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SportsGuy Interview 1/31/06

Bill Simmons was kind enough to answer some questions over the weekend (before the loss to the TWolves).  These questions were complied by poster HomeRunBaker.

Q: Were you surprised at how well your book, Now I Can Die In Peace, has sold? Do you have another presently in the works like maybe My Week In Exile With Zeljko Rebraca?

My feeling from Day One was that if I slapped together a good sports book, no matter what it was about, people would want to read it. I had never gone through the process of selling a book, and everyone was so busy managing my expectations because it was about the Red Sox (and none of the post-2004 Sox books did well except for the Stephen King book), it seemed like nobody ever asked the question, “Wait, what if this thing sells?” So I guess I feel more vindicated than anything. The best part has been getting e-mails from readers who hate the Red Sox and still enjoyed the book. That makes me feel good. More important, the book did well enough that I can write the second book about whatever I want. So you might actually see the Zeljko Rebraca book, although his head is so huge, I don’t know if it would fit on a book cover. By the way, everyone tells me that NBA books don’t sell and that it’s a bad idea. Which kinda makes me want to write one.

Q: What, if anything, did you learn about your readers during your book signing tour?

That they were exceedingly normal. You always hope with this stuff, but you never really know until you go out on the road and meet them. Deep down, I was worried it would be like that Star Trek convention on SNL, just guys in their mid-20’s who looked like they hadn’t left their house in six months. But it wasn’t like that at all.

Q: Have you ever regretted skewering someone in print?

Not really. When I became visible on ESPN, the tables were turned on me a few times and it’s pretty jarring to read a complete stranger trying to rip you to shreds. So I always try to keep that in mind. I didn’t feel terrific after the Doc Rivers column because he’s a good guy by all accounts. At the same time, somebody had to write about him. We were going on 120 games of him pulling the same crap and nobody was calling him on it. Plus, the season was deteriorating to the point that a Pierce trade was starting to seem like an option, and there was no way in hell I was letting that happen without pointing the finger at Doc first. And in retrospect, it worked. The local media started writing about Doc and debating his coaching merits, which is all I ever wanted. (Even Gerry Callahan wrote a column about Doc, and he’s probably watched 5 Celtics games in the past 12 years.) Obviously I skewed that column towards a certain perspective, but that’s what a column is - you make an argument and try to prove it in an entertaining way. I don’t think some people realize that.

The real problem is that the local Celtics coverage has been so lacking for so many years, my columns (especially the more critical ones) always seem to come out of left field. For instance, the Doc column seemed harsh because nobody had written something like that or even broached it… but the reality is that most diehard Celtics fans were complaining about him to some degree. I grew up in Boston when Bob Ryan was covering the team (who was the best basketball writer ever), and then Dan Shaughnessy (who was excellent), and Jackie MacMullen (ditto). I even liked Michael Holley’s coverage in the late-90’s, I thought he did a good job. In each case, if you were trapped in a tropical location for a week and missed the Celtics games, you could trust those people to give you an honest report about the games you missed, and they weren’t afraid to criticize players and coaches when necessary.

Is there anyone in Boston like that now? Not really. So that’s why my Doc column became a bigger deal than it was. Boston is pretty predictable in that regard. It’s the Joe Morgan/Dick MacPherson Corollary: If you’re a manager, coach or front office executive and A.) treat everyone well, B.) say all the right things, and C.) don’t act goofy or condescending, the press will leave you alone regardless of how much you’re screwing up. Put on a gorilla suit or make the “Larry Bird’s not walking through that door” speech and the gloves comes off. So Doc has done a great job of carrying himself well, giving everyone the right quotes and remaining accessible at all times. That’s the real reason nobody criticized him for 18 months.
Q: Jackie MacMullen is the one sportswriter who you have consistently praised over the years. What separates her from the other writers who cover professional Boston teams?

First, she played basketball through college. Second, she understood basketball and it was obvious in her columns. Third, she LIKED basketball. And fourth, she was a good reporter and a good writer. She wasn’t in Bob Ryan’s league or anything, but she was very good when she covered the team. I really don’t think this is rocket science. If I’m hiring someone to review music albums for me, I want someone who likes music and writes about music with passion. The same should go for basketball.

