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Archive for Sunday, March 18, 2007

Commentary: Votes of confidence come trickling in

Why such poor coaching performances are being rewarded is the unanswered question

March 18, 2007

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— The theme here was going to be about mediocrity being rewarded.

But take another quick glance at the standings, where it was obvious that mediocrity would be a bit of an overstatement.

NEW YORK KNICKS COACH ISIAH THOMAS smiles while watching his team's game against the Miami Heat. Thomas received a contract extension even as his team struggles to stay in the Eastern Conference playoff hunt.

NEW YORK KNICKS COACH ISIAH THOMAS smiles while watching his team's game against the Miami Heat. Thomas received a contract extension even as his team struggles to stay in the Eastern Conference playoff hunt.

Isiah Thomas, Brian Hill, Maurice Cheeks and Randy Wittman may yet reach mediocrity this season, but, for now, such loftiness remains elusive.

Yet during a week when Milwaukee coach Terry Stotts lost his job and Charlotte confirmed coach Bernie Bickerstaff would be out at season's end, there were votes of confidence in New York for Thomas, in Orlando for Hill, in Philadelphia for Cheeks and in Minnesota for Wittman.

Entering the weekend, the Knicks, Magic, 76ers and Timberwolves were a combined 34 games below .500, with none closer than six.

Granted, each has faced obstacles.

For Thomas, there has been the need to eliminate the toxic atmosphere that pervaded Madison Square Garden under Larry Brown's tenure last season.

For Hill, there has been another round of Grant Hill ailments and a roster whose top players (Dwight Howard and Jameer Nelson) are mere neophytes.

For Cheeks, there was the upheaval of the Allen Iverson trade and Chris Webber buy-out.

And Wittman has only been on the job a matter of weeks, after the Timberwolves' midseason dismissal of Dwane Casey.

But that's not the point. The point is: Why now? Why amid such mediocrity? Why allow teams so far below .500 to delude themselves into thinking all is right in their worlds? Why not instead offer the candor of Pacers executive Larry Bird, who said last week of the status of coach Rick Carlisle, "Right now is not a good time to talk about it"?

The moves with Stotts and Bickerstaff were understandable.

Milwaukee knew if it didn't act quickly in elevating assistant coach Larry Krystkowiak, it was in position to lose him to the University of Utah, where he had just interviewed.

And once Michael Jordan scheduled the rarest of press conferences in his role as a Bobcats executive, it was only natural to address Bickerstaff's intention to step aside after three expansion seasons, while also sending signals for Larry Brown not to take any other job in the interim.

In fact, it also would make all the sense in the world for Toronto to eliminate Sam Mitchell's lame-duck tag amid his superb work during the Raptors' playoff push.

Some times moves have to be made, statements have to be made, no matter how awkward the timing.

But what happens if the Knicks come up short of another playoff berth? What if the Magic's second-half flameout ignites more doubts about Hill? What happens if Philadelphia's second-half surge proves to be as counterfeit as the one Hill's team offered at the end of last season? And what if Wittman continues to operate at a winning percentage significantly lower than the coach he replaced?

Granted, such votes of confidence, such as the ones offered in recent days from Knicks Chairman James Dolan, Magic General Manager Otis Smith, 76ers President Billy King and Timberwolves Vice President Kevin McHale tend to be illusory.

But the timing of the announcements from management the past week almost came off as self-serving, as Dolan's way of saying he hired the right guy, of Smith doing the same with Hill, of King validating his shaky personnel moves, and of McHale refusing to admit that Flip Saunders and then Casey might have done as well as possible with what he had provided.

When you sum it up, the four votes of confidence might not have been about the coaches, at all.

Instead, they might merely have been subterfuge, the No. 1 in each team's front office looking out for No. 1.

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