The NBA’s unofficial mid-season arrives at the all-star break, a time when teams take stock of their roster, a time when contending teams begin to gear up for a long post-season run, while others are left to contemplate yet another lost year.
As is the norm at this point in the NBA calendar, eyes have opened in a league where athletic brilliance can often compensate for flaws in basketball’s fundamentals, compelling MVP races have emerged with no clear-cut winner and a distinct shift in power has unfolded with the East holding the upper hand.
But whether it’s a Blake Griffin highlight reel dunk, a Cavaliers loss, a rude welcome for the visiting Heat, no story has taken centre stage like the sudden retirement of Jerry Sloan.
For better than two decades, Sloan has been the coaching model of consistency, a staple in Utah who helped lead the Jazz to two NBA final appearances.
It says a lot about the voting process that at no point did Sloan summon enough support to win coach of the year honours.
It also says a lot about today’s me-first baller that Sloan called it a career amid reports that star point guard Deron Williams grew increasingly annoyed at Sloan’s old-school approach.
Since the day he became the undisputed boss in Utah, which can only be achieved when management and ownership are completely on board, Sloan has always stressed team over any individual acclaim.
Under Sloan, there were no short cuts, no reason to bring effort, be it in games or in practices. When he abruptly announced his resignation, which, incidentally, came in the wake of a one-year extension, outrage ensued.
No one was as vocal than Karl Malone, basketball’s Mailman who delivered the most telling observation when he gathered with reporters following Sloan’s exit.
“They changed the floor back to old school,’’ Malone said of his former team. “They changed the uniform back to old school.
“Somebody tell the damn players to start playing like old school. It may work. They spent a lot of money on the rest, now how about you tell the players? I’m just calling it like I see it.”
Malone and John Stockton were the faces of the Jazz franchise, Hall of Famers who teamed up to form one of the game’s greatest pick-and-roll tandems.
But they each got their cue from Sloan, who, remarkably, had only one losing season in a market that isn’t exactly high atop the list of NBA players, unless, of course, they prefer a team environment.
“I want people to understand what we lost will never, ever be replaced, all due respect to (newly appointed head coach and ex-Raptor) Ty (Corbin) and whoever else,” Malone said. “I heard guys on TV talking about: ‘Coach lost his will. He don’t have the fire.’ I heard a lot of that. Half of those guys don’t know what they’re talking about.
“Very few of them do. Some of them I played with I mute it when they start talking. Coach Jerry Sloan, what he probably got tired of was what the guys bring every night.”
Bringing it every night was something Cleveland tried to do, but all in vain, beginning the post-LeBron era in as bad a fashion as could possibly be imagined.
If any team needs a break to lick their wounds and exhale it’s the beleaguered Cavs, who would join the NFL’s Tampa Bay Buccaneers when it comes to redefining misery.
During a two-month stretch of losing, the Cavs were humiliated by the Lakers, who outscored their overmatched visitors by a whopping margin of 55 points.
And then finally, following 26 straight setbacks, the Cavs held court to beat the Clippers in overtime.
“I can smile again,” Cavs guard Daniel Gibson said. “It feels pretty good. Winning is a precious feeling.”
With King James at the controls, the Cavs had sported the NBA’s best record for the past two seasons.
With James changing his Cavs jersey for a Heat model and joining Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, Miami has surpassed the Lakers as the top road draw, playing in front of packed houses in every city.
Regardless of the location, the one constant has been the rude reception Miami has received, which will only intensify as the season draws closer to its end.
For James, the booing and taunting will be tolerated, but a fan in Detroit crossed the line when he used James’ mom in a taunt.
“Say whatever you want to say to me,’’ James was
overheard telling the heckler. “Just don’t be disrespectful, alright? Alright, OK?
“I don’t give a (expletive) what you say. If you’re disrespectful, it’s a problem.”
The problem began when the fan asked LeBron if his mom would be going to Boston for Valentine’s Day.
“I felt I needed to say something,’’ James said.
“As I said before, you have to draw the line somewhere. Fans can say whatever they want to say. But there are times when it’s not right. I had to say something.”
Words aside, James has let his actions do most of the talking on a Heat team that seems destined to play the Celtics in the East final.
Unless the Lakers find a way to defend better and start beating quality opponents on a more regular basis, it looks like L.A.’s attempt at a three-peat will be nixed by San Antonio, which has changed its style in posting the NBA’s best record, or Dallas, where Dirk Nowitzki has entered the MVP conversation along with James, Derrick Rose and Dwight Howard.