Q: Do you feel disconnected from the Boston sports scene since you moved to California? Will you ever consider returning?

It’s not that different - I still read the same papers, talk to the same friends and watch all the games on Direc-TV, and I had stopped listening to WEEI before I even left. The biggest thing I miss is actually going to Celtics and Sox games. I used to go to 20-25 Sox games and just about every Celtics game. You pick up stuff when you’re there in person - body language, fan reactions, player-coach dynamics, goofy anecdotes and everything else. That’s what I miss the most. I will definitely return home some day, I just wanted to live somewhere else for a few years. It’s been good for me. I am now convinced that I have been on West Coast time for my entire life - I was always one of those people who woke up late and went to bed at 3AM. Everything evened out in California.

Q: What has been your most pleasant surprise about living in Southern California?

What it’s like to have good weather every day. The weather was making me crazy back home, I just couldn’t take it anymore. You’d be surprised what it’s like to wake up with nice weather day after day after day… for instance, the Sox just spent the last 3 months without a GM, closer, shortstop or centerfielder… I was cool with it and everyone back home was freaking out. Good weather mellows you out. It’s also much easier to follow sports because the games come on earlier. With that said, every time I come home during a pennant race or something, I miss the energy and the sense of kinship that sports brings to a city like Boston, where it’s all anyone is talking about. That’s why I will eventually come back. I miss that energy. You just don’t get that in California.
Q: Take PP’s career to date. Assume he never picks up another basketball. Do we see a 34 in the rafters?

I think he needs one or two more quality years. It’s been interesting to hear Tommy Heinsohn call PP potentially the greatest offensive player in Celtics history though - it amazes me how people just choose to forget how dominant Larry Bird was. The dude won three straight MVP’s, scored more points than Pierce, and controlled games in every respect. Pierce has been a very good scorer, and he’s certainly matured as an all-around player this season, but comparing him to someone like Bird is insane - for instance, can you remember Bird blowing even one game by missing free throws? That happens with Pierce five times a season. Also, Bird could have scored 35 a night if he chose to play that way.

I would compare Pierce more to someone like Havlicek - very good and very steady for a prolonged period of time. Although he needs another 5-6 quality years and some playoff heroics to move into Havlicek’s class. That’s what bothers me about sports as I get older - everyone just quickly forgets the guys from the previous generation, it’s all about the new guys. I mean, I was THERE for Bird. The guy was unbelievable. He turned Boston into a basketball town for the entire decade of the 80’s. And nobody remembers this for some reason. I’m surprised that Tommy forgets this so quickly. Actually, maybe I’m not that surprised. He’s gone off the deep end this season. I can’t believe nobody has created a website that writes down all his quotes during games - how many times do we have to hear things like “You know who Orien Greene remind me of on that play?  Oscar Robertson!” before that happens?

Q: Are you worried about Big Al?

Not really. In retrospect, it was pretty predictable - after he looked good in the Indiana series, they spent the whole summer talking about how great he was going to be, gave him a commercial, talked about how he was untouchable … and starting with the summer league, there just hasn’t been a consistent urgency to his game. Almost like he thought he didn’t have to work as hard anymore. I bet the Celtics would handle the whole thing differently if they had the chance - you need to challenge young players and make them earn everything, you can’t make excuses for them. When he sucked in Vegas, they should have flipped out. They didn’t. And it’s been a problem ever since. They spent the summer building him up, then yanked his minutes around and questioned his effort. What did you expect? They had the guy headed to the Hall of Fame in July! Did they really think he was going to work his butt off?

Q: Can this Celtic team become a good defensive team with a new coach or will it take some personnel changes to get there?

