By Bill Simmons
Page 2

I love having NBA season tickets.

As I mentioned during my last installment of "Behind the Bench," my seats are situated only a few rows behind the visitor's bench, which allows me to monitor everyone on the opposing team. This way you get to see things like Minnesota's Michael Olowokandi leering at the Clipper cheerleaders, oblivious to Flip Saunders drawing up a play for his teammates. You can't put a price on this stuff.

But the highlight -- er, lowlight of the young season happened on Saturday night, as Kandi Man's T-Wolves were finishing off a frisky Clips team in OT (more on this later). With two minutes to play, a frustrated Clippers fan started heckling Latrell Sprewell (nothing over the line). Standing near his own bench, Spree turned angrily towards the crowd and screamed "SUCK MY (EXPLETIVE)!" -- which was news to us because we didn't realize it was Suck Latrell Sprewell's (Expletive) Night. You would have thought the Clippers would have promoted this better.

Sitting in the row right behind Minnesota's bench, a female fan named Wendy quickly upbraided Spree, yelling back, "Watch your language, there are kids in this section!" Which there were. Spree should know that you shouldn't use obscenities around children, since he has about 16 of them. (I'm joking, he actually has three.) Of course, Spree glared at her and responded, "HEY, (BLEEP) YOU, BITCH!" Clearly, this is a league that knows how to reach its fans. For a second, Spree looked like he might charge into the stands before Sam Cassell came over to calm him down.

(Note: Since some of this was caught on TV, it's becoming a national story. I think David Stern just threw up in his mouth.)

Fortunately, nothing else happened ... although I could have won a Pulitzer if Spree charged into my section to confront a female fan. I mean, think about that for a second. That could have been 20 columns for me. Alas. Still, these were the kind of moments I was banking on when I purchased tickets -- the completely insane Latrell Sprewell unleashing profanities on a stunned section of paying customers.

(The NBA ... it's FANNNNNNNN-tastic!)

(I love this game!)

Before we get to the scouting reports from the most recent games, you should know that I gave away tickets for three games in late-November -- two Sunday 12:30 p.m. games (Phoenix and Golden State -- no way I'm missing football) and a Thanksgiving night game (the lowly Nets -- no thanks). Why do NBA teams schedule games on Sunday afternoons during football season? Your guess is as good as mine. But here were the teams I DID see over the past few weeks.

HOUSTON
The Clips lost this one in OT, thanks to a bogus foul call on Bobby Simmons on the final possession of regulation. The Rockets cleared out for T-Mac (an ugly 8-for-23), he drove left into Bobby's shoulder, then hopped backwards for an ugly jumper ... and the refs called the foul on Bobby. This play tells you everything you would ever want know about the Clippers -- they don't get an obvious non-call at home on a deciding play.

I spent most of the game bemoaning the demise of Yao Ming, who played 30 minutes, notched 10 points and 8 rebounds, turned the ball over six times and ended up fouling out. It's not like Yao was going against Hakeem in his prime here -- the Clips checked him with Chris Wilcox (young power forward playing out of position), Zeljko Rebraca (brittle foreigner with no discernible skills) and Mikki Moore (six teams in the last four years). So what happened to this guy? Wasn't he supposed to become the Chinese Bill Walton?

On "NBA Fast Break" last week, Legler, Anthony and Stephen A. discussed Yao's relative funk -- statistically, he isn't any better than last season, which makes no sense -- and collectively decided that Yao wasn't aggressive enough to become a dominant center. Stephen A. also pointed the finger at Jeff Van Gundy, staring into the camera like an assassin, then screaming, "JEFF VAN GUNDY DOESN'T KNOW HOW TO COACH OFFENSE!" And yes, both of those points are part of the problem. During that Clippers game, the Rockets pounded the ball down low like Yao was Zydrunas Ilguaskas, only he's not that type of player -- shove him around and he'll eventually settle for fall-aways and jump hooks. Which he did. I'm not sure how having a 7-foot-6 guy falling away from the basket helps anybody except the other team.

Still, I blame the Rockets for surrounding him with the wrong players. In three seasons, they haven't had a single point who could throw Yao an entry pass, plus they haven't had a single shooter who could consistently make threes (and prevent teams from collapsing on Yao). This current team features the worst point guards in the league (although Bobby Sura just came back); three undersized rebounders (none of whom would ever be confused with Maurice Lucas); and only one reliable shooter (T-Mac, who thrives with one-on-one stuff). I like T-Mac, but he isn't a sophisticated enough offensive player to play with someone like Yao. None of these guys are. It's a shame. It's like watching one of the guys from Phish playing in Ashlee Simpson's band.

