The big winners in the NBA’s annual 82-game marathon are either jockeying for playoff seeding or tweaking their rosters for the two-month sprint to a title. Lesser winners, like point guard Devin Harris of the New Jersey Nets, are probably clearing space on the mantle for a Most Improved Player Award, and the fan base of the Oklahoma City Thunder is savoring the feeling of being “next year’s rising young team.”
But what about the losers? The 2008-09 NBA season produced a striking list of players, team executives and teams that did face plants. Before we turn our attention to the contenders, let’s give the biggest losers their due.
Allen Iverson Meet Father Time
One of the most consistently ugly spectacles in sports occurs when a great athlete goes into denial about his declining skills. Allen Iverson was almost a certainty for this drama. He’s played 13 seasons with his heart on his sleeve, taking every loss as if it was a personal insult. He was the hardest working man in basketball and took pride in every ounce of sweat. Unfortunately, even in his prime, he wasn’t the most efficient shooter; he turned the ball over too often and liked to hog the rock.
While not optimal, that’s permissible for the best player on the team. At 33, Iverson won’t be the best player on any NBA team anymore. Two weeks into the season, he was traded to the Detroit Pistons, and by the all-star break, the team must have wanted a bailout. Iverson’s performance was abysmal. He shot 41.6 percent from the field (the league average is 45.9 percent). He shot 28.6 percent from behind the arc (the league average is 36.7 percent). As a result, defenders backed off of him, ceding the outside shot to prevent him from driving to the hoop and drawing fouls. Iverson averaged only 5.9 free-throw attempts per game this season compared to 8.4 last season, when he played for the Denver Nuggets.
Without the illustrious résumé, he would find himself on the end of the bench, only playing garbage-time minutes. Iverson is a free agent this summer, and he has already said that he will only accept a starting role. Good luck with that. With a lot of teams strapped for cash, he may have a hard time finding a team that agrees with his assessment of his skills. He’s at an age when many players of his skill set and size are looking at the broadcast booth for future employment.
Joe Dumars isn’t the smartest man in the room anymore.
Joe Dumars was known as a smart player during a career that included two championship rings with the Detroit Pistons. Unlike most renowned athletes who flounder as team executives, Dumars only bolstered his reputation as team president of the Pistons. He did what seemed impossible; he built a title team without a superstar player. However, the Pistons have lost in the conference finals for three straight seasons, and the fan base was getting anxious. I know a lot of Pistons fans, and I tried to persuade them that the fans of at least 20 other teams would love to know their pain. Dumars vowed to shake things up; he fired coach Flip Saunders and replaced him with Michael Curry who has struggled to put his best players on the floor. Dumars’ big off-season signing was Kwame Brown, a former No. 1 overall draft pick who has played himself out of the starting rotation with two other teams. This season, Brown made it three. Then just after the season began, Dumars traded longtime point guard Chauncey Billups to Denver for Iverson, a deal that hasn’t worked out well. Billups’ Nuggets are likely to play deep into the postseason. The Pistons will make the playoffs but will probably lose in the first round.
The Pistons have a nice, emerging nucleus of young talent to build around, but the certainty that Dumars will make the most of the situation is gone.
In Phoenix, haste didn’t make waste.
The Phoenix Suns entered the season with a perception problem. The team had three all-stars, point guard Steve Nash, power forward Amare Stoudemire and recently acquired center Shaquille O’Neal, but there was a perception that the three did not fit together well. There was also a sense that the Suns were slowing down their game to accommodate Shaq in the twilight of his career.
For five years, the Suns had been the league’s state-of-the-art, fast-break team. They put up offensive numbers that were frightening; no team could routinely erase a 10-point deficit faster. At the end of his career, Wilt Chamberlain played on several up-tempo teams, but that was 36 years ago, and I guess no one in a decision-making position remembered. So the Suns held their horses and played at a medium tempo; the results were disastrous. By mid-season the Suns, a fixture among the league’s elite, were struggling just to make the playoffs. A coaching change ensued, and the Suns went back to their accustomed fast pace and began making 130 points a game seem like the norm. But it was too little too late; there will be no playoffs for Phoenix this season. O’Neal and Nash are at the end of their careers; this year might have been their best chance to win something together.
Like Iverson and the Pistons, the Suns might begin next season as a vestige of a bygone era.
Martin Johnson is a regular contributor to The Root.