For James, a winning proposition
When Mike James spied executive director of basketball operations Danny Ainge through the peephole of his hotel room door in Los Angeles hours before the trading deadline, he thought, `OK, this cannot be good.' Ainge personally delivered the news that James had been dealt to Detroit as part of a three-team transaction. While the trade came as a complete surprise, James now considers the move "the best thing" that has happened to him as a professional.
"I couldn't be in a better situation," said James. "This is my first time in the playoffs, but I don't ever want to play on a team that won't be competitive in the playoffs. Our focus was not just making the playoffs, but wanting to win it all. That's the atmosphere of this team. When you're a part of something like this, it just gives you that special confidence."
The trade Detroit, Boston, and Atlanta completed Feb. 19 went down as the Rasheed Wallace deal. And appropriately so. By acquiring the temperamental, All-Star power forward, the Pistons changed the balance of power in the East, turning into favorites for a conference championship and legitimate contenders for an NBA title. (Since the arrival of Wallace, the Pistons are 27-10.) Detroit plays New Jersey in Game 7 tonight at the Palace of Auburn Hills for the opportunity to face Indiana in the Eastern Conference finals.
By his admission, James made the money work in the biggest deal before the deadline. He understands his place as a footnote in the recent annals of NBA trade history, just as surely as he accepts his new role as a backup point guard. Playing behind another former Celtic in Chauncey Billups, James averaged 6.3 points per game and 3.7 assists in 19.7 minutes over the final 26 regular-season games with the Pistons. During the 2004 playoffs, James has averaged 3.9 points per game and 1.4 assists in 10.6 minutes.
"This is a great opportunity," said James. "The one problem at the beginning was the minutes. The minutes have definitely changed drastically. But when you're on a winning team, everyone looks good. I play a key [reserve role] on the team, so I'm showing another part of my game that I wasn't able to show in the past.
"Of course, there's nothing better than playing a lot of minutes. Starting in Boston helped me a lot. It also gave me value. People saw that I could play in this league and be a starter. So, after the trade, coach [Larry Brown] knows that if Chauncey goes down, he has another player that has been in [pressure] situations. I've been getting a lot of respect and a lot of reps."
With Boston, James started 55 games, averaging 10.7 points per game and 4.4 assists per game in 30.6 minutes. Signed to a one-year deal as a free agent July 25, 2003, James initially surprised many by earning the starting job over highly touted rookie Marcus Banks. James credits former Boston coach Jim O'Brien for having patience as he adjusted to a starting role after a couple of seasons as a reserve in Miami.
"I was at my best under Coach O'Brien," said James. "I believe he was probably the best coach I've ever played under. Not just for the fact that he let me play, but he let me be a player, he let me be a point guard. He let me make my mistakes and learn from my mistakes. He gave me confidence. I could remember him calling my plays at the end of games, like in Memphis. [James hit the winning shot]. Everybody else did not believe he was doing this, but he was basically saying, `I believe Mike can do it.' It made me feel good, understanding I have a coach that believes in me. So, when he left, it was kind of like a low blow in a boxing match."
When asked if his former Boston teammates also felt it was a "low blow," James added, "I think so. I really do. But some people dealt with it differently than others. I could understand why Jim O'Brien left. I could understand that it was not what he signed up for. I felt like his power wasn't the same. I felt like they were trying to take away his power of coaching. All the trades went down. It didn't seem like the same team. It didn't seem like the same atmosphere.
"We had a good thing going in the beginning and that's what I signed up for when I first signed with Boston, the team that was there. We enjoyed one another's company. When all the trades went down, the first one [with Antoine Walker] was devastating, the second one [with Eric Williams] was crushing. When Coach O'Brien left, that was like, `Wow, now we've lost our leader.' So, at that point, it got real frustrating because I thought the chemistry and camaraderie that we had, and what we were gaining, was lost. The team played hard and tried to win, but it just didn't seem like winning was our team's motivation. So, it just got difficult."
James talked about the Celtics turning into a collection of cliques, as opposed to a close-knit collection of individuals with a common goal. Among the different groups were "Danny's guys," players who had been either drafted by or acquired in trades by Ainge, and the old guard, players who were part of the Celtics' rise under O'Brien.
According to James, it became worse once John Carroll assumed the role of interim coach. From the beginning of his tenure, it was clear Carroll inherited an impossible situation.
"Coach O'Brien demanded respect," said James. "Jim O'Brien had our respect. Nothing against Coach Carroll, but I just felt guys never gave him a chance and they never really respected him or respected his opinion on how to work things out. So, I feel like he just went into a shell himself and said basically, `It's going to be my way or no way at all. I'm not going to try to earn your respect.' There came a point when Carroll just said, `To heck with it all.' But he tried in the beginning.
"We wanted to continue to go hard, but it just changed. We put in new systems. Danny Ainge was seen a little more at practice. You know, things just changed. When things are going good, I've always been a strong believer in if it ain't broke, don't try to fix it. It may have been a little loose, but it wasn't broken. All you needed was a little screwdriver to tighten the bolts up. That's it. Maybe we had to get different pieces to the puzzle, but I don't believe we had to get a whole, entire, new puzzle."
Happily removed from the Celtics' scene, the only puzzle James now concerns himself with is how the Pistons can beat the Nets. Once Detroit reaches the end of its playoff run, James will figure out his NBA future as he enters free agency again.
"I would love to come back to Detroit," said James. "But it's all about security. I believe I've done a lot in this league and I've been on one-year deals since I've been in this league. My goal now is to get some years and get some security, so my family can settle down."
© Copyright 2004 Globe Newspaper Company.