An incredibly hectic (and at times confusing) June and July has given way to a most welcome calm August in Nuggets Nation, giving us time to reflect a bit on the NBA at large.
... as pointed out by my colleague Nate Timmons in his recent Stiff List column, ESPN is pre-predicting the Nuggets to land around seven in the Western Conference standings. And I, for one, agree with that prediction. I don't know about you, but I kind of like the Nuggets in the role of low expectation underdogs in 2013-14. The role of "we're going to the conference finals!" certainly didn't suit the Nuggets well. And for whatever it's worth, the last two times the Nuggets made the conference finals (1985 and 2009) it was after a tumultuous off-season that brought on low expectations.
... the Philadelphia 76ers hiring San Antonio Spurs assistant Brett Brown to take over for the departed Doug Collins is yet another example of the new direction NBA franchises are taking with the head coaching position - i.e. cheap, inexperienced and low maintenance versus expensive, experienced and high maintenance. Entering the 2013-14 NBA season, nine head coaches will be first timers - including the Nuggets own Brian Shaw - and that follows recent lesser known former assistant coach hires from previous years like Frank Vogel, Jacque Vaughn and Monty Williams. It appears that the days of recycling $3-$5 million per year coaches like Collins, Larry Brown, the Van Gundy brothers, Lionel Hollins, Nate McMillan, Jerry Sloan, Byron Scott, Phil Jackson and (and I hate to say this) George Karl could be coming to an end. In a league where just four head coaches (Gregg Popovich, Erik Spoelstra, Doc Rivers and Rick Carlisle) have a championship ring on their hand, I suspect owners are questioning the expense versus the reward of highly paid head coaches.
... among all the new coaching hires, the most intriguing to me will be Brad Stevens - formerly of Butler University - taking over the Boston Celtics. If Stevens is successful in making the transition from a big time college program to the pros he will be the first to do so in NBA history. Literally. Regrettably, NBA history is littered with big time college coaches who failed miserably as NBA head coaches, including Rick Pitino, John Calipari, Jerry Tarkanian, Mike Montgomery, Leonard Hamilton and Lon Kruger. Now, whenever this argument comes up I always hear "well what about Larry Brown?!" And while it's true that Brown was successful as both a college and NBA head coach, he was a pro coach before he was a college coach, taking your Denver Nuggets to an ABA Finals appearance before he ever coached a college game. Like most former college coaches turned pro coaches, Stevens is being set up to fail with a rebuilding Celtics roster. But here's hoping that Stevens - whose life story from a highly paid private sector job to the Butler coaching bench is one of the great sports stories of our generation - breaks the losing trend.
... watching Detroit Pistons ownership open up its wallet to sign free agent Josh Smith (four years, $54 million) and complete a sign-and-trade for Brandon Jennings (three years, north of $25 million), the organization seems hell bent on doubling down on mediocrity again. I can't help but be reminded of the 2009 off-season when the Pistons overpaid for Charlie Villanueva and Ben Gordon ... and they're still paying the price for those signings today. In fairness to Pistons' GM Joe Dumars, Smith and Jennings should be better than Villanueva and Gordon. But why do I think the Pistons just turned an inexpensive 29-team into a very expensive 38-win team?
... look out for the Utah Jazz ... five years from now. Quietly, the Jazz have amassed six first round picks over the next few drafts. In the meantime, they'll be good for three Nuggets wins a year (you just know the Nuggets will drop one game in Salt Lake City annually during the Jazz's rebuilding process).
... Kobe Bryant rushing his comeback from a nasty Achilles heal could be a disaster for the Los Angeles Lakers. Both Bryant and the Lakers would be better off if he sat out the year so the Lakers could themselves as high pick as possible in the 2014 NBA Draft. But by Bryant vowing a return for opening day, he's ensuring that the Lakers will win just enough games to barely miss the playoffs and forgo any chance at a great lottery pick. Unless the NBA rigs it for the Lakers, which wouldn't the least bit surprising.
... in reading the Stiffs comments about Evan Fournier getting cut from the French National Team, I have to completely disagree with those who argued it could be a good thing. I was secretly hoping that Fournier would become the Nuggets version of Manu Ginobili - a crafty foreigner who builds off of international basketball success to smoke the American competition when returning from high-level international play each summer. Moreover, I have to believe that playing alongside the likes of NBA Finalists Tony Parker, Nando De Colo and Boris Diaw would have been good for Fournier's development. Because other than Shaw, no one affiliated with the current Nuggets roster knows anything about winning an NBA Championship.
