March, 12, 2014
By Daniel Nowell
Special to ESPN.com
Special to ESPN.com
About a month ago, the Portland Trail Blazers were in a bit of a shooting slump heading into a matchup with the Oklahoma City Thunder. During Terry Stotts’ pregame media availability, a reporter asked the coach why the shots weren’t falling.
"Well all you guys in the media have been saying it was coming since November," Stotts responded. "So I guess now you can finally write it.”
It was a relatively banal remark, a coach’s show of exasperation with ginned-up media narratives, but it struck me for two reasons:
First, that the tone was uncharacteristically defensive for Stotts, and second, that it seemed to suggest that the team was bracing for impact on its way back down to Earth. A typical Stotts response, in a good mood, would be something like, "We’re happy with the shots we’re getting, and we’ll keep taking them." Instead, what he said was closer to acknowledging that the Blazers know they’re going to be judged by their early-season success, and they’re resigned to riding it out.
If that’s reading a lot into a single quote, it’s inarguable that the mood around the Blazers’ season has shifted, and the standard they set in November and December is a large reason why. ESPN’s own Kevin Pelton has written that the Blazers are likely "doomed" to the West’s No. 5 seed in the playoffs, a fate most fans would have called a best-case scenario in October.
Elsewhere, fans are clamoring for better play in close games, even as the Blazers recently enjoyed a two-year run as one of the more charmed crunch-time teams in the league. While the length of the NBA season has many side effects, few are more jarring than the collective amnesia it seems to induce.
But the current unease among Blazers observers gets to an interesting question: To what extent are players fixed entities, and when, if ever, can fans expect them to change? A useful reference here is Jason Quick’s recent Oregonian column. Quick argues, and I largely agree, that the Blazers have grown stagnant in close games as they revert to familiar tendencies -- post-ups for LaMarcus Aldridge, long jumpers from Damian Lillard, and a sometimes limiting determination from Nic Batum to hunt shots for his teammates.
Early this season, all these tendencies were a recipe for magic: Aldridge can get a shot on the left block against any defender, Batum has uncanny vision from the wing, and for a long while, Lillard’s hero-ball proficiency was unparalleled. But now that the bounces are going the other way, the Blazers can look unable, or unwilling, to change their formula.
All of which may just be fine. I've written in the past that the Blazers’ success stems in large part from the fact that every player is allowed to play not just to his strengths, but also to his preferences, and that allowance provides an unusually stable foundation. The Blazers are allowed to be themselves and learned early that it produces winning basketball. But when it stops working, is that, too, a referendum on the players themselves?
The Blazers are either free of, or lacking, a superstar player or coach who might offer them some structure in this regard. There are teams whose successes and failures -- LeBron’s Heat, Thibodeau’s Bulls -- revolve around the focal points of those stars, providing an easy cover when things turn south. Jimmy Butler’s shot is off? Thibs is running him ragged. Chris Bosh struggling? He’s just getting used to the spacing with LeBron in the post.
Without those high-wattage focal points, the Blazers are also without easy scapegoats. By most considerations -- and certainly by the players’ consideration -- Aldridge is the Blazers’ cornerstone, but he isn't the sort of star who exercises a gravitational pull over a whole organization. The same goes for Lillard, the only other real candidate for this designation. The Blazers’ collective approach to success is refreshing in the era of alpha dogs and hot takes, but it all denies a certain emotional satisfaction to fans craving context for the ups and downs of a season.
I can’t help but wonder sometimes whether a team’s quality is fixed, and the season is a six-month-long exercise in introducing complicated story structures. If you were to tell Portland fans that the Blazers were a .667 team that neatly lost the third of every three games, I’d imagine they could sit back and more or less contentedly await the playoffs. But the coin, even a weighted one, rarely flips so consistently, and so fans get streaks and lulls onto which they can graft their hopes and insecurities.
So depending on how you look at it, this team is either complacent or comfortable with itself, and depending on how you look at it, that's either a strength or a weakness. The Blazers have mostly sustained the relatively minor injuries they've faced, they aren't really integrating anything new, and they’re ahead of where most analysts projected them to be. They seem to be what they are, which is an uncomfortable position for fans, who would like to believe that all of the margins can be tightened and every weakness addressed.