In a perfect world, Yao would be playing on the high post like Walton did, finding cutters (he's an exceptional passer, although you would never know on this team) and draining open 15-footers. Just look at the way Sacramento uses Brad Miller right now. In fact, if you switched Yao with Brad Miller tomorrow, Yao's career would take off and we wouldn't even be having this discussion. I'm just worried that he's starting to get discouraged -- not only is Yao losing confidence, but guys are going out of their way to dunk on him now. In 18 games, he only has 22 blocks and 149 rebounds. The guy is 7-foot-6!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! After watching Yao's body language during that Clippers game, I would be astounded if he's still playing for the Rockets in three years.

One other Rockets note: I always liked T-Mac ... it's a shame how his game atrophied playing with crummy teammates in Orlando. At 6-foot-8, with his athletic ability, he should have evolved into a cross between Scottie Pippen and Doctor J. But since those Magic teams were so dependent on his scoring, the other parts of his game went to mush -- now he only seems to light up when he's getting a ton of shots, like last week's Dallas game, when he came alive with 48 points (on 36 shots), 9 rebounds and 9 assists in a fantastic shootout with Nowitzki. Van Gundy isn't a moron. Eventually, he will realize that T-Mac's offense gives him the best chance to win every night. Which means Yao will be standing around watching him like everyone else. What a waste.

CLEVELAND
Clippers 94, Cavs 82. And it wasn't even that close. I spent this one watching in disbelief as Paul Silas kept LeBron 30 feet from the basket on offense. Why? So they could pound the ball inside with Ilguaskas. Once it was established that the Clippers were quick enough and savvy enough to double Z in time, what did Silas do? He kept pounding the ball inside to him. Listen guys, this is our game plan! I don't care if it's not working!

Silas has always been South Bend High-caliber shaky during games. Last season, he made LeBron play point for the first 25-to-30 games, with LeBron wasting so much effort bringing the ball up, he had no energy left to do anything else. Eventually, they realized their mistake and traded for Jeff McInnis. If they realized it about 25-to-30 games sooner, they would have made the playoffs. Now Silas has LeBron playing 30 feet from the basket when he's the only dominant player on the team. Any time you post him up, the other team has to double. Run a pick-and-roll with him, and he's probably making the right decision nine out of 10 times. Of course, I've seen the Cavs four times -- once in person and three on TV -- and they don't do either of these things. Either they pound it inside to Z, or they spread the floor and have Bronnie beat someone off the dribble. That's the offense.

This is a pretty strange Cavs team. Jeff McInnis talks as much smack as GP in his heyday, only he's about one-fourth as good. The lumbering Ilguaskas is painful to watch -- he has to be the worst-looking good player in the league. Ira Newble looks like he should be wearing an electronic tracking bracelet. Eric Snow is washed up. Drew Gooden might be the most inconsistent guy in the league, as witnessed by his 13-minute/three-rebound effort against the Clips, followed by his 19-rebound game two nights later. They have 300-pound Robert Traylor coming off the bench, leading to the Sports Gal's line of the night: "Is that Fat Albert?" Luke Jackson and Anderson Varejo looked like they just finished watching the "Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle" DVD. DeSagana Diop doesn't acknowledge his teammates or coaches; I haven't seen a basketball player that zoned out since the White Shadow had the episode about the autistic kid. And Dajuan Wagner took 10 shots in 13 minutes; at one point, I thought he was going to clothesline Snow for the ball.

Strange team. LeBron could be a cross between MJ in '92, Magic in '87 and Bird in '86, and he's not taking these guys past the second round. No way. Although I will say this: Everyone likes each other. During the pregame warmups, they were fooling around like high school kids. At one point, LeBron threw himself a one-bounce alley-oop, then rammed it home as everyone nodded in delight. I remember watching Young Kobe in the warmups and thinking, "Wow, nobody's even acknowledging him." At least LeBron's teammates like him. We may be in good shape with the King.

INDIANA
A historic game. The Pacers were missing Artest, Miller, O'Neal, Jackson, Pollard, Foster, Bender, Croshere, Tinsley and Anthony Johnson. That's their entire 10-man rotation from training camp! Starting against the Clips: Eddie Gill, David Harrison, Britton Johnson and the Jones Brothers (Fred and James). Coming off the bench: Marcus Haislip (signed that day), Tremaine Fowlkes and Senator John Edwards. I will never see a worse NBA team in my lifetime.

Two other amazing subplots from that night:

1. Not only does Scot Pollard look like Morrissey, he was actually dressed like him on the bench. That led to three straight hours of Morrissey/Pollard jokes from me and my buddy Nick, including knee-slappers like "Teammate in a coma I know, I know, it's serious" and "It was a good lay-up, good lay-up ... it was a good lay-up, good lay-up." I'm not proud of these jokes, but if you were looking at Scot Pollard and remotely familiar with Morrissey's career, you would have laughed.

