Last year (last week actually), the Chicago Bulls’ rest-of-the-season coach, Jim Boylin, told starting shooting guard Ben Gordon that he was going to the bench. It wasn’t a demotion, Boylin insisted, but a strategic move designed to alter the dynamic of the struggling Bulls. The move would prevent Gordon, the former Sixth Man of the Year, from being the focal point of first-team defensive strategies and potentially give the Bulls’ anemic second unit a jolt. “When I sat down with him I said, ‘Look, you’re averaging 36 minutes a game,'” Boylan said. “I said, ‘That’s not going to change. It’s just going to be in a little bit different spot when you come in.’ I want his scoring out on the floor. And I will work around that.”
Gordon’s response was predictable. He pouted. “I wasn’t happy,” he said initially. ”At the end of the day, I just always want the team to win and for everybody to do well. I told him if that’s what he thinks will work, I was all for it.”
In New York, the issue of starter versus reserve has reached absurd proportions (which is just about where everything is regarding the Knicks these days). It began a couple of months ago when head coach Isiah Thomas benched starting point guard Stephon Marbury, prompting the player to (depending on whom you believe) leave his team in disgust. More recently, Thomas tried to shake his team out of its latest hell with a lineup twist – first removing forward Zack Randolph from the starting lineup then doing a flip-flop a game later and removing the player he should have removed in the first place, woeful center Eddy Curry.
Randolph was hurt and bewildered when by the initial move, then a delusional (I’m-a-starter-in-this-league) Curry was indignant when he learned he was being benched for the next game.
What’s going on here? Why all the drama over whether a player starts or comes off the bench? Why? Ego.
And it’s disgusting. I won’t even play the money card (“Pay me $8 million and I’ll clean the bench, let along play from the bench,” a friend of mine said last week). That’s too easy.
Instead, I’m playing the team card.
Each team is allowed 15 players in its pursuit of the NBA title. Each of them plays a role, from the all-stars to the guy sitting next to the kid who hands out the towels a cups of water. That role might involve playing 40 minutes a night and taking every big shot, or it might mean preparing the key guys by playing hard in practice to replicate an opponent’s strategy. In between, several players may play 10 to 30 minutes and night as part of the coach’s rotation, which typically includes eight to ten players. (In fact I believe Seventh Men are as valuable these days as Sixth Men.)
At the start of the 2007-08 season, every member of the San Antonio Spurs got a ring and a full playoff share – from Tim Duncan to James White. Yeah, James White’s got a ring.
Real teams – winning teams – don’t crumble over who starts or not. Winning teams just play.
Consider the Portland TrailBlazers, the game’s team du jour. Head coach Nate McMillen has even removed the terms “starters” and “reserves” from the team’s vocabulary. Borrowing from a tactic implement during the TBlazers’ championship-hey day, he calls his reserves the “white unit” (The starters are the “red” unit) and has infused a sense of pride in the group – emphasis on “group.” At least ten times during the team’s 13-game winning streak, the “white” unit outscored the opponents reserves and were credited with playing a key role the triumph.
The strategy helps the second group understand its roles and emphasizes their value to the team – and it eliminates the coach’s potential headache from a chorus of whiny players. “if you’re a smart player it’s a better spot,” Portland assistant coach Maurice Lucas (and one of the NBA’s O.B’s, Original Badasses). “When I was in the second unit I was playing against less-skilled players. I kicked some ass.”
I’m not naive. Every athlete wants to start – from the NBA to my son’s Boys & Girls Club team. But how can the B&G coach emphasize to his young men that each of them is vital to the team’s success when the whiny phat-wallet bunch to the South is pouting and whining about whether they start or come off the bench?
Since moving to the reserves, Gordon has averaged 35.3 minutes, 20+ shots, 31.7 points, shot 56.5 percent from the field and made 8 of 15 treys. All stats a better than his season averages. ‘Nuff said.
It is only a rumor that Curry has tried to strangle Lee to get his starting gig back. it would have been his most aggressive move of the season.