Forget that the nearby Blazers — led by hometown product Brandon Roy and “Mr. Sonic” Nate McMillan — are in the playoffs. Without the actual Sonics around and a distinct drop in general interest in the NBA in Seattle, the biggest sports stories in my city right now are the NFL Draft, and Ken Griffey Jr. coming back to the Mariners.
Ten years since we last had him, Junior is still The Man out here. His jersey flies off shelves at the team shop, and when he steps to the plate at Safeco Field, the crowd goes nuts. Just one problem: Junior’s been playing like ass. He’s hitting .171 with nine K’s and two homers. I went to the M’s/Tigers game last Sunday, and Griffey was awful, going 0-for-4 while failing to get a ball out of the infield. Nobody expected to get 1999 Griffey (dude is 39 years old), but to date, it’s been ugly. So far, though, the fans haven’t seemed to notice too much. The M’s sit atop of the AL West, and Griffey has provided some memorable moments already on the young season, so it’s all good for now.
But any day, I know the honeymoon has to end. If Griffey keeps playing like this, eventually the strikeouts with two men on and the weak grounders won’t get that collective, “Aww, too bad, maybe next time” reaction you give to Little Leaguers. Eventually the fans will start booing, and the papers will start running the “What’s wrong with Junior?” columns. People will start to expect some return on their investment.
I bring this up because in these NBA playoffs, there are a few guys for which, if the honeymoon isn’t already over, the cruise ship is approaching the dock. Production is expected from them, and if they don’t deliver now, next season the crowds won’t be so forgiving.
GREG ODEN — “So here we are; another summer of anticipation in front of Oden and those of us who are impatiently waiting to see if this kid is really the truth. … Eventually, the excuses will be gone and we’ll see if the super-hyped mystery kid was worth it.”
I wrote that last summer, and we’re still in the excuses phase with Oden. And while I don’t disagree with the “Just have him focus on defense and rebounding and not try to do too much” strategy, I don’t think anybody was saying that when David Robinson and Shaq first came along. And I also don’t think those two would have been still backing up Joel Przybilla at the end of their rookie seasons.
Injuries aside (he missed 21 games this year), when Oden has played he’s been a magnet for refs’ whistles. In 61 regular-season games, he had five-plus fouls in 23 of them, and that doesn’t include fouling out in Game 2 of Portland’s series against Houston. He’s had some standout games — 24 points and 15 boards against Milwaukee, 17 and 12 with six blocks against New York — but his development is still behind the curve, especially when you see that ’07 Draft classmates Kevin Durant and Al Horford are leaving Oden in the dust.
You can write this year off to recovering from microfracture surgery and simply being a rookie, but next year expectations will be greater than the 8.9 points, 7.0 boards and 1.1 blocks Oden produced this year. Even if the ceiling has dropped from “next Bill Russell,” G.O. can at least be a little more like Nene.
BYRON SCOTT — Yeah, he just won Coach of the Year in ’08, but ask Sam Mitchell how much job security that gets you. Don’t be surprised if Scott’s name starts popping up on those “Coaches on the Hot Seat” lists sooner than you’d think.
Last year, when nobody expected the Hornets to make too much noise, Scott was playing with house money. He knew what he had in Chris Paul and David West and a healthy Tyson Chandler; it just surprised everyone else when they took the No. 2 seed in the West and gave the Spurs all they could handle in the playoffs.
This year, the expectations changed. While the Hornets (49 wins) were only seven games worse than last year (56 wins), their 7th-place finish was a drop from the Top-4 finish many predicted. And with James Posey expected to put them over the top as a real championship contender, the fact that they appear headed for a first-round sweep doesn’t help that perception of underachievement.
Not that Scott’s job is in imminent danger, but if the Hornets take another step back next year, albeit even a small one, Scott will start to look like a coach who’s losing his players. And if the front office truly thinks they have the right roster in place (superstar CP, All-Star D-West, title-certified Posey), one of those “change of direction” press conferences won’t be too far off.
RASHEED WALLACE — It’s safe to say that the “Rasheed can be one of the best players in the League if he wants to be” campaign is dead and gone.
Wallace’s numbers actually haven’t dipped much at all: His 12.1 points, 7.4 boards, 1.3 blocks and 35 percent three-point shooting this season was right in line with what he’s been doing the last few years. But his elite performances have been few and far between. He’s done nothing since the All-Star break, and isn’t really a threat anyone game-plans for anymore. If you’re playing the Pistons right now, you’re worried about Rip, Tayshaun, and maybe Rodney Stuckey. That’s it.
The on-court antics and technicals were acceptable when Detroit was championship-caliber and Chauncey was around to somewhat reign ‘Sheed in, but now it just hurts a team that doesn’t need extra help giving games away. With ‘Sheed being a free agent this summer, who will want him? No doubt he’ll want to go to a contender, but which ones can afford to take on all that comes with him?