Considering that we haven’t successfully stopped a pick-and-roll in 16 months, I would say we might need a new coach. But what do I know? I think Wally helps in that regard - with Wally, Raef, Paul and Delonte, we have four guys now who are very good at rotating and helping out and all that stuff. And I think Perk can get there. We feel more like a team now after that trade. I was delighted by the Sacramento game. It was the first time since the Obie Era where I felt like everyone on the team was on the same page.

Q: Celtic Pride the movie is a sad blot on the luster of Celtic tradition. If you could make a movie about the Celtics, what theme would you chose?

I would hire Michael Moore to make a documentary about Chris Wallace and the Vin Baker trade back in 2002 called “What The #%&! Were You Thinking?”

Q: Tough question for you: What GOOD things can you say about Doc?

Fantastic with the media. Handles himself with class. Says all the right things and makes you feel like he’s a real coach. Not opposed to blaming himself if he screws up during a game, like not guarding the inbounds pass in the Detroit loss this season. Gets partial credit for Pierce’s character resurgence this season, although I feel like that would have happened regardless of the coach. Does a great job of looking disappointed after a tough loss. Always dresses well.

Q: What’s been the brightest spot of the season for you?

Other than Pierce evolving into a true superstar? Probably Delonte… here’s a classic example of why you need to let young players play without glancing over their shoulder every five minutes to see if they’re coming out. If you knew anything about Delonte, you knew he just need to play. Just leave him alone and let him do his thing. So they yank him around in the preseason, yank him around the first month of the season, and when Dickau got hurt and Greene was struggling, Doc had no choice BUT to play him. And Delonte settled down and his career took off - now he’s probably the best guard from last year’s draft other than maybe Devin Harris. This never, ever, EVER would have happened had Dickau and Banks not gotten hurt and Greene not struggled, because Doc would have kept yanking everyone around. The weird thing is that Doc PLAYED POINT GUARD IN THE NBA! He knows that you undermine the confidence of a point guard, it’s the toughest position in the league! I just think they lucked out. And I feel vindicated by the whole thing - Delonte was my guy in the 2004 Draft, I thought he was a gamer in college, and I thought he would be a very good pro. But we never would have known unless they have him minutes and left him alone.

Q: Who is the one Reality TV star best suited to coach the Celtics?

I would go with Boston Rob from Survivor - not only is he a local kid, but if he was smart enough to manipulate the “All-Stars” game AND land Amber, he has to be smart enough to come up with a nine-man rotation for the 2006 Celtics.

Q: Danny Ainge continues to stockpile future picks as potential upgrades over some of our youngs who fail to cut it in Boston such as Banks and Reed.   Which young player on our roster do you feel will outperform their present expectation and which player do you have pegged as potentially failing to realize their potential out of our current crop?

Overall, I think Danny has done a great job with his draft picks; I don’t think anyone in the league has a better batting average. I can’t blame Danny for the Banks pick - he had been on the job for like 5 weeks and Banks’s stock was rising big-time heading into that draft. And Reed was a late-second round pick, the odds of a guy even making a team after Pick No. 30 are like 1-in-3. As for the current youngsters, the only one playing right now that worries me is Tony Allen â€" he just makes too many mistakes on the offensive end, it’s like he’s stuck in fifth gear all the time. This would be fine if he was 20, but he’s 24 years-old. At some point, the lightbulb should start flickering.

With that said, the Gerald Green pick looks shakiest to me. Because they didn’t really scout him because he was expected to go top-six, I don’t think they were prepared for how raw Green was/is. Just from the games I’ve seen, he has a bad case of Kedrickbrown-itits â€" in other words, he’s a phenomenal athlete, but if he isn’t involved in the play, he just stands there and doesn’t do anything. He’s the complete opposite of someone like Delonte, who’s always thinking and moving and figuring out ways to impact every play. So raising Green’s basketball IQ will be a MAJOR challenge. On the bright side, Tracy McGrady looked just as lost and overwhelmed as a rookie in Toronto, so you never know.
Q: When Ainge took over the Basketball Operations, he stated that his primary objective was to improve the overall athleticism of the roster.   Since the drafting of Banks, Allen and Reed along with the trade for Ricky Davis he has added such “thinking” players as West, Scalabrine, Dickau, Gomes and Szczerbiak to the roster.   During this time Ainge has also traded three of the four players mentioned above (one of them twice).  What do you feel was the catalyst for Ainge to suddenly shift gears after only a year of restructuring the roster to improve our athleticism and how concerned are you for the Sports Dad’s health when David Stern announces that the Celtics have used a lottery pick on Adam Morrison or JJ Redick?