But the Blazers believe they’re the same team now that they were in November, and it seems unlikely they’ll change their minds 64 games into the season.
First up: In a weird case of seat-switching, David Thorpe interviews Henry Abbott about what NBA teams are doing to prevent injuries.
Next: Sports Scientist Michael Regan of Catapult Sports explains how overseas leagues have achieved boosts in performance, and reduced injuries, with more strategic breaks.
March, 10, 2014
By Kyle Weidie
Special to ESPN.com
Special to ESPN.com
AP Photo/Tony GutierrezMarcin Gortat is Poland’s only NBA son. A week before the 2013-14 season, he was traded across the U.S., from Phoenix to Washington, D.C., after an injury to Emeka Okafor threatened to undermine the Wizards’ playoff push. Now Gortat is putting up solid numbers for a Washington team that appears playoff-bound for the first time in six years (in a contract year, no less). Only LeBron James and Kevin Durant finish better than Gortat within three feet of the rim; he leads the Wizards in plus/minus per 48 minutes (+5.4); and his on-court presence provides team-high boosts in metrics like eFG%, assist ratio and fast-break points.
Gortat sat down to talk pick-and-rolls with John Wall, aspirations to become the president of Poland, pregame hype music, ripping towels, the difference between “Polish Machine” and “Polish Hammer” and what it will feel like to be an unrestricted free agent for the first time in his career.
What have you and John Wall taught each other since you got to Washington?
From my perspective, I definitely taught him to slow down a little bit on the pick-and-roll, because sometimes he’s going 100 miles per hour. He’s got to understand that to get a good screen in his situation where he’s not a perfect, perfect sharp-shooter, the big man needs a half a second longer to set a good screen for him, and I think he’s learned to be patient and use the screens the right way. Sometimes we re-screen two or three times in one possession, which is really good. I’ve been working with him, I’ve been on him constantly in the past few months, and I really think that he has started trusting me a little bit more, and we’ve developed that relationship and chemistry.
Do you see him picking up tips that you may have learned from Steve Nash and passed along?
Of course. The most important thing is he should watch him play, watch himself how he plays, and watch the tape and study. I think it will help him a lot. He will see things that he’s not able to see on the court at the same time. And obviously, if he will watch Steve Nash, that would be huge. I can only whisper in his ear, but he knows I’m a big man, and I probably don’t know how it is to be a point guard in his situation, but I was fortunate enough to play with Steve for two years and we created an incredible duo. We were the No. 1 duo in the league. So, he created me, I had a great season with him, so I’m just going to try to use his experience and give it to John.
On a recent national television broadcast, Jeff Van Gundy observed, albeit in a blowout, players on the bench staying into the game and cheering for teammates. Van Gundy said that actively watching while not in the game is an underestimated part of chemistry. You, I can’t help but notice, are one of the more emotional players while on the bench when a big play happens. Where did you pick that up and what does that mean?
There’s a few different reasons. For example, with Al [Harrington’s dunk], the reason why I was actually celebrating that was just because I’m close with Al. We’ve been talking about this dunk for the past 10 days. I said, ‘If you dunk the ball ...' I said, first of all you got to dunk the ball. You still got it. Change people’s minds. You still got that. You’re still capable of doing it.’
He said, ‘Listen, it’s not a problem going up, it’s a problem with the landing.’
So, we always laughed. Finally when he missed one or two easy bunnies around the rim, he said, ‘All right, this time I got to dunk it.’ And when he dunked that, I was just celebrating him, I was happy, and, you know, we all laugh about that in the locker room after.
