|SCOTT SKILES Never missed playoffs|
More than a decade ago, Danny Ainge began his first full season as head coach of the Phoenix Suns. He knew whom he wanted as his lead assistant. He had played against him. He had watched him coach in Greece. And he felt that Scott Skiles would be the ideal complement to him on the Suns bench.
"I just had a feel when I played against him," Ainge said last week, a day after Skiles was fired as Bulls coach. "I liked his style. He was a bright, bright basketball mind and I thought he would enhance my staff. And he did. I'm still a big fan. Who has coached better over the last three years than he has?"
Skiles was terminated following Chicago's uninspiring loss last Saturday at home to Houston, which came 24 hours after the Bulls' uninspiring loss in Boston to the Celtics. The Bulls were 9-16 after the Houston game, and that was enough for general manager John Paxson to pull the plug on the guy he brought in during the 2003-04 season to get the Bulls back to respectability.
As Ainge noted, few have coached better with what they had than Skiles. He coached Chicago for three seasons and each year the team made the playoffs. The Bulls got to the second round last year (after brooming defending champion Miami in the first round) and big things were expected this season. But it wasn't working.
The Bulls were lacking a certain je ne sais quoi, and there were plenty of targets, ranging from Skiles's grating temperament (he's not the warm and fuzzy type) to the rapid decline of Ben Wallace to the ongoing distractions involving Luol Deng and Ben Gordon. It didn't help that the guy Chicago traded to essentially make room for Big Ben, Tyson Chandler, was coming into his own for the Hornets and was a member of the US National Team.
But the same thing happened to Skiles in Chicago that happened to him in Phoenix when he replaced Ainge 20 games into the 1999-2000 season. Eventually, many of the young key players (Jason Kidd, Shawn Marion) grew weary of the Skiles approach, and he was let go for the more mild-mannered Frank Johnson. Skiles was out of basketball for more than a year before taking the Bulls job. But he has never missed the playoffs when given a full 82-game season.
Of all the problems that interim coach Jim Boylan inherits, one of the biggest is Wallace, whose skills (and they were already limited to one end of the floor) are diminishing at an astonishing rate. The Bulls signed him to a four-year deal worth $60 million, and this is only the second year. At the time, it looked like a sensible signing because it involved raiding the roster of a rival for a starter.
But Wallace struggled last year, and his numbers this year are horrible. He's not even among the top 30 rebounders in the NBA. (Chandler is fifth.) His is a tough personality and he has a big voice. In his mind, he may think he's still a $15 million-a-year player, but in no one else's mind is he. His entire game in Detroit was based on his athleticism (he's only 6 feet 7 inches, despite what the guides may say) and he's losing that as well. He can't score and he's a liability at the end of games because of his free throw shooting.
Maybe Boylan can reach him. It wasn't all that long ago that Rick Pitino resigned in Boston and his trusty lieutenant, Jim O'Brien, took over the team. Obie was Pitino's guy every bit as much as Boylan is Skiles's guy, but O'Brien quickly distanced himself from the Pitino Way mainly because he saw it wasn't working. Boylan has the advantage of having been there every day, so he has to know, too.
But will a coaching change get Gordon and Kurt Hinrich to shoot better? Will it get Wallace to play better and sulk less? Will it get Deng playing consistently to the point where no one's eyebrows will be raised if Chicago refuses to include him in a big trade?
That's not Skiles's problem anymore. He took the Christmas Eve whacking like a big boy, saying this was his time to be held accountable and that there would be no pity parties. For a guy who grew up knowing Indiana basketball and playing for Jud Heathcote, you expected nothing less.
From Durham to BullsThere aren't many still around in Durham, N.H., who remember new Bulls coach Jim Boylan when he did his three-year penance, er, stint as coach at the University of New Hampshire (although track coach Jim Boulanger fondly recalled the Tuesday night poker games at Boylan's house).
Until Boylan was named interim coach of the Bulls last Thursday, the UNH job represented the only head coaching experience on his long résumé (save for a stint as a player-coach in Switzerland). Boylan came to Durham in 1989 as the successor to the hugely popular and occasionally successful Gerry Friel, who coached for 20 years. He had played under Al McGuire at Marquette and had been an assistant for three years at Michigan State under Jud Heathcote, and he was ready.
"He had the wide-eyed look and he was determined to turn that program around," said Boulanger. "He had a good first recruiting class, but nothing seemed to pan out for him."
In three years with the Wildcats, Boylan was an underwhelming 15-69, including one season when his team went 3-25.
"Nobody has been able to turn that program around," Boulanger said.
In fact, the school's current athletic director referred to the long-suffering UNH men's hoops program as an "institutional embarrassment" in 2005.
Boulanger said Boylan faced the added problem of having an athletic director (Gib Chapman) who "thought he knew more about basketball and wanted to be the head coach."
Chapman did, in fact, succeed Boylan, but had no more luck than his predecessor and resigned in 1996.
There are now at least three NBA head coaches who have New England college jobs on their résumés: Boylan, Stan Van Gundy (Castleton State, UMass-Lowell), and P.J. Carlesimo (New Hampshire College.)
After long dry spell, HawksNo, that was not a misprint in any of the standings you might have seen in the days after Christmas. The Atlanta Hawks are, indeed, not only firmly in the playoff picture but challenging for home-court advantage in the first round. Huh?
whet their appetite for playoffs
"Atlanta sports has kind of been down for a while," said Hawks forward Marvin Williams. "It's up to us to try and bring some life to the city."
A playoff berth for Atlanta would bring an end to the longest current drought in the NBA, which dates to 1999.
"We set the playoffs as our goal at the start of the season," Williams said. "It's been an extremely long drought and the playoffs are on everyone's mind."
So what has happened? Well, the Hawks' schedule has been Celticsesque, with only two Western Conference road games (Minnesota and Dallas). Sixteen of their first 28 games were at home (although that is not exactly a huge edge in Atlanta). And some of those home games have been against the NBA iron (Detroit, San Antonio, Phoenix, Dallas, New Orleans).
"We've done all right against some of the Western Conference teams at home, but at the same time, we know we have to go into their place and play well," Williams said.
Atlanta started to make a move when coach Mike Woodson put veteran point guard Anthony Johnson into the starting lineup; the team went on a 13-7 tear.
"AJ has been huge," Williams said. "He's a guy who has been around the league and knows what it's all about."
The Hawks' victory over Indiana last Wednesday night was their fifth straight - their longest winning streak in eight years - and they are finishing up what likely will be their best December in 14 years.
The fans, however, have yet to break down the doors at Philips Arena.
Entering the weekend, Atlanta was 23d in attendance with an average of 14,832, or 79 percent capacity. The team averaged 15,595 last year.
Peter May can be reached at email@example.com; material from personal interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.