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Thompson: Unpacking the Draymond Green-Kevin Durant rift and what the fall out could mean long term

By Marcus Thompson II Nov 13, 2018 162
The​ future​ might​ point back to this moment​ as the end.​ A random​ November game​ at​ Staples Center,​ against​​ a Clippers team that history wouldn’t otherwise remember, was the opening salvo in the destruction of a dynasty.

Who gets the blame depends on who you ask.

Some will blame Draymond Green for unleashing a tirade on Kevin Durant, one so personal and biting things could never be the same afterward.

Some will point to Durant, who repeatedly dangled free agency over the heads of his teammates and tested the patience of his peers, several of whom suspect he’s leaving at the end of the season.

Perhaps the lion’s share should go to general manager Bob Myers and coach Steve Kerr, who escalated the stakes by suspending Green for a game without pay, costing him $120,000 but most importantly morphing an in-house feud into a public rebuke of Green and open support of Durant.

The irony. In the end, it may not be the Houston Rockets or the Boston Celtics to dethrone the Warriors. What if it’s failing organs and internal bleeding that lead to the end of the Dubs dominance? What if one of the greatest teams in NBA history was broken apart by a front-office attempt at appeasement?

By now, everyone knows how this all started. I talked to multiple sources — in the locker room, the front office and to adjacent parties — to find out what happened and what happens next. The drama didn’t begin until the end of regulation against the Clippers on Monday. That’s when Durant barked at Green for not getting him the ball in the final seconds. The two-time Finals MVP pounded the chair in frustration as he chided the team’s leading assist man.

Green took exception to how Durant addressed him. The exact dialogue couldn’t be recounted as it was said, but it began with Green immediately firing back.

Who the fuck you talking to?

According to multiple sources, Green then went on to make it clear he’s been making plays for years. He reminded Durant the Warriors were winning before Durant showed up so he wouldn’t stand for Durant talking to him as if he were a scrub. Green accused Durant of making the whole season about him even though he was going to leave after this season. Green let out his frustrations about how Durant has handled free agency — keeping his options open and keeping the story alive, consuming the Warriors and their season with talk of what Durant will do next.

That’s the mild version. The original version included Green calling Durant a “bitch” several times — disrespect that management said was too harsh to overlook.

Tuesday morning, Myers and Kerr met with Green and told him they were suspending him for a game. They acknowledged his propensity to live on the edge but said he crossed over this time. They had to punish him and they had to do it this way.

Green was surprised by the heavy-handedness. A fine was expected. Green had just come back from injury, giving him a rest day for Tuesday’s game against Atlanta and a private fine would have been an acceptable rebuke of his behavior. He was fined a few thousand dollars when he went after Kerr in the locker room in Oklahoma City in 2016. He didn’t think this incident was nearly as bad, so the punishment being drastically worse was shocking.

Why didn’t they just fine him privately as they have before?

“If we thought that was the right thing to do,” one front office executive said, “we would have. We have to do what we think is right.”

The issue isn’t the money but the message the punishment sends.

Durant’s free agency has been a low-key issue with the players. It registered as a small irritation. The burden of talking about it, reading about it, hearing about it, grew heavier in Year 3 of the Durant Experience. Players like Green and Klay Thompson, who also have free agency pending, have been lumped into the frenzy. Both have declared they want to stay with the Warriors. But because of Durant’s uncertainty, the future of the dynasty is in the air and such leads to speculation Green and Thompson have to address.

According to several in the locker room, Durant could have ended this by just saying how much he loves playing with the Warriors and his teammates and leave it at that, even if he departs in the offseason. They are all prepared for him to leave so they just want the cloud hanging over them to go away. Another option would be to reject all questions about free agency and force the media to focus on this season, a way of protecting his teammates.

Durant has said he doesn’t want to lead anybody on. But Green is part of a contingent that believes Durant has a hand in creating the hype about his free agency, a tangential focus that detracts from their mission of winning a third straight title.

Myers and Kerr were made aware of Green’s concerns in their meeting. Green also shared them with Stephen Curry, who visited Green’s house before Tuesday’s game to get Green’s side — Curry’s efforts to repair the situation.

The general consensus: Green was wrong for going so hard at Durant instead of having a hard-but-civil conversation, and Green was wrong for when he decided to address this situation — in the middle of a game they were trying to win. Green admitted as much to Curry and several believe he would have (and still will) cop to that. But the general consensus also is that Green’s concerns about how Durant has handled free agency weren’t off base.