But where does it come from? I think it comes from just teaching. From all the great coaches [and people] I’ve had in my life. Brendan Malone, Stan Van Gundy, Steve Clifford, Bo Outlaw, Adonal Foyle, Nick Anderson, Tony Battie, a lot of different players and coaches that were telling me ... Patrick Ewing ... said you never know when your time is going to come. You got to be able to perform, and you got to be able to help the team. And I’m just emotional. If you engage in a game like that, that’s also the best way to stay in the game. Sometimes people when they're coming down off the first quarter, they have a great first quarter, and they’re sitting down on the bench and all of a sudden they’re checking themselves out of the game because they say, ‘OK, I had a great first quarter, now I’m going to sit down and relax.’ All of a sudden they go into the second quarter and they don’t perform. So to stay attached mentally, you just celebrate with people everything that’s going on on the court. Like I say, this is the way I do. This is the way I play. I’m passionate about the game. There’s a lot of different reasons why I am who I am today.
Talk about passion. Do you remember ripping that towel earlier this season in Toronto?
Yeah, I remember.
Was that your first towel rip?
Oh, naw, that was probably my millionth towel rip. I’ve ripped a lot of towels. Especially sometimes after the game, and we’re about to take showers, and we don’t have any washcloths, so we’re just ripping one towel in little pieces and obviously they’re throwing me towels to rip.
I was just pissed. I remember that game, I was pissed. I was pissed because I missed some easy layups at the basket and I should dunk the ball. Then I miss easy layups, and then I get some dumb calls and bad fouls, and that’s all, I was just pissed. Frustrated.
With the situation in Ukraine with Russia, I know that Poland has expressed some concerns to NATO about Russia’s actions (including military drills near the border with Poland). Is that something you’re keeping track of?
Quite honestly, even though I’m saying this left and right, I keep repeating this to everybody that one day I would like to be president (of Poland), I’m actually kind of off that subject now, off that topic right now because I really haven’t had time to follow what’s going on. Obviously I’m just checking really quick what’s going on. One thing I know, a lot of people are escaping from the Ukraine. I feel bad for Ukraine because they’re our neighbors. I have a lot of Ukraine friends, players and friends from Ukraine. I’m hoping everything will be fine in their country because they didn’t deserve that. But end of the day, I know a lot of people from the Ukraine will go to Poland to look for shelter and look for a home. And thanks to them, our Polish economy is going to go up, because obviously if hundreds of thousands of people leave the country to come to our country, then we’re looking at a huge boost of a lot of different things, and obviously we’re going to probably help them. I’m not the president sitting in the office, but we’re definitely going to help them and try to protect them.
But you say that when you have more time, you have political ambitions to be president of Poland one day?
Yeah. ... I’m laughing, I’m laughing. ... Talking to everybody about how I’d like to be president one day. We’ll see.
How serious are you?
Well, it’s serious because I’m interested in politics. Let’s put it this way: I’m real interested in politics, I’m talking to a lot of politician people, and I’m real interested in everything. But if I decide to do it, I will start slowly from a small seat, and try to go up and climb that ladder. But right now, let’s not talk about that.
You got the nickname “Polish Machine” from when you played in Germany, and the “Polish Hammer” came after the summer league in Orlando. I feel like you accept both, but do you have a preference?
I accept both. I’m known more for Polish Hammer, but people that know me very well, they’re using more Machine. There are times where sometimes machine stands more, there’s times where hammer stands more. It depends. When you got 70 games of the season and I’m still running like a deer, I’m still lifting like crazy and dunking and doing all this stuff in the practice, that’s the time when they call “Machine.” But there’s a time when I’m blocking a lot of shots and dunking on somebody in the game, and they call “Hammer.” So, there’s a difference.
You once told me before a game that you were listening to “Miami joints, club music and trance music” on your headphones. Is that the routine each and every time?
Most of the time. Yeah, probably for 30 games I will listen to Miami. Another 30 games I’m going to listen probably to house music and then come back to Miami music. I love that. I love strong, trance, techno music. It definitely gets me going. You got goose bumps and then you’re getting yourself ready for the game.
Any rule changes that you think would help the NBA game? For instance, sometimes they talk about instituting FIBA goaltending rules in the NBA. Any thoughts on that or any other changes that would help the game play?
The goaltending? It definitely wouldn’t help. You have too many athletic guys in this league that would tip the ball out of the rim, so pretty much to make a basket you will need to swish it, you know what I’m saying?
