Will Da Glove Fit? Ask George Karl
FOR THE BENEFIT OF THOSE WHO BELIEVE GARY PAYTON WILL ARRIVE IN BOSTON SOMETIME BEFORE THE START OF TRAINING CAMP OCT. 4 (READ: DANNY AINGE AND DOC RIVERS), HERE IS A PRIMER OF SORTS ON THE VETERAN POINT GUARD. EVERYONE KNOWS WHAT PAYTON HAS DONE OVER A 14-YEAR CAREER THAT INCLUDES JUST ABOUT EVERYTHING EXCEPT AN NBA CHAMPIONSHIP. EVERYONE KNOWS HIS REPUTATION FOR BEING A TRASH-TALKING, TOUGH DEFENDER ON THE COURT AND TEMPERAMENTAL PERSONALITY OFF IT.
But what is it like to live in Gary's world, to coach him and coax the best out of him during an 82-game season? Assuming Payton walks through the door of the Celtics' practice facility not gray and old, but not as great as he once was, what can Ainge and Rivers expect?
Former NBA head coach and current ESPN analyst George Karl has more experience with Payton than anyone else on the professional level. Karl spent seven seasons coaching Payton in Seattle, then the two were reunited for 34 games in Milwaukee during the 2002-03 season. Now, Karl considers Payton a friend, though he acknowledges the two had their battles.
"I still think he's a talented winner," said Karl. "Gary's not a stat guy. He's a winner. He makes teams play the right way and with the right toughness. During the season, there's some blips where he might cross the line and get too crazy. Sometimes it's when he's losing and sometimes when he's winning. Sometimes he gets too cocky and too arrogant and too individualistic. But in general, in the last 10 years, [Karl] Malone, [John] Stockton, Shaq [O'Neal], Kobe [Bryant], and Gary Payton probably have as many wins as anybody in basketball. What I respect in him is his competitiveness, his intensity, and his demand to win.
"He's not a good shooter, but he makes shots. He's not a pretty player. He doesn't look real fast or quick, but he's slippery as hell. Defensively, when he's focused, he still can defend the ball about as well as anybody in basketball. I think what's broken down lately in his defensive game is his off-the-ball defense. He's not a roamer or a safety like he used to be.
"Another thing is, can you turn Gary into a 30-minute player? That's going to be a major nightmare. But if he would accept playing 28-30 minutes hard a game, he might be pretty good at it."
For now, the only numbers that have dropped off are Payton's offensive statistics. With the Lakers last year, he averaged 14.6 points and 5.5 assists per game, down from 20.4 points and 8.3 assists in 2002-03.
"Gary likes to run," said Karl. "He wants to play up-tempo. I think more than anything he wants a lot of freedom, but you can structure him. He's played in playoff situations where there's structure. It's not the way he wants to play. I think the triangle just drove him crazy. He didn't understand where he fit in it. Then, with the commentaries of [Lakers coach] Phil [Jackson], and Kobe and Shaq always out there, he just got frustrated with it.
"I think you've got to give him some looks. You've got to help him get some touches once in a while. When he has a matchup, give him a post-up or give him a pick-and-roll. That's all you need. He's not that difficult. He understands the game. He's a very bright basketball guy."
The preferred explanation from Karl and the Celtics is that the Lakers' style never suited Payton. It stands to reason, however, that the point guard's declining numbers are just as much a result of his increasing age (he's 36), even though Payton averaged 34.5 minutes last year. He has averaged 36.8 minutes over a career in which he has proven durable. But it may be time, as Karl suggested, for Payton's minutes to drop, too.
Getting Payton to Boston, then getting him on board with a new role for a new team, are the challenges ahead for Ainge and Rivers. In the end, psychology may matter most.
"If you communicate with Gary and you can look across from him and he can feel you're honest with him, he's not difficult to deal with," said Karl. "He's a guy that has this rough, tough guy side, but he also has a big heart and a caring heart. In a strange, different way, he can be a really good person.
"But sometimes, he doesn't want people to know that."
The Celtics can sell the Laker trade any way they want. Depending on the day, it was either a deal for Payton, an opportunity to decrease the 2005-06 payroll (though not even come close to climbing under the salary cap), a way of freeing roster spots, or a move for greater flexibility next summer when Boston will juggle only 10-11 guaranteed contracts. A case can be made for any of the above. But don't try to sell the trade as proof of how much confidence Boston has in rookie point-guard-in-training Delonte West. Ainge and Rivers have no shortage of superlatives for West and his mature court presence. But West himself doesn't buy it. When the original trade included both Chucky Atkins and Marcus Banks, West thought nothing of it. Still, for one week, he was the Celtics' backup point guard behind Payton. "The trade didn't really have a major effect on me, as far as putting more pressure on me," said West.