Wait, I don’t think Danny has shifted gears - from the beginning, he’s been trying to stockpile assets and change a roster made up of two good players and ten below-average ones. That’s been his only goal. I mean, look at the team he inherited: Pierce, Walker, Delk, Blount, Williams, Brown, Battie, Baker, McCarty, Stewart, Bremer, the 13th and 27th picks in a below-average 2003 draft. That’s it. Now we have two young bigs with major potential (Perk and Al), an excellent young point guard (West), a former All-Star in his prime (Wally), some upside guys (Allen, Gomes, Greene), one potential home run upside guy (Green), a franchise player (Pierce) and multiple first rounders over the next five years. His only bad moves were the first Walker trade (which wasn’t even that bad since it eventually netted them West, Allen and Cleveland’s 1st-round pick) and overpaying Scalabrine, Doc and Dickau. But everyone forgets how hopeless the situation was in 2003 â€" the team had overachieved for two years, was aging fast and didn’t have any cap flexibility or real hope for the future (thanks to Wallace’s dumb moves and Paul Gaston’s refusal to spend money in free agency).

Here’s my Danny theory: I DO think his front office has a specific goal in mind. They want this team to eventually resemble last year’s Sonics team, which had great shooters at the 1-2-3 positions, a franchise guy in his prime, bigs who could rebound, block shots and score against single-teams, and athletes coming off the bench who could make plays on both ends. (Everyone forgets this now, but the Sonics gave the Spurs everything they could handle in the 2005 playoffs, even though they had an inferior roster.) It’s almost like “Moneyball” for the NBA - if you don’t have a superstar like KG, McGrady, Duncan or LeBron, what’s the easiest way to compete at a high level? By playing as efficiently as possible. If you’re shooting a high percentage, keeping turnovers down, controlling the boards and getting easy points off lay-ups and pick-and-rolls instead of that one-on-one crap where everyone’s standing around watching everyone else, that’s like having a baseball offense where everyone gets on base and has a good OPS. You’re increasing your chances to compete every night.

Well, Pierce, Wally and Delonte are three of the more efficient offensive players in the league. So that’s a good start. If they can figure out the slash-and-kick game and how to take advantage of one another, this team has a chance to be pretty good. And then if Perk and Al can come through… who knows? I like the direction of the franchise and Danny deserves credit for sticking with Pierce over these last two years when it would have been very easy to trade him for 75 cents on the dollar.

(Now if we can only convince Danny to stop overpaying mediocre free agents every summer…)

Q: When you look at our roster, which area sticks out to you as an area of need that would allow us to move into the top 4-5 of the Eastern Conference over the next 2-3 seasons? Do you see Pierce being moved during this time to acquire these parts?

Absolutely not. Pierce isn’t going anywhere. Again, I think they have the foundation they want now â€" they’re happy at four positions (West, Pierce, Wally, Perkins) and keeping their fingers crossed for the fifth (Jefferson). If they make a major move over the next two seasons, I think it would be upgrading Jefferson’s spot and finding a big man who’s a little further along. For instance, Toronto isn’t going anywhere and Chris Bosh could leave in two years. What would they say if we offered Jefferson, Green and a No. 1 for Bosh? What about Jefferson, Green, two No 1’s and LaFrentz to Indiana for Jermaine O’Neal? See, that’s the thing: The Celts have enough assets now where they could overwhelm the right team for another All-Star caliber player. I think that’s a good thing.

For now? Either Doc needs to raise his game, or we need to find someone else to coach these guys. That’s going to be the single biggest subplot over the next 3 months. Well, other than Chris Wallace pushing for Danny to trade for Chris Andersen.

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