Andrew Bynum is on paid leave and festering on the trade block. Paul Pierce is embarrassed by his team’s performance. Andre Miller is openly berating coach Brian Shaw from the bench.
All around the NBA, frustrations are boiling over for many of the league’s most struggling teams. From Cleveland to Brooklyn to Denver and beyond, the good vibes of training camp and the pledges of unity that dominated the first two months of the season have given way to bickering, bad body language and outright hostility.
Not even the Boston Celtics have been immune. Jeff Green and Brandon Bass had to be separated on the bench during the Celtics’ loss to the Atlanta Hawks on Tuesday, and both left without speaking to reporters after the game. The players downplayed the verbal altercation at practice one day later, and Celtics coach Brad Stevens hardly seemed concerned, but even if there are no hard feelings from the Bass-Green run-in, the incident is just part of a trend that pops up yearly around this time.
As the season nears its midway point, reality is starting to set in for a number of teams. They’re not as good as they anticipated — or, in most cases, as good as they had blindly hoped — and they’re not very happy about it.
Whether or not these conflicts amount to ominous signs depends on if you see them as causes or coincidences of the teams’ larger problems. The Celtics were in the process of letting a big lead slip away for the third straight game when Green and Bass exchanged words. A few teammates have seemed irritated by Bass’ shot selection this season, with Gerald Wallace criticizing unnamed teammates for “stat-padding” after a loss in which Bass played hero-ball on a few too many possessions.
But the Celtics had reeled off several successful stretches since that game. If tensions didn’t affect the Celtics then, those same tensions alone can’t be blamed for the losses now.
For the Cleveland Cavaliers, the picture is just as fuzzy. A healthy and happy Bynum could have pushed the Cavs into the Eastern Conference playoff picture, but they entered Thursday just 10-21, and Bynum is neither healthy nor happy. Yet Bynum is not the only underachiever for the Cavs. Jarrett Jack has been underwhelming as a sixth man, and Alonzo Gee has taken a downward turn. Meanwhile, coach Mike Brown has made some odd lineup decisions — and none of this includes the Anthony Bennett disaster.
Likewise, Pierce has a hand (no pun intended) in the embarrassment he feels in Brooklyn. The Nets have had injuries, including the broken hand Pierce has played through since Dec. 10, but their roster was built to withstand a blow here and there. Kevin Garnett looks lost, Deron Williams and Joe Johnson are inconsistent, and coach Jason Kidd hasn’t been able to fill in the gaps. Questionable coaching also appears to be at play in Denver, where the highly sought Shaw hasn’t lived up to his reputation as a star coach in the making.
Every team, not just the bad ones, has disagreements. LeBron James and Mario Chalmers had a sideline spat in December, and Dwight Howard has customarily whined to his teammates on the court more than once. Winning has a way of smoothing things out, though, so good teams tend to either get over such things or to have them forgotten rather quickly. Losing, by contrast, causes those things to fester.
Conflict is a part of team sports, as Stevens pointed out, and a team devoid of conflict probably is a team devoid of competitors. No team is doomed just because a couple players had it out or because a coach isn’t parceling out playing time in the most effective manner. Teams begin each season believing that, should they be tested, every individual will be able to put his differences aside and figure things out. As the losses mount and frustration spreads, though, many players are coming to an uncomfortable realization.
The obstacles are bigger than they thought they would be, and their team’s collective resolve isn’t as steadfast as they imagined.