I would say I would loosen up a little bit the rules about the fighting fines. That’s what I would loosen up. Because today you go to an ice hockey game, and the one thing they’re waiting for is a fight, you know what I’m saying? So if they could set it up something like that in the NBA. That if there are two guys and they have a problem, if they could just separate everybody. And these two people that have problem, if they could fight ...
During the game?
During the game. Quick, 15-20 seconds, throw few punches, then referees jump in and break this thing up. I think the game ... these two guys, they resolved their problem. They’re both suspended and they’re leaving. But end of the day, they fix the problem between each other, fans are super excited, and I think that would be a pretty cool idea [chuckles].
You’d need bigger refs. You couldn’t have Dick Bavetta out there.
At some point when the referees jump in, then you’d have to stop. You’d have to stop. So I think that would be a great idea, just like the ice hockey fans waiting for that, that’s would NBA fans would get into, as well.
And, I think we’re definitely going to mention this in the players’ meeting, but we definitely have to mention the situation about the fans. When we say something to the fan, and when we curse him out, or when we definitely throw a punch, or we’re trying to hit the fan, we are suspended for half of the season. But when they yell at us or insult us or are cursing at us using bad words, they don’t get anything. So what I would say is that there’s definitely supposed to be a rule where if one of the fans is disrespecting us, then he got to leave the gym automatically.
Your mother was a volleyball player for the Polish national team, your father was big-time boxer -- you have the tattoo of him on your chest. If you weren’t playing basketball, what would you be doing? One of those two things? Something completely different?
You know what, I’m asking the same question. I’m asking myself this question every once in a while and quite honestly I can’t answer this question. I don’t know what I’d do. I would probably ... I definitely won’t play volleyball, maybe I’d be a boxer. I’d definitely be a bodybuilder. I’d lift and I’d probably be a security or some bouncer in the a club, maybe, I don’t know. I’d probably finish school and work toward a direction from there.
On the road in the NBA, you have a lot of free time to fill, on planes, etc. I read once, when you were in Phoenix, that you were big on this game “Clash of Clans.” Is that still your thing? How else do you mind the gaps?
Oh, definitely. I got a lot of games. I got a lot of games on my iPad. Those are actually games that I’m using during the flight, because somehow you got to kill the time.
But in the hotel, I’m doing a lot of different things. I’m trying to learn different languages. Obviously talking to my family a lot. I’m resting a lot, sleeping. I’m reading books mostly about soldiers, about the military, about Afghanistan, Iraq. I’m reading stories like Shaq’s book, Michael Phelps’ book. I’m reading all successful people’s books. I want to know their secrets. I want to know their system, the way they became great, and try to put that into my system and try to get better.
So I do a lot of different things. Those games, yeah ... "Clash of Clans." I also watch a lot of shows. ... "Pawn Stars," "Storage Wars," "Swamp People."
"Storage Wars" is great. Barry’s my man. I love Barry.
This summer you will be an unrestricted free agent. This being your seventh year in the league, you’ve never really been a free agent, as you signed an offer sheet with Dallas in 2009 but Orlando matched, which is something you did not like. So what’s in your mind right now about being able to go through the free-agent process and really be able to be courted for the first time?
All I know is that I’m going to be a free agent. I don’t know how it is to be a player that actually is going to be able to pick the team he wants to play for, you know what I’m saying? I’m hoping that at the end of the day I’m going to be able to pick the team where I will play. I hope there will be a team, let’s put it this way first.
We still have 20 or so games to play. I’ve got to finish strong, and then we’re going to make a run into the playoffs, and then we’ll see what’s going to happen. Then I’m going to call my agent and say, "Hey, you gotta do your job. I did my job, now you gotta do your job. I’m looking forward to holidays now." So, we’ll see.