Durant’s teammates have made it clear privately they aren’t on board for another Please-Stay-KD tour. And Durant has said he doesn’t want to be recruited. But the decision to suspend Green publicly seems to be a signal from management that they do care about recruiting Durant.

Management is holding fast to its stance that Green crossed a line that can’t be crossed. Some say it’s just “Draymond being Draymond.” At least two said he did go too far, attacking his teammate personally. One player was even concerned that Green may have lost his authority in the locker room, the berating was so over-the-top.

“With what was said, there is already no way Durant is coming back,” one player said. “The only hope is that they can say this summer, ‘See, KD. We’ve got your back. We protected you from Draymond.’ ”

Of course, Green now has to be wondering who is protecting him. He is the one committed to the Warriors and who has given everything. He is the one who has declared he wants to stay with the Warriors. He was one of the founders of this dynasty and he built it with the same fire that scolded Durant on Monday. And they know who he is. They know it’s only a matter of time before he owns up and makes amends. Why was this time so unbearable? Why was this offense the final straw?

If Green loses out in the power struggle with Durant, who can win outside of Curry?

It’s hard not to wonder how Green and Kerr, who have such a volatile history of love and hate, get through this. It must be measured how deep the crack is in Green’s allegiance to the Warriors now that Myers, who with Curry is Green’s biggest supporter in the franchise, has signed off on this stance.

Is this a referendum on Green? If so, did they just lose him — if not physically yet, spiritually? Did they just signal to him he’s the All-Star they are willing to part with, and does that quench his fire for the Warriors?

What if Durant decides to leave in free agency and Green wants out? Do the Warriors make a trade to head off that potential outcome?

Divides have been created that now must be repaired. The relationship between Green and Durant is rubble and needs to be rebuilt. The relationship between Green and management seems to be similarly in shambles, but it has been before and perhaps can be spared again. Then there is the relationship between the Warriors and Durant, who is probably sour on the whole Warriors experience now, and how that impacts the rest of the season.

This isn’t a situation that will just blow over. Teammates are at odds and, forced to or not, management appears to have chosen a side. The only answer is another championship.

One player is certain Durant and Green can co-exist because neither wants to be the reason they don’t win. The Warriors just might have enough talent to overcome resentment and bitterness in their midst.

The question is whether anyone has words powerful enough to bridge chasms now permanent.

In the middle of the visiting locker room at Staples that night, as voices rose with the tension, an unlikely source stepped up and re-shifted the focus of the defending champions.

It wasn’t Curry. He wasn’t with the team in Los Angeles thanks to a groin injury. It wasn’t Green, the spark of the drama. It wasn’t Durant, who fumed in silence while the Warriors conversed heatedly amongst themselves.

It was Klay Thompson, the Warriors’ most carefree star, who spoke up, an occasion rare enough to turn the room down a few notches. While respected veterans Andre Iguodala and Shaun Livingston did their usual part to restore order, Thompson hit the mark as if it were a spot-up 3.

“We all want to win,” Thompson said in the locker room after the game, per accounts of people in the room. “That’s all this is about. We all want to win. I think we’re the only team that can beat us. Nobody else can beat us. So let’s go kick ass.”

Greta Van Fleek (upper mississippi sh@kedown), Wednesday, 14 November 2018 17:04 (five years ago) link


lag∞n, Wednesday, 14 November 2018 17:11 (five years ago) link

Aw shit dawg this is good

Wld the site get in trouble for housing all the content tho?

F# A# (∞), Wednesday, 14 November 2018 17:13 (five years ago) link

I mean there’s always pastebin

F# A# (∞), Wednesday, 14 November 2018 17:14 (five years ago) link

we could put on 77?

call all destroyer, Wednesday, 14 November 2018 17:16 (five years ago) link

i mean...i think it's fine probably

Greta Van Fleek (upper mississippi sh@kedown), Wednesday, 14 November 2018 17:17 (five years ago) link

yeah kinda doubt the athletic is out there policing things and like half this board is subscribers, ill prob become one soon based on reading the illicit good content, really its more advertising for them if anything we shd be getting affiliate benefits

lag∞n, Wednesday, 14 November 2018 17:20 (five years ago) link

cn someone post this one next https://theathletic.com/653527/2018/11/14/durant-vs-draymond-theories-on-why-these-two-warriors-stars-are-fueding

im living for dubs drama rn

lag∞n, Wednesday, 14 November 2018 17:21 (five years ago) link

at the very least feel like the thread should be deindexed

k3vin k., Wednesday, 14 November 2018 17:57 (five years ago) link

yeah just deindex it*

*i don't know who would do this or how it works

Greta Van Fleek (upper mississippi sh@kedown), Wednesday, 14 November 2018 20:23 (five years ago) link

