Denver without Duncan

My wife and I got into a discussion last week about NCAA men's basketball coaches. The tournament was starting and she asked what I thought about coaches in college, whether there was validity to the "good coach/bad coach" discussion. I don't know what prompted her to bring it up, but I could sense where she was going. I told her my thoughts, that determining coaching skill in college is utterly and completely different than coaching in the NBA. My belief is that it's fairly easy to determine quickly and accurately whether a coach is a good coach in the NCAA.

In the pros, however, I think it's much much harder. I tend to believe that most coaches in the NCAA are dramatically overrated, with the exception of only several individuals. Likewise in the NBA, only several coaches come to mind as actually being great well-rounded teachers/facilitators of the game. You'd be hard pressed to find anyone who disagrees that Pop, Phil Jackson, or Jerry Sloan are great coaches. Most times regarding the NBA, overall wins and losses don't factor much into the assessment. It's more big picture- does the coach build a record of consistency, is he known for making the most of what he has, does he actually run complex defensive and offensive schemes, does he have a proven track record of success, does he maintain a cohesive working relationship with his staff and players, etc.

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We would see this look on the face of this "great coach" all throughout the night.

When rating college coaches however, you have to evaluate based more on the "now" rather than the big picture. Of course it's a by-product of having a completely different team or program every single year, and having a single-elimination tournament that determines rank to close your year. She was slowly leading me towards an answer that definitively stated specific coaches were overrated, and I quickly complied. I said, if you're a top 15 program (size, recruiting, money, history) in college, you yearly have at your disposal only the top 5 percent (or even higher) of college basketball recruits in the nation. The talent gap that separates your team from the others is enormous. That said, I believe that if you're that coach and you DON'T even make the tournament for one season, it should be grounds for termination. I believe that one miss fairly accurately demonstrates that you're not that great coach needed at that university, and likely don't at all live up to your public perception- you're highly overrated. Coaches that consistently have access to only the very best prospects, each year, don't miss the tournament. I don't give much latitude or patience in that situation. Especially considering that the tournament team selections are already weighted to favor those teams and there are 68 positions available now days. I think you could even make the argument that those coaches are too preoccupied with the "right now" rather than actually building a program that could one day be more consistently dominant.

And here's how that applies to us- watching the Spurs play live, against a team like the Nuggets, dramatically reinforces the importance of building a program instead of just a quick winner. Even as an unbiased observer, when you watch the Spurs from the moment the doors to the arena are opened to the moment the team leaves the floor after the buzzer, you are struck in an awe-like state of wonder and amazement. The professionalism, the consistency, the discipline and structure, the resiliency... all qualities that literally smack you in the face when comparing with the team on the opposite end of the floor. Gregg Popovich has no doubt built a dynasty program, whether you arbitrarily use the concept of 'winning' or just 'excellence.'

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"Spurs fan."

Case in point, during pre-game shootaround, George Hill, Matt Bonner, Chris Quinn, Steve Novak, and Manu Ginobili all worked tirelessly on various different shots. There was no dunking or show-boating, just deliberate rehearsed shot selection and ball movement. All are shooters, all committed to honing their craft and putting in the extra time. On the other end, there was one baby blue player practicing his craft. J.R. Smith, as a circus plate-spinner, dramatically manipulated the sparse early-arriving crowd with a display of theatrics. He was practicing his half-court shots. Dozens of times. A shot normally reserved for desperation moments or flashy team mascots, J.R. was relentless in his pursuit of the crowd's adoration. All while the shooters in black worked to get better and better at their useful skills.

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Though impressive and hard-working, Bonner dribbling is never exciting.

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And on the other end.... it's good to know that when your career inevitably flies away with no more than a whisper, you'll still have post-career opportunities doing trick demonstrations.

It was a telling moment on the character of each team. Nothing unexpected or surprising, mind you, but still interesting none-the-less. It made me appreciate our "program" all the more and value what we've built over the last generation. I'm not at all attempting to evaluate the coaching differences and philosphies of this specific game, just simply making a comparison and revelation about the standard of excellence we've all come to appreciate and expect.

* * * * *

I went into tonight with this great plan of writing a post-game recap/running diary detailing CapHill's and my experience. But truthfully, losing a game like that just sucks all the wind out of you. All I want to do at this point is forget Wednesday night and look forward to the improvement needed for the Portland match-up, but I will share several things about our night that were interesting-

1. First off, CapHill's seats were incredible. My wife and I have season tickets to the Nuggets (a subject for another day, just back off. I like the game itself, okay?) and our seats are pretty good behind the visitor bench. But CapHill's seats? Holy cow. We were closer than the photographers. We felt hardwood beneath our shoes. We had a private waitress constantly funnelling us refreshments. When RJ dived into the crowd in the 1st half, we felt the overspray from the spilled beer. It was as close as a fan could be without actually doning an official jersey and possessing ridiculously stupid homemade tats. Massive thanks to Cap for including me and allowing me to share in the experience with her, she's a good egg.