"My work ethic right now is pretty good. [The trade] just made me want it even more, knowing there would definitely be minutes available for me to step in. We don't know how the season is going to play out with training camp and practice every day. I'm going to bring what I bring to the team and we'll see how things go. If the coach wants me to play two minutes a game, that's fine. If they want me to learn from the sidelines, that's fine also. You have to play your role." It's clear West is a quick study. Not only does he know the right things to say, but a quick review of his training schedule this summer shows he knows the right things to do, too. By his own calculation, West has enjoyed just 10 days off since the Celtics selected him 24th overall in the draft on June 24. In addition to competing in the Orlando and Las Vegas summer leagues, the 21-year-old from Greenbelt, Md., spent time working out with his high school coach and recently finished a two-week stay in Waltham, where he practiced with Celtics coaches and a handful of teammates. He will return to the practice facility at the end of the month.
As he makes the transition from shooting guard at St. Joseph's to NBA point guard, West knows he needs to put in a lot more time. When the summer started, he went almost exclusively to his left, and at times looked uncertain about how the Celtics wanted him to play his new position. He has worked on using his right hand, going right off screens, coming off pick-and-rolls and looking for his midrange jumper, and learning sets the Celtics plan to use this season. Now, West feels more comfortable heading into preseason. "The biggest adjustment for me had nothing to do with the actual physical on-the-court stuff," he said. "It was the mental part. I wasn't quite sure what the coaches were looking for me to do at the point guard position. I wasn't sure if they wanted me to be a prototypical point guard where you just keep everyone involved and run the show or if they thought of me being a scoring point guard. Once I got to summer league and got things rolling and got the ball in my hands a little more, I felt great. I think I'll play the point similar to [Sacramento's] Mike Bibby, to where you're keeping all your teammates involved, and at the same time, I'm a threat with my shooting ability. But the overall goal is to keep everyone involved, to make sure we stay in our sets, to have me pushing the ball so we get into our offense quickly."
For those who did not follow the Jazz last season as they chased the final Western Conference playoff spot, the Olympic performance of point guard Carlos Arroyo has been a revelation. In four games for Puerto Rico, including an opening upset of the US team that got everyone's attention, Arroyo is averaging 20.3 points, 5.5 assists, and 2.5 steals. But those numbers do not come as a surprise to the newest Celtic, Tom Gugliotta, who played 25 games for Utah last season. "He played extremely well for Utah," said Gugliotta. "He was our leader out on the court, and made a lot of big shots. Am I surprised Puerto Rico won? Yeah, but individually [Arroyo] is a talented player that can do a lot of things. I've seen him play great against very good point guards in our league. So that didn't surprise me much." Of course, the big surprise of the Olympic basketball tournament has been the play of the US team. Poor showings in exhibition contests carried over to the Games and called into question the selection process. The absence of a dependable outside scorer has spawned all sorts of debate. And the Celtics have joined the chorus of critics. Asked if he thought Paul Pierce could have made a difference, Ainge said, "I think that Paul Pierce definitely could have helped that team. They need some scoring. I guess that I personally am not enthralled with the whole selection process. I don't think that that's our best team. I know that there were a lot of guys that refused to go, but I still didn't think it was the best of the rest. There's a lot of guys that could've helped. Unfortunately, we take the guys that are most marketable in our league, or that put up the best fantasy league numbers and assume they're the best players. I don't think that team is a good mix." Added Gugliotta, "Maybe they can do a better job picking the team. Instead of getting everybody with big names, if you want to pick a team, you've got to pick role players. Who are your role players on this team right now? There aren't any. They're all stars or think they should be or they're going to be stars."
The chosen one
In an effort to raise funds for his foundation, Mark Blount enlisted Braman Motor Cars Porsche of West Palm Beach and arranged a raffle for a 2004 Porsche Boxster, with tickets costing $1,000 apiece. Michael Shore, a Celtics fan from Southern Florida who attends Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire, saw the raffle advertised at a Morton's steakhouse near his home and persuaded his parents to buy a ticket. His father figured the money would go to a good cause, and they struck a deal. If they ended up with the winning ticket, Michael would get the car. The 18-year-old is now the proud owner of a gray Porsche Boxster, which he received about a week ago. "I just wanted to meet Mark Blount because I like the Celtics," said Shore, who plans to volunteer for the foundation next summer and work with the kids the nonprofit organization aims to help through sports. "The focus of the foundation is and will always be the kids," said Blount. "[The Porsche giveaway] was a great end to a great fund-raising weekend. To have Michael win the car on just one raffle ticket gave everyone a good laugh." . . . If you have the car, you might as well get the clothes, too. On Sept. 30, Pierce will raise money for his Truth Fund with a night of food, fun, and fashion called Runway 34 at Avalon. The event is expected to attract a large crowd of local sports figures.
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