2. After the third quarter, some fan made the halfcourt shot to win a car. The place EXPLODED. Loudest moment of the year. I knew we were in good shape when the guy stood at halfcourt with the ball, then took four steps backward, meaning he was trying the "Jogging up and push the ball with the wrists and legs" move. I can't emphasize this strongly enough -- that's the only way you're making a halfcourt shot. I'm telling you. When I was in high school, we used to shoot halfcourt shots after every practice. There's a science to it.

But here's the funny thing: NBA teams usually have the shot insured for two cars. After that, the money is coming out of the team's pocket. Every team does this. So if someone makes one halfcourt shot, you can count on the team to pick a steady stream of senior citizens, chicks and fat guys for the remainder of the season -- they don't even want to risk spending additional money. During one Celtics season a few years ago, after someone made the Foxwoods three-pointer, I think they picked Stephen Hawking for five straight games. Anyway, I can't wait to see who the Clips tab for the rest of the season -- last night's guy looked like Sam from "Quincy." In fact, it might have BEEN Sam from "Quincy."

MINNESOTA
Yet another overtime loss for the Clips. Ironically, this was their best game of the season -- they went toe-to-toe with a championship contender that was playing hard. During the final three minutes of regulation, fans were standing and cheering and stuff. Great basketball game. Minnesota won because they have a better team. What can you do?

A few things stood out:

  • Sam Cassell took over the game down the stretch: Seven huge jumpers in the last 12 minutes, all of them coming off the dribble with that quirky hesitation move. That's becoming a lost art. Watch the Hardwood Classics on NBATV -- every big-game guard in the '70s had that hesitation jumper coming off a pick (Frazier, West, Oscar, JoJo White, etc.). Now it's just Cassell. When he's on, there's nobody better. If I were Flip Saunders, I would be giving Troy Hudson most of Sam's minutes and saving him for the spring.

  • For the winning play in regulation, Mike Dunleavy drew up a high screen-and-roll for Rick Brunson. You read that correctly. I'll let you guess how it turned out.

  • Receiving the biggest boos of the night: Olowokandi, who infuriated Clippers fans with his half-hearted efforts over the years. Right before the national anthem, as everyone was standing in silence, someone screamed "YOU SUCK, KANDI!" and everyone laughed. This seems like a good place to mention that Elgin Baylor offered Kandi a $65 million extension during the 2003 season, which would have crippled the Clips for years. Fortunately, Kandi said no, eventually parlaying the offer into three years and $15 million from Minnesota. Good job by his agent, incredibly good fortune for the Clips. There might be a bigger dog in the league . . . I just can't think of one right now. We'll tackle the fact that Elgin took Kandi over Bibby, Pierce, Jamison, Nowitzki and Carter in the 1998 Draft at another time.

  • Eddie Griffin . . . I mean . . . wow. Easily the most talented frontcourt player on Minny besides KG. He can block shots, run the floor, crash the boards, even shoot threes. He's the biggest X-factor in the West right now -- either he ends up in jail again, or he could be the crunch-time center on a team that's still playing in June. There's no in-between.

    But this brings me to one of my goofy theories: You can only take a chance on a colossal head case if there's an alpha dog around to keep him in check. Just look at Dennis Rodman's career -- he was fine with Isiah and MJ and a time bomb with everyone else. Same with Vernon Maxwell and Hakeem; Dennis Johnson with Bird (everyone forgets that DJ wore out his welcome in two cities); Stephen Jackson with Duncan; even Cassell and Spree with KG last season. Crazy guys suddenly don't seem as crazy when they're playing with someone they respect. I always thought this was the biggest failure of David Robinson's career -- there was something about his personality that Rodman didn't respect, so Rodman sabotaged the Spurs for two straight years in Robinson's prime. I'm not saying it was Robinson's fault; but at the same time, I don't think Rodman would have been taking his shoes off during a playoff game with KG glowering at him. Warrants mentioning.

  • That reminds me, there isn't anyone more fun to watch in person than KG, who works himself into such a frenzy for every game. I mean, it's almost like watching a UFC fighter. I brought J.A. Adande of the LA Times to this one (he's one of the other remaining 19 NBA diehards). During the game, J.A. mentioned how his favorite KG quality was how he always keeps playing hard past the whistle, searching for any emotional edge he can find. Sure enough, about five minutes later, one of the refs called a foul as Corey Maggette was driving to the basket. Maggette took another three dribbles and finished his move -- just for kicks -- not counting on KG, who promptly swatted his half-hearted layup towards the Clippers bench. I love that stuff.

    (Although the wisdom of KG playing at 120 percent every night for 100-to-110 games remains to be seen. During the Lakers series last spring, he was completely burned out, mainly because Saunders wasn't spotting him towards the end of the season. We'll see if that changes this year. Knowing how KG operates, I would guess no.)

    CHARLOTTE
    Actual conversation driving to the game last night:

    -- SPORTS GAL: "Who are we playing?"