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You'd like to think this pic is blurry, but it's really not. That's literally just the quality of his tattoo.

2. I can't possibly belabor the point enough- Denver's fans are atrocious. It certainly is only a place to "see and be seen" for the majority of people in the lower bowl. Considering the majority of attendees weren't even aware Denver had an NBA team before 2003, it makes some sense. There was almost more black and silver than baby blue in fact. But oh how the baby blue there loves to complain. And make excuses. And whine. And attempt to set records for classlessness with pleas for their players to "Break Manu's nose again," and (referring to DeJuan's girth) "Hide all the hamburgers." Alright, that hamburger comment was pretty funny, but I truly don't know many fan bases as delusional and frustrating to be around than Denver's. "Like players, like fans" I always say. They might have lost their backpack shifting leader, but they're still very much the "Thuggets."

3. Sitting immediately next to us was Chris Anderson's agent. In his tanned, trophy wife toting, pony-tailed, toothpick chewing, leather-jacket wearing glory. He was a pretty nice enough guy up until we had this interchange, after which he wasn't quite as bold with us.

SiMA- So your "Birdman's" agent, huh?

Douchebag- (with a smug condescending smirk) That's right.

SiMA- You guys get, like, 15% of a player's worth/value, don't you?

Douchebag- (still smirking at me, the common man) Something like that.

SiMA- So you must be making, like, tens of tens of dollars a year, eh?

Douchebag- (not piously smirking anymore)

Don't feel bad, folks. He was one of the "hurt Manu" chanters.

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Yes, he totally really looks that way in person. Like the lovechild of Kat Von D and a barnyard rooster.

4. Tiago is tall. Surprisingly so. I never got the impression on TV that he was that big, but he stood over Nene and that was unexpected.

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I'm sure if you told RJ that he'd be standing next to two impressive Brazilians at some point in his future, he'd probably initially think something different.

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Yes Tiago, it IS much easier when no one is guarding you.

Some other thoughts from the game-

-It's the most heart-warming thing watching Manu before the game. Not one fan, not one request got ignored. With a smile from ear to ear and seeming as though he was just as thankful to meet them as they were him, he made time for everyone's autographs and pictures and comments. He no doubt had several other things to do at the time, but still made time for those that love him so. He's obviously just generally a good guy, and that's always nice to see of one of your heroes.

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Manu manurifically doing his Manu-thing, manuer than anyone else.

-Surprisingly, the crowd in Denver vehemently booed Tony all game. We're used to that with Manu, but Cap and I were caught off guard by the disdain for Tony. Even more surprising? The thunderous boos of hatred for Dice, the very player once loved and nurtured by this very city. Fickle much?

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Although, to be fair, maybe they weren't really booing Tony specifically...

-Yes, their shots were falling all game. Most frustrating however was that they were GETTING their shots. Our perimeter defense with their screens was horrid. Tiago started very aggressive, which was reassuring, but seemed gassed within the first 5 minutes and never made an impact from there on.

-Now, instead of "Meeeelo," the fans chant "Gaaaalo." It's adorable. Guess it would have been too difficult to get all those fans in Denver to learn a new chant with a new cadence. Even Gallinari himself seemed shocked. On another note, I wonder aloud how quickly it will take for Gallinari and Mosgov to turn into whiners.

-Denver choosing to play Harrington so much was interesting. I mean, against a team missing their dominant inside defender, why would you not go with Mosgov next to Nene and create an unstoppable force in the paint? My question will soon become painfully obvious- San Antonio has chosen to ignore the perimeter. Note to the Spurs- these guys can, will, and love to shoot.

-4:06 in the 2nd quarter, Harrington hits one of the first of many shots tonight and turns to the crowd, waving his hands and sneering. Meanwhile somewhere, Vince McMahon is taking performance notes.

-I'm reminded of how, with various lights and shapes and shiny things you can captivate and manipulate a baby. How substance and quality means nothing, while flash and ostentatiousness rule the day. But enough about Nuggets fans.

-Gary Neal is a pure baller, nothing news-breaking there. But to see in person how completely unrattled, unfazed, relentless, bold, and focused he was....well, it only made me love him even more.

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"I see you watching me, Pop. But I'm not distracted by you, I have a game to win."

