Bucks will live & die with odd couple
By Charley Rosen
Page 2 columnist

In recent years, Bucks coach George Karl and longtime Sonics superstar Gary Payton (traded this season to Milwaukee) have become better known for their off-court woes and on-court disappointments than their considerable basketball talents. Page 2 sent NBA diarist Charley Rosen to Game 2 of the Bucks-Nets playoff series Tuesday night at the Meadowlands, where he watched the Bucks win 88-85 to tie up the series at 1-1, and then filed this behind-the-scenes report on the Karl-Payton soap opera.

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- Whether or not the Bucks stop here, the team's season-long melodrama now revolves around two mercurial characters: Karl and Payton. And Milwaukee's showing in the playoffs will largely determine the denouement of each man's career.

Karl, of course, is the highest-salaried coach in any sport -- although he's quick to point out that $1 million per year is deferred for 10 years after his contract expires -- and Bucks fans may rightly wonder exactly what he has done to earn his keep. Aside from presiding over assorted swan dives, disappointments, and postseason fadeaways (not to mention Olympic team meltdowns), the answer is ... nothing much.

Gary Payton
Gary Payton was awful in Game 1 and great in Game 2. Not coincidentally, so were the Bucks.
For as long as he has been in Milwaukee, Karl's Bucks have either lived or (mostly) died by the jump shot. Media pundits have been unduly impressed by the various collections of scorers Karl has assembled and, season after season, have routinely predicted conference titles and even NBA championships. Rings, however, are won on defense, a concept which eludes the "experts" and also Karl himself.

Here's an opponent's take on the Bucks' erstwhile defense: "They'll double-team the wing pass, and they'll chase the pass back to the middle, but one more pass to the opposite wing always finds an open shot. It's the kind of defense that's effective when you see it once a month, and not so effective in a playoff series."

In his own self-defense, Karl puts the onus on his players. "The most effective way for a coach to influence the way his players play is to sit them down when they're not doing the job," he says. "And that's exactly what I do when guys on this team aren't playing good enough defense. Of course, sitting makes them very unhappy, and they'll tend to blame me instead of blaming themselves. But that's who too many of these guys are nowadays. They're constantly talking about respect, but they never respect anybody except themselves, and they're also reluctant to accept responsibility for their own shortcomings."

Besides summoning his defenseless delinquents to the bench, Karl has also shipped some of them out of town. Barely an hour before last February's trading deadline, Karl instigated a deal that essentially sent Ray Allen to Seattle for Desmond Mason and Gary Payton. Once again, the misguided experts predicted the new Bucks would be unbeatable. A backcourt of Payton and Sam Cassell was hailed as being nothing less than the second coming of Earl Monroe and Walt Frazier.

Too bad the new Bucks were just as disappointing as the old. Except for a late-season spurt, Milwaukee threatened to miss the playoffs altogether.

For Karl, however, the trade was a no-brainer. "Ray Allen was nothing but trouble," Karl says. "We had no choice but to get rid of him."

Karl does see a silver-lining in the trade. "Since GP is a bona fide All-Star point guard, we've been able to move Cassell to the two-spot, where he's mainly responsible for scoring and not for initiating the offense. Sam doesn't play much defense at either position, but the two is his natural spot. The thing is that Sam should really be coming off the bench and playing only 20 to about 23 minutes per game."

But acquiring Payton was also a risky business. Indeed, Payton is due to become a free agent this summer, and if The Glove decides to move on, the Bucks will have traded away Allen, a troublesome but valued commodity, for Mason, a youngster whose considerable talents do not include shooting a basketball. Such an eventuality might be an embarrassing setback for Karl and the Bucks. And if the Bucks are sold (as has been widely rumored), how will the new owners react to those who perpetuated such a reckless giveaway?

George Karl
George Karl has been to the NBA Finals once (1996), but never won the top prize.
It's entirely conceivable that Karl's fate and reputation are in the hands of the 35-year-old Payton, a distinguished veteran of 13 seasons and nine All-Star games. Indeed, Payton's age and contractual status were the main reasons why Seattle was so willing to deal him. Seattle's bigwigs reasoned that Payton's productivity was declining to the point where signing him to the long-term contract he desired was unwarranted.

So then, how much juice does GP have left?

Plenty according to the Nets' Kerry Kittles. "I've been going up against GP for seven years, and I don't think he's lost a thing. His lateral movement is as good as it has ever been, and he's still very aggressive at both ends of the court. He never was a really good jumper to begin with, but he has developed the knack of getting up quickly and unexpectedly to release his shot while the big men are gathering themselves to jump. If anything, GP is much craftier these days. He anticipates everything that happens, and he never wastes his energy."

Several NBA scouts are quick to second Kittles's evaluation. "Payton's always in great shape," says one, "and he's still playing at a very high level." Another scout insists that even at his advanced age, Payton can play as many as 40 minutes a game "and be dominating in the clutch."

How long can Payton play like an All-Star? The consensus is two more years.

It's interesting that the only dissenting scouting report comes from George Karl. "Gary is a good player," Karl says, "but he's not great anymore. He can't finish as well as he used to, he's not as quick off the floor, and he can't bring the same defensive intensity to every possession."

What are the Bucks' plans for their aging rent-a-Glove?

"Our intention is to keep him," GM Ernie Grunfeld says, "but we do have a great deal of flexibility. We could arrange a sign-and-trade situation. Or we could simply lose him and wind up with a mid-level exemption. In any event, we like our young players, and either with or without Payton, we're excited about our future."

And what are Payton's inclinations?

"First of all," the Glove says, "I'm glad to be in Milwaukee and not in Seattle. The guys in Seattle complained about everything, so I had to expend a lot of time and energy trying to make everybody happy. The Sonics also had a lot of young players, so I also had to try and get them motivated. Once the lights were turned on, I had to make sure that everybody got involved in the offense and that they all got the shots that they wanted. I'm much more comfortable over here, and that's mostly because the Bucks have so many veterans. These guys can motivate themselves and create their own shots. That leaves me free to just go out and play."

What about re-upping in Milwaukee? "My family will make that decision. They've been in the rain for a long time, and I'm not going any place where they won't be happy. But I must say that I love George Karl, and as long as we're rolling, Milwaukee is a good play to play."

In other words, the longer the Bucks' season lasts, the better the chances are that both Karl and Payton will share a happy ending.

Charley Rosen, a former coach in the Continental Basketball Association, has been intimately involved with basketball for the better part of five decades -- as a writer, a player, a coach and a passionate fan. Rosen's books include "More Than a Game," "The Cockroach Basketball League," "The Wizard of Odds: How Jack Molinas Almost Destroyed the Game of Basketball," "Scandals of '51: How the Gamblers Almost Killed College Basketball" and "The House of Moses All-Stars: A Novel."



Charley Rosen Archive

Rosen: Coaching report cards

Rosen: Grading the East coaches

Rosen: Ossie's world

Rosen: Beware the darkhorses

Rosen: Q & A with Ed T. Rush

Rosen: Who's afraid of the big, bad champs?

Rosen: Beasts of the East looking tame

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