Tuesday, June 16, 2009
The biggest losers of the '09 playoffs
By Marc Stein ESPN.com
As if losing in the East finals wasn't painful enough, Mike Brown and Mo Williams find themselves here.
The eight biggest losers of the 2009 NBA playoffs:
Coaches morbidly joke that only bad things seem to happen after you win the Coach of the Year trophy, judging by the recent fates of Avery Johnson in Dallas and Sam Mitchell in Toronto.
But Brown has found trouble in record time, even if you believe in a COY curse.
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Check out the biggest winners of the 2009 playoffs here.
Mere weeks after he was handed the trophy, Brown's job security has quickly become a daily source of debate in Cleveland, where no one is laughing after 66 wins and 4-0 sweeps in the first two rounds of the playoffs added up to zero insulation against that blitz from the Jameer Nelson-less Magic in the East finals.
The Cavs insist that Brown's job isn't in jeopardy, but common sense says that the earlier-than-expected exit -- in these championship-or-bust times -- has thrust an infinite amount of pressure upon every key figure in the organization with the clock ticking down to LeBron James' foray into unrestricted free agency on July 1, 2010.
Coaches, though, are always at the front of the line.
Rest assured that Ferry hears every tick of the LeBron clock as clearly as Brown, after the Orlando series exposed how many holes their 66-win team still has.
One reason that the Cavs held on to Wally Szczerbiak's expiring contract at the February trade deadline was their belief that team chemistry was too good to risk a midseason shakeup. Another reason is that, after reacquiring Joe Smith when Oklahoma City finally consented to buy him out, Cleveland thought it had all the pieces to win the East.
Yet that assumption was based on the Cavs seeing Boston in those East finals. To beat Orlando, even without Nelson, Cleveland needed more length on the perimeter and a big man who could score inside and make Howard work.
One trusted scout told me this week that he is convinced free agent-to-be Rasheed Wallace would be a better counter to Dwight for the Cavs than Shaq -- given his history of one-on-one defensive success against Howard and the fact that Sheed's perimeter-based offensive game would help keep the lane open for LeBron -- but it wouldn't surprise me if Ferry tries to get both.
Trade for Shaq and then sign Sheed? With so much at stake, Ferry might have to be that bold.
Is singling out a third Cav overdoing it on an eight-entry list of postseason woe?
Not after so many Cavs complained so loudly about Mo Williams' initial omission in the coaches' vote for the Eastern Conference All-Star team, only for Williams to shoot 37 percent from the floor in the Orlando series, missing 21 of his 27 3-point attempts in the first four games while the Magic were surging to a 3-1 series lead.
This has nothing to do with the guarantee Williams was coerced into issuing after the Cavs fell into a 2-1 series hold. This is all about what's at stake in Cleveland until LeBron commits to stay and the notion, since debunked, that Williams could be LeBron's Robin.
New Orleans Hornets
There should be a modicum of sympathy out there for the Hornets' steep and sudden fall from the ranks of full-fledged playoff darlings in 2008, given how banged up they were by the end of the Denver series, when each of their five best players was carrying some sort of injury.
Only one problem.
Losing by 58 points -- no misprint -- in what turned out to be their final home game of the season is difficult to forgive or forget. That kind of no-show can't be rationalized no matter how many injuries have piled up.
More pain is expected, furthermore, before things rebound. The Hornets are widely expected to make another attempt to trade Tyson Chandler this offseason in hopes of slashing payroll, and another under-fire recent Coach of the Year winner (Byron Scott) is about to enter the final season of his contract with the knowledge that no extension is coming and money for roster upgrades isn't there.
You can say the same for Chris Paul's pal Deron Williams in Utah, where uncertainty reigns with both Carlos Boozer and Paul Millsap headed for free agency -- albeit restricted free agency in Millsap's case -- but CP3 just got his first glimpse of what could be a bleaker-than-expected future.
The Rockets didn't just advance to the second round of the playoffs with T-Mac watching in a suit.
They gave the eventual champions a tougher series than anyone else in circulation, dragging L.A. through a real seven-game scare despite losing Yao Ming to another foot injury midseries. And another 7-footer they could have used against the Lakers' length (Dikembe Mutombo) went down with a knee injury in the first round.
McGrady's first-round drought continues until he actually plays in a playoff series his team wins. Meanwhile, his underappreciated teammates -- Shane Battier, Luis Scola and backcourt speedster Aaron Brooks -- were able to snag some rare spotlight along with Ron Artest and GM Daryl Morey.
Orlando's Van Gundy said repeatedly during the Finals that the notion of the Lakers' experience edge was a media myth that kept coming up because writers like to come up with stories beforehand and then foist their theories on coaches to make their angles work.
That immediately prompted my man Mark Heisler of the Los Angeles Times to conclude that Van Gundy knows more about sportswriting than any of us press hacks know about coaching -- which is a line I wish I had come up with myself -- but I have to go back at Stan on this one.
If you believe that experience affects execution under pressure, as I do, I don't see how you can conclude that L.A.'s championship know-how didn't help the Lakers win the two crucial OT games in a five-game series.
Or that experience wasn't a huge difference in the Houston-Portland series, when Nate McMillan's Blazers got swamped at home by 27 points in Game 1 and never quite recovered from the rough playoff baptism. Portland was a trendy pick to get to the second round and see if its regular-season success against L.A. could carry over, but the Rockets halted a string of playoff disappointments of their own to win in six games, helped along by McMillan's refusal to speed the game up to try to take advantage of the Blazers' athleticism.
"It's just too cliché to say it's all about Finals experience and that we're all of a sudden playing with 11-foot baskets and a smaller court," Van Gundy argues. "I just don't buy it."
Fair enough. But Orlando sabotaged itself with 20 turnovers in Game 2 and by missing 15 free throws at home in Game 4. Derek Fisher, meanwhile, drained two killer 3s in the same Game 4 after starting out 0-for-5. It might all be coincidental, but that's hard for me to buy.
Bryant and Howard made it through the championship round without any further techs after each started the series two T's shy of suspension, and only one flagrant foul was assessed (to Orlando's Mickael Pietrus) in five games.
The Finals, then, unfolded mostly without incident.
By that point, mind you, we were due for some quiet after Rajon Rondo's flagrant foul on Brad Miller that wasn't called, nonstop chaos in the Denver-Dallas series and LeBron James' refusal to congratulate (or at least acknowledge) his Magic conquerors.
Non-playoff teams rarely blip onto the national radar once the playoffs start. And it probably isn't good news if they do.
That was definitely the case for the Kings -- twice -- when the team with the league's worst record fell as low as it possibly could in the May 19 draft lottery by winding up with the No. 4 pick and then couldn't convince Lakers assistant coach Kurt Rambis to accept the terms they were offering to fill their coaching opening.
Who knows? Maybe the events of the past month will wind up working out for the Kings. Maybe Ricky Rubio will fall to Sacramento at No. 4 and maybe Paul Westphal can surprise the skeptics and bring some joy back to Arco Arena.
So far, though, Sacramento's offseason hasn't been the happiest.
• Click here to see the biggest winners of the 2009 playoffsMarc Stein is the senior NBA writer for ESPN.com. To e-mail him, click here.