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Shooter. Ice-water veins. Even at the foul line.

-This batshit stupid "Noche Latina" has slowly morphed into "Meses Latina" without us even knowing it. And it's already "el played outo." Mariachi bands and salsa dancers at halftime, we get it. Next week, the NBA's Eskimo Night begins.

-Steve Novak has literally one of the most beautiful shots I've ever seen. It's a wonder to watch. Someday he'll be teaching fundamentals to young-uns, no doubt. Meanwhile, Matt Bonner's...hair is red.

-In the 3rd quarter when Kenyon Martin and Dice collide, I yell "Don't stab him, Kenyon!" The Denver fans around us laugh. I like them, but they're naive and unaware of the real threat that Martin truly poses to local neighborhoods and society in general.

-Denver really is a good team. Much better than before the trade. (Uh huh, LD) They're a multi-headed monster of speed and shooting, but they'll struggle mightily not having a superstar to lean on and lead them. It's funny but you just can't go anywhere for very long in the Association without a star. And if you're a fan and truly understand the game, it's got to be sad realizing that they're actually doing themselves more harm right now by winning. They're never going to actually go anywhere, just be middle-of-the-pack good enough to completely avoid the lottery and improvement. No one really wants the pieces they have, and Felton has already started locally grumbling about not being the official starter. The fuse is lit in the Rockies, and it's only a matter of time before the Nuggets again take their saved seat in irrelevance. But until it happens everyone here, including George Karl, seems really confused with all this "defense," "passing" and "ball movement."

-The "flopper" screams and taunts still bombard Manu. I want to scream something equally ground-breaking and hurtful like, "I know you are but what am I" or "Sticks and stones!," but I'm too blinded by all the rings Manu's wearing to think clearly.

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-Tiago sure seems to be on the losing end of many questionable calls tonight. Really refs?! A campaign to punish a Latin American rookie? ON NOCHE LATINA, NO LESS??!! You ought to be ashamed, you bigoted bastards.

-Harrington hits a triple and immediately thrusts 3 fingers into the air while hopping downcourt, milking the crowd for their approval. Somewhere watching, Hulk Hogan calls his attorney over the theft of his move.

-We've owned this game all the way. Until 7:38 in the 4th, when it became just 98-96 San Antonio. It was at this moment that Cap and I looked at each other, and sighed. Timmy's valuable folks, no matter how "old" and "washed up" they tell us he is.

-3:31 left in the game, score 107-107. This is the moment if you're a Denver fan, that you've got to be slightly pooping yourself realizing that George Karl is your coach. The odds aren't in your favor here. But sometimes overwhelming odds mean nothing...

-And just like that, it's over. With a poorly executed play and an even more poorly taken shot by Manu, that's the game. We led up until the final 7 minutes. Some guy named Al Harrington finished with 27 for the Moonmen. We had horrific rotations, bad perimeter D, Manu seemed often confused and rushed, and we didn't get the shots we wanted consistently.

* * * * *

But.... on the good side, we're a very VERY good team. So much so that even when we're not very good, we're still really good, comparably. The way to see this game is really that we didn't have our star- our foundation, our glue, our floor general. Additionally, our scoring leader had a sub-par and disappointing game. We made unSpur-like mistakes and didn't hit our shots. Our opponent shot exceptionally well. We were on the road, at altitude. And we lost... at the buzzer, with a poor shot. Sure, lots needs to be improved, but seeing it that way doesn't lend itself to panic just yet. And I actually like that the guys are angry and frustrated now. If we can keep that anger and hunger with Timmy returning just in time for playoffs, I like our odds. Overwhelmingly.

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Just a quick reminder, Denver fans...mmkay?

STARS of the night-

1.- CapHill. She's a badass for sharing her opportunity with me, and tolerating my ability to instigate confrontation with opposing fans. And she's fun to drink and talk sports with.

2.- Gary Neal. I really love this kid. Almost Bruce-level love, in fact. He's a cold-blooded assassin and knows where we need him. He's clearly committed to improving in the areas he needs to and he's becoming a star before our eyes. He kept us in this one as long as we were, and he had an ESPN frontpage at halftime for his efforts.

3.- Chris Quinn. For putting in the extra work pre-game of slashing and shooting, sharpening his skills. Even though he was dressed and inactive for the night. Keep it up, small white man, people are watching.

4.- Tim Duncan. I've said it before, but it'll be a cold day in hell before I make a stars list and GOATPUFF isn't on it. Even sitting at home, Tim did more than many other players who suited up tonight.

Next up, Portland Trailblazers....

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