    (Note: She's using "we" with the Clippers now. I'm not sure how to stop this, or what measures need to be taken. Six weeks ago, she couldn't have picked Elton Brand out of a police lineup. Girls are unbelievable. Anyway ... )

    -- ME: "The Bobcats."

    -- SGAL: "The who? Who are they? Are they in the league?"

    I think we all feel that way. I'm not sure why they added another NBA team, not when they could have just moved the Hawks somewhere else. But they did. Now we have to pay premium prices to see Brevin Knight, Jason Kapono and Primo Brezec. To make matters worse, the Bobcats couldn't care less about developing younger players, which was allegedly their goal this season. In last night's game, they were playing the Artist Formerly Known As Steve Smith in crunch-time, who couldn't guard me at this point. Really? That's helping you build a winning team?

    It's funny to watch the Bobcats in person. I spent the summer reading about them in Chad Ford's column, where Chad would have you believe that Brezec is the next Rik Smits and Gerald Wallace is another Doctor J. I love Chad's column. I read it every day. But I think even Chad would admit that he gets carried away from time to time. Other than Emeka Okafor, there isn't anyone on the Bobcats who will ever be more than an 11th man on a good NBA team. Guys like Wallace and Jason Hart were available for a reason -- they have glaring holes in their games. For instance, Chad was writing that Larry Bird was "kicking himself" over losing Brezec in the expansion draft. Ask yourself a question: If the Pacers thought Brezec would become a viable NBA center, do you REALLY think they would have let a young 7-foot-1 guy go for nothing? They wouldn't have cut a deal with Charlotte, maybe offered them Freddie Jones and a pick? Please. He's softer than a bag of cotton balls.

    The Bobcats (and the Pacers last week) did prove another one of my theories: That any NBA player can score 15 points in a game if given 40 minutes. For instance, Eddie Gill scored 21 points in that Pacers game last week. In last night's game, Brezec scored 14 points in 41 minutes. It's just the law of averages. Even the worst pickup player on the court will end up making a 15-footer or a layup every few minutes ... over the course of time, it adds up. That's what makes it so incredible that Marko Jaric -- a shoot-first point who has the ball in his hands all the time -- is playing 35.7 minutes and averaging just 11.8 points. How is that even possible? Any starting point in the league ends up getting one fastbreak layup per quarter off steals and outlets, so that's eight points right there. Ugh.

    (Note: Marko is a whole other story -- he's going to drive me to a flask of Jack Daniels during games before everything's said and done. Here's a hard worker who has been playing point for three years . . . and he seems unable to grasp even the most rudimentary aspects of the position. It's like watching a female trying to work the TV remote control, only for 82 games. You would think the Clips would hire a former point guard to give special tutoring to Marko and Livingston, both of whom clearly need it. You would think.)

    One strange thing about the Bobcats: Since they brought in a bunch of one-year guys and fringe players trying to make a mark, everyone's out for themselves. Other than the Raptors, they probably have the worst chemistry in the league -- they weren't even standing on the bench during the final few minutes of regulation and OT. Every time Keith Bogans was yanked from the game, it looked like he might punch someone in the face. Weird bench scene. It looked like they were introduced to one another 10 minutes before the game.

    One bright spot for the Bobcats: Okafor looks like a stud in the making, although I worry about the way he carries himself on the court. During every break in play, either he puts his hands on his hips, or he bends over and puts his hands on his knees. Take it from a guy with a bad back -- Okafor looks like a guy with a bad back. Although he did play 52 minutes last night. His night was marred by Elton Brand, who took exception to Okafor's physical defense and gave him the Ben Wallace shove in the fourth, earning himself an ejection and probable suspension. This wasn't Brand's fault -- as usual, the refs were terrible and allowed a number of hard fouls, as well as a borderline rugby match between Okafor and Brand down the stretch. If there's been anything I learned from the past month, it's this: No sport has more imcompetent officials than the NBA. From night to night, you never know what you're getting.

    As for the Clips? They finally won an overtime game (actually, double-OT), but they still have a knack for killing themselves down the stretch. In their four OT games at home (Detroit, Houston, Minny and Charlotte), they could have finished three of the games by making their free throws, and they had a total of eight possessions where they could have scored the winning basket or tying basket in the final 10 seconds ... and ended up going 0-for-8. That's unbelievable. They also have an inexplicable tendency to play to the level of their competition, as exemplified by double-OT games against the defending champs and an expansion team within a three-week span.

    On the bright side, they're 11-7 ... with Kobe and the Lakers coming on Saturday. If they beat the Lakers, the entire city takes notice. If they lose, everyone just assumes it's the same old Clippers again. Those are the stakes.

    (And you know what? I think they win by 10.)

    Bill Simmons is a columnist for Page 2 and ESPN The Magazine. His Sports Guy's World site is updated every day Monday through Friday.




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