t want me to just be a leaper,” Nick said. “Really from early on, I worked on my game. That’s what has made me the player I am. I embrace my athleticism. But my uncle, he’s one of the best players in my eyes, and I like to look at him and pattern myself after him. I’ve watched some old tape of him, just how clutch he was, how he defended, how he got his teammates involved.”
Scouts say the biggest question about the 6-foot-3-inch Johnson is his lack of a true position. He was an athlete for Arizona, a shooting guard who was point-guard size. He didn’t play much at the point for the Wildcats, leaving teams to ponder what his role would be in the NBA.
“I’ve said this to many teams, I believe I’m a combo guard,” Johnson said. “But I think I’m a point guard. The way Arizona had their offense set up and coach [Sean] Miller would set me up, even if I wasn’t bringing up the ball as a point guard, he had me in situations where I was making decisions. I think I can get accustomed to bringing the ball up because I have been making playmaking decisions all my life.”
Johnson mentioned former college combo guards Russell Westbrook, Eric Bledsoe, and ex-Boston College standout Reggie Jackson as players he would like to emulate at the NBA level.
“The biggest thing I can do right away is come in and defend,” Johnson said. “That’s one of my great gifts with my athletic ability. I use my athleticism for more than just jumping and dunking. I use it more on offense. The NBA game is more spread out and I’ll have a chance to do that.”
The one player who has increased his value in free agency with his performance in the NBA Finals is swingman Lewis, who has displayed the ability to defend and hit the 3-pointer after being mostly unused during his first two seasons with the Heat. Years of knee issues likely took some time off Lewis’s career, but he wants to play two more seasons and has shown to be a capable role player for Miami, even emerging as a starter when Shane Battier struggled . . . With the players they are inviting for workouts and from what agents are hearing, fully expect the Celtics to trade to get back into the second round. The club is looking at guard prospects such as Xavier Thames, Semaj Christon, Johnson and Russ Smith. The Celtics traded their second-round pick to Dallas to swap picks last year to select Kelly Olynyk, and that pick is now a valuable No. 34 . . . What has drawn the attention of most 30-something NBA players about Fisher’s hiring as coach by the Knicks was his $5 million salary per season. Most players fully realize they will never match their NBA salary following their playing careers, but a $5 million salary could encourage astute players such as Battier to enter the coaching field . . . The Sacramento Kings are shopping their first-round pick, realizing they don’t need another 19-year-old on their roster if they are planning to win soon. They also have to encourage Rudy Gay not to opt out of the final year of his contract at $19 million and stay a King. While he has been maligned in previous stops in Memphis and Toronto, Gay is a legitimate scorer and gives the Kings a chance to be competitive next season. The organization has grown fatigued with rebuilding plans . . . The Lakers are not going to make the big-name hire expected when their coaching job became open. Given they are not likely to sign a premium free agent this summer and are waiting for 2015, they are expected to bring on Byron Scott or Kurt Rambis to coach the team for the short term, just as they did with Mike D’Antoni. The difference is both Scott and Rambis are former Lakers and popular among the fan base. D’Antoni was never a popular hire.Gary Washburn can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @GwashburnGlobe. Material from interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.