Three weeks to go in the regular season, and a new name has appeared in the talk for coach of the year.
There were four obvious names -- Don Nelson, who’s managed to win with a shortie lineup and with Manute Bol firing up three-pointers; Cotton Fitzsimmons, who has overseen the revitalization of a moribund Phoenix franchise; Lenny Wilkens, who has molded the young Cavaliers into title contenders and kept them on an even keel; and Rick Pitino, who has kept the press on in New York all season even when the pundits said it couldn’t be done.
Add to the mix Washington’s Wes Unseld.
There were some in the Bullets’ organization who wondered if Washington would win 20 games this season. That wasn’t pessimistic. A lot of people around the league agreed. But Unseld, along with assistants Jeff Bzdelik and Bill Blair, has implemented a motion offense and a trapping defense that, while not the equal of the Knicks’, has won its share of games.
And the Bullets, who won 38 games all of last season, have won 30 this season without Moses Malone, Bol and Muggsy Bogues, with 18 regular-season games to go.
Because of the stunning about-faces in Phoenix and Golden State (the Suns already have won 14 more games than last season; the Warriors, 17), Unseld is unlikely to win the award. But he may grab a handful of votes.
“He’s done a terrific job,” said Philadelphia Coach Jim Lynam. “We played them twice in pre-season and I liked the way they were sharing the ball and playing unselfishly then. It was a dramatic change in style and they’ve taken some time to get it down.”
Meanwhile, Unseld continues to insist he’s not smart enough to know anything about coaching. Someone knows something, for the Bullets have been playing as well as they possibly can play for the last three weeks.
The Cavaliers aren’t anonymous anymore, what with their great record this season, and they find themselves getting in more and more scraps, especially with a team from Detroit.
“I think teams that take you seriously prepare for you,” said center Brad Daugherty. “Games become more difficult. You really have to play well every night in order to take a team’s best shot.”
As far as the Pistons, who got him suspended for a game and knocked Mark Price out for two, courtesy of a Rick Mahorn elbow, Daugherty said what they do is smart, but a nuisance.
“They try to provoke an incident to take your mind away from the game of basketball,” he said. “They’re within the rules. They’re fouling aggressively, pushing and shoving and things like that, but what makes it so hard to deal with is when you get caught doing the same things ... the game’s fine when you’re playing hard and they’re pushing and shoving, but when you get called for a foul for doing the same thing, that’s when everything gets worked up. That’s when it gets hard to deal with.
“It’s frustrating. What the hell am I supposed to do? ... (the league) is wrapped up into it just like everyone else. That just proves the point. They intimidate a lot of people. Sometimes, maybe, you wonder if they don’t intimidate everyone.”
He left the definition of “everyone” to others. ...
Charles Barkley’s 43-point, 14-rebound effort against the Knicks last Thursday was, the all-pro forward said, a message to the New Yorkers for future playoff reference.
“More than likely, we’re going to play them in the first round. So it’s going to be (difficult),” he said. “It’s going to five games. It’s going to be a war when we play these guys. They’ll probably have the home court. But it ain’t gonna be easy. It’s going to be five games. We don’t think they can beat us in Philly, and we know it’s going to be tough when we play here. But it’s going to be a serious game when we play these guys.”
When Bernie Bickerstaff and assistant Bob Kloppenburg were out of commission on the same day a couple of weeks ago, the running of the team was left to second assistant Tom Newell, scout Gary Wortman and an unfamiliar face on the bench -- SuperSonics President Bob Whitsitt. “I’ve coached pee-wees,” Whitsitt told Seattle reporters. “Well, actually, I just kept stats for them. That’s the extent of my experience.” Bickerstaff returned to practice Monday. . . . Add odd assistants: the injured Jeff Malone took stats and, he said, drew up plays during Washington’s win over Philadelphia Saturday. “I called a couple of 20-second timeouts,” he said. “I drew up a couple of plays that I didn’t get a chance to run. I think they would have been very effective. If we had, we might have won by two or three more points.” . . . Denver’s Doug Moe, angered when the Pistons fouled Denver players in the last minute of a 129-112 victory to try for 130 points, so fans would get free pizza, told the Nuggets not to play defense. With seconds left, Detroit turned over the ball to Elston Turner, who said he thought about shooting at the Pistons’ basket. But he stopped, saying he didn’t know how well it would go over with Moe. . . . When the Heat won its ninth game of the season, assuring Miami it wouldn’t set a record for worst record in league history, Coach Ron Rothstein was asked where the victory ranked. “Right up there, with the other eight,” he said.