There’s a lot of different things I’m going to look at. The team situation. The goal of the team. I’m going to look at the point guard. I’m going to look at the coaching staff. I’m going to look at a lot of different things before I’m going to pick the team, and obviously Washington is going to be really close to me right now. I feel really comfortable here. They have two rising stars in Bradley Beal and John Wall, and this team’s definitely going to get better and better. They have Otto Porter, who’s going to be a good player one day. And there’s going to be a lot of different things I’m going to look at. But quite honestly, right now I just want to make sure that we’re not going to lose five in a row and that we won’t lose a spot in the playoffs, because that would be the worst thing. I’m more pumped up for being in the playoffs again and not watching them in front of the TV. Back in the day I was spoiled by [Stan] Van Gundy playing all the way to the conference finals. With Phoenix, I was in the playoffs, so finally now [I have] an opportunity again.
March, 9, 2014
By J.A. Adande
When the Clippers beat the Lakers by 48 points last week the accomplishment was lost amid nationwide scuba diving to determine just how low the Lakers had sunk. Maybe now the Clippers’ accomplishments in that landmark victory and their seven-game winning streak can bob to the surface. People can realize that the Lakers didn’t simply roll over, the Clippers did plenty of kicking. The Clippers turned a 15-point lead against the Lakers into a 52-point lead. The Thunder turned an 18-point lead into an 18-point deficit, and then an L. “You can’t play the score, you have to play the game,” Oklahoma City’s Derek Fisher said, in one of those veteran-y quotes.
Oh, and the Clippers are now within 2½ games of Oklahoma City’s second spot in the Western Conference standings. So, yeah, Sunday was a good day for the Clippers.
The one thing you haven’t heard the Clippers do lately is lament. As in: “We did not come with the defensive intensity that we needed in the third quarter,” Thunder coach Scott Brooks lamented.
That’s a verb used only when you don’t get what you want. The Clippers have gotten the W in their past seven games, making them the hottest team in the league at the moment. They’re beginning to grasp the defensive concepts Doc Rivers is preaching, and held four of seven opponents to less than 100 points during the streak, a standard they failed to meet in nine of their previous 10 games.
While they’re reaching a crescendo, the Thunder have fallen into what Coach Brooks called “a defensive valley,” allowing opponents to score 110 points per game and shoot 47 percent while losing five of their past eight games. They dropped into second place in the Western Conference, a half game behind the San Antonio Spurs, who’ve won six straight and have to be feeling good about themselves as well.
Brooks was as critical as he gets about his team, saying, “It comes down to taking pride in guarding your man and we had trouble staying in front of the basketball tonight” as well as “In the third quarter we did not come out with the defensive toughness it takes to win in this league.”
The Thunder aren’t making excuses about the absence of the injured Thabo Sefolosha and Kendrick Perkins, but it’s clearly an issue.
“Thabo is a defensive player,” Brooks said. “Perk is one of our best defensive players. He’s not only good on the post, he’s good on the pick-and-roll coverage and he’s good at communicating.”
Perkins communicates not only on the court but in the locker room and through the media, quick to call out insufficient efforts from his team. He wasn’t around Sunday, so that left it to Fisher.
Yes, Kevin Durant, a 40 percent 3-point shooter on the season, has shot 33 percent on 3-pointers in February and is 9-for-32 (28 percent) in four games in March. And just when it seemed Russell Westbrook had regained his shooting touch by making 58 percent of his shots in the previous five games, he cratered to a 7-for-23 (30 percent) shooting performance Sunday afternoon.
Those aren’t the type of things that have Fisher concerned.
“It’s a larger perspective in terms of just where we are as a team, our mentality, our mindset, our ability to bring the right type of focus to the game,” Fisher said.
“As a team we have to decide what’s most important to us. And if it’s the team’s success, then you’ll start to see offensively and defensively things tighten up the way they need to tighten up. Just in terms of respecting the game, respecting each other, bringing the right sense of urgency to our jobs.
“I don’t question guys’ commitment to the team, I’m just saying we’re not right now putting it out there on the court."
The Thunder left the arena muttering to themselves, the Lakers were granted a temporary reprieve from their miserable season, and Jodie Meeks had a career-high 42 points to savor. Nobody had it better than the Clippers, though. They had a day off to enjoy a beautiful afternoon in L.A., and their status improved at the same time.