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Wednesday, January 23
Wilkens, Raptors can't get hometown satisfaction

By Jeffrey Denberg
Special to ESPN.com

Hey, what is this about these Canadians, anyway?

They got the winningest coach of all-time -- you could look it up -- but nobody up there's excited.

They got the best team in Canada.

They're going back to the playoffs for the third year in a row.

So, why aren't these people happy, these Johnny Come Latelies from over the border?
My whole thing is that I'm going to get the team ready. I'm going to get the team to play up to its potential and so whatever it takes, I'm going to do that. I'm not going to feel bad because someone says I did this or I did that. I can't worry about that. I'm going to worry about what I can control and be effective with.

Why are they always complaining about?

Hey, they boo Lenny Wilkens, the man's won 1,250 games. Not Phil Jackson or Red Auerbach or Pat Riley, for all their championships, are ever going to win that many games.

Hey, Lenny loves the Raptors so much he installed his own son as interim coach the other week. How's that for devotion?

So, what's the beef with these Canadians? Why are their so crabby? Somebody put a cod in their shorts, or something?

Hey, may we ought to do some explaining here. Maybe there are some things you people don't understand.

First, Lenny Wilkens knows more about basketball than you do. Just the other day, he took a shot at the press after his team won a couple of games, putting a muzzle on his critics.

"It's always that way, but I can't worry about that," Wilkens said. "I know more about the game than the guys who are writing. Not that I'm being critical of them, I'm just saying I know more about it.

"I know what our personnel can do and can't do. I know when we're hurting, when we're not. I know what's working on the floor, what isn't working. And so I have to work with that.


"My whole thing is that I'm going to get the team ready. I'm going to get the team to play up to its potential and so whatever it takes, I'm going to do that. I'm not going to feel bad because someone says I did this or I did that. I can't worry about that. I'm going to worry about what I can control and be effective with."

And another thing, those of you who think Lenny is hibernating on the sideline through this long, arctic winter, forget about it. It's an act.

Inside, Wilkens says he is controlling a "quiet rage. See, it's never easy. Everyone thinks it is [another thing they are wrong about], but it's not. When guys are hurting and not 100 percent, I know it better than anyone else because I see them every day.

"If you're healthy at the end of the season and you're playing well and you have momentum going for you, that's what's important. That's what everybody shoots for. Yeah, it's nice to be able to get through the season with a minimum amount of injuries. But when you have them, you can't fall apart and feel sorry for yourselves."

The truth is there are those insiders who believe Raptors management is getting a little restless. The team doesn't appear to play with a sense or urgency or passion. There are too many inexplicable defeats, like the recent beating at home to the Clippers, too many nights when Vince Carter and Co. play without passion.

Does this mean Wilkens is actually in some sort of trouble? Depends on who you talk to, but whether the venerable coach works out the final years of his contract or not, rest assured that Glen Grunwald will treat him with respect even while secure in the knowledge that Atlanta is paying most of the freight on Wilkens' $5-million-plus-a-year deal.

And while the Raptors hierarchy is aware that the clock is ticking on some of the veteran players, it will not be forgotten that Wilkens turned the chaotic Butch Carter administration into a model of stability. This coach may not push his team to exact every single victory but it's not going to leave the club an emotional mess, either.

And there are some problems:

  • First, Antonio Davis is not the explosive inside player he was in the past. Davis has been bothered by a sore knee and he isn't getting to the hoop the way he used to. His jump shot has flattened out and he's coming up short on the rim. On top of that, while the shift to power forward evened the physical tables for Davis, he has lost an edge in quickness. Davis could get by the centers, but when it's Shareef Abdur-Rahim or another quick 6-9 forward matched up with him, Davis isn't nearly so effective.


  • Second, there is the center who stepped in. Hakeem Olajuwon still has some juice left and the Raptors insist they really got him for the playoffs, anyway, but this is a man whose ego is every bit as big as his coach's. He will not long be content to play 26 minutes a game or get only 7.5 shots a game. Hakeem is healthy and figures that a primary role in the offense is his due. That was the problem in Houston where the Rockets sought to place him on the back burner. It worked only so long as Hakeem was hobbled. If this continues, he will start complaining and he won't mince words.

  • Then there are the personalities of the coach and the star player himself. While Carter occasionally takes on an edge, he is a remarkably placid personality for a player at his level. Rare is the night when he decides to hoist this Toronto team on his shoulders and still more rare is the night when Wilkens would either ask or demand that of him.

    Lenny Wilkens isn't going to push his star player to go outside his normal comfort zone. His bent is to make excuses before he will make demands. Is that going to get the job done and lift the Raptors a step farther to the Eastern finals? Or will they find they still don't get any respect?

    Jeffrey Denberg, who covers the NBA for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, is a regular contributor to ESPN.com.

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