... earlier this week I lent some "wisdom" to our friends at Bullets Forever about former Nugget Al Harrington. In the Q&A I made a reference to Emeka Okafor and another former Nugget, Nene Hilario, not actually enjoying playing basketball and have really enjoyed the Wizards fans questioning that comment. The sad reality is that there are some (very few) NBA players for whom basketball is their job, not their life. And unfortunately for Wizards fans, both Okafor and Nene fall squarely in that category. Say what you want about JaVale McGee, but I'd make the McGee-for-Nene trade again tomorrow.
... the Milwaukee Bucks recently lost their biggest and most loyal fan. That would be my grandmother Gertrude Palakow who passed away at the age of 103 and a half a few weeks ago. My grandmother came to Milwaukee from Tsarist Russia during the first World War because her mother had family there and Russia was becoming increasingly unsafe for Jewish families. She and her family moved around a bit, but eventually she settled in Milwaukee for good after World War II and, as an avid basketball fan, followed the Bucks religiously from their entry into the NBA as an expansion team in 1968. She got to enjoy their lone championship just three years after entry - in 1971 - and even met Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (then known as Lew Alcindor) at one point during the center's early career in Milwaukee. ("I ran into him at a bookstore and welcomed him to Milwaukee. He was very polite but I could tell early on that he was never comfortable here," she once told me.)
Moving on from the Abdul-Jabbar / Oscar Robertson teams of the early 1970s, my grandmother never gave up on her Bucks. As a young kid who spent his holiday breaks in Milwaukee during the 1980s, she would take me to see the "Nuggets East" of Sidney Moncrief, Terry Cummings, Marques Johnson and Paul Pressey at the Mecca Arena. Coached by Don Nelson and featuring big Stiffs like Randy Breuer, Paul Mokeski, Jack Sikma and Larry Krystkowiak, the Bucks of the 1980s were almost a mirror image of our Nuggets' Golden Age featuring Alex English, Fat Lever, Calvin Natt and Stiffs like Danny Schayes, Blair Rasmussen and Bill Hanzlik. And just as the Lakers were always in the Nuggets' way, so were the Celtics always in the Bucks' way.
Unable to go to Bucks games in person as she got older, my family made sure my grandmother had cable so she could follow her beloved Bucks through the 90s, 00s and beyond. Always insistent on having good manners, my grandmother never forgave new Bucks coach George Karl for showing up at a formal event at the local Jewish country club in shorts and flip flops. And then later on when Karl traded away Ray Allen for Gary Payton, the mere mention of Karl's name would forever inspire ire from my grandmother.
She loved Andrew Bogut (for having the same first name as me), Charlie Villanueva ("via via" she called him) and later Brandon Jennings ("so much fun to watch!"). She even helped me write the scouting report for each Nuggets / Bucks game that I covered for Denver Stiffs (longtime readers here should remember those previews). Having briefly lived in Cleveland as a little girl, she also never forgave LeBron James for stabbing Cleveland in the back and had a rooting interest in the Heat's failure ever since. And while she would never enjoy seeing another Bucks championship, she took some solace in James' Heat losing to the Dallas Mavericks in the finals a few years ago.
Her mind sharply in-tact until the very end, my grandmother was a remarkably progressive woman for her generation, evident by her ardent support for Barack Obama when he ran against Hillary Clinton in the Democratic primaries in 2008. And I wonder if in some small part her passion for pro basketball had a lot to do with that progressiveness - seeing the diversity of cultures, ethnicities and classes working together on the hardwood for the same common good.
One of the most remarkable women I will ever know, my grandmother passed peacefully as she wished - she just didn't wake up one day. While cleaning up her apartment after her funeral, I helped myself to her Bango bobblehead doll that I sent her a few years ago for her birthday and he now resides on a shelf here in Denver next to my Rocky bobblehead doll.
Gertrude Palakow will be forever missed and forever remembered for living such a long, healthy and vibrant life. And the Milwaukee Bucks - and the NBA at large - has lost one of its greatest fans.