>>> i'll post this cuz i don't like to leave my guy lagoon high n dry and thirsting for drama.

however, feel like a mod should weigh in or an ILX illuminati elder

Durant vs. Draymond: Theories on why these two Warriors stars are feuding

Andre​ Iguodala is​ at​ his locker, in a locker room​ that’s emptied out​ earlier​ than usual.​ The​ nearby Kevin​ Durant​​ space is conspicuously vacant. KD loves to talk, and usually lingers, riffing with teammates and reporters. Tuesday night he dressed quickly, gave a brief, sullen press conference and exited. In the press conference, when asked about his friendship with Draymond Green, Durant replied, “I don’t really think that even matters right now.”

I ask Andre if the Warriors can win with KD and Draymond at odds like this. Andre responds, “Shaq and Kobe ain’t like each other.”

Me: “But that ended in a way you wouldn’t want this to end, right?”

Andre: “They won three championships in a row. Ain’t that what you want to happen?”

Me: “I guess all things come to an end.”

Andre: “Everything come to an end.”

A dynasty is a fragile kind of dominance. That’s the paradox of ultimate victory. Once superiority is achieved, and achieved again, the game loses a certain internal logic. Why prove what’s proven? Why win what’s won? Invincibility is a holding pattern that can only remain so fulfilling. People, even the most competitive of people, are designed to chase goals, not maintain a grip on them in perpetuity.

That’s the backdrop of a more salacious circumstance, a gripping tale of how this dynasty might be unraveling. These are all meaningful parts of the story. The names, the dates, the feuds. It’s all very real right now, and suddenly. Seemingly out of nowhere, the Warriors revealed a situation perhaps beyond repair. And the internal slights matter, but one wonders if it could all be transcended if everyone felt the project worth repairing.

Two years ago, I wrote an article on this organization’s sometimes tempestuous relationship with Draymond Green. It was given the baity title, “Golden State’s Draymond Green Problem.” From my perspective, it wasn’t about how Draymond was a problem, but more about how he could tip the Warriors’ future in either direction.

Fast forward two championships.

Yesterday, people kept sending me this article, asking if current events are pertinent to its themes. Did yesteryear’s hyperbole prove prophetic?

My take? No, not necessarily. First, because championships two and three qualify as glorious successes. Second, because, much as we can parse Draymond’s actions, and much as they can cause strife, the current state of affairs speaks to something bigger than him, an issue he could perhaps mitigate but not solve: Winning isn’t enough.

Players talk about just wanting to win all the time. About the only player I’ve ever met who might actually, literally mean it is Steph Curry. Because winning isn’t done for its own sake. Winning is a means to certain ends. Beyond the camaraderie of collectively conquering a goal, beyond the money, there’s the adulation that comes with achievement. Winning correlates to winning at life, vastly increasing your status in the eyes of fans and peers alike.

Ask yourself: Has this obvious benefit of winning happened for Kevin Durant as a Warrior? Over the past two-plus seasons, perhaps the Warriors All-Star in need of the most adulation got the least adulation. His reputation is more or less what it was when he arrived. The man was incredible in back-to-back NBA Finals. Had he faltered, he would have been mocked in a manner only trumped by what LeBron James experienced in 2011. Lost in Monday night’s chaos was Clippers owner Steve Ballmer sidling onto the court to schmooze it up with Durant. He, like other owners this summer, offers to fill the void that winning did not. Also, note that Draymond has a view of such cajoling.

This might be a bigger issue than just Kevin Durant. The media landscape has changed. In the past, might made right, and winners were worshipped sans much nuance. Now, a social media-driven conversation picks apart historic accomplishments while basking in a perpetual present. Coming here and winning big was supposed to make KD the face of Nike. Instead, to many jaded fans, that swoosh looks like a coattail. The quaint idea that you can silence your critics with a trophy is just one of a million norms that have fallen by the wayside over the past few years.

This is the big problem for Warriors HQ, as they proclaim not to care about anything other than winning a championship this season. I’m not certain there’s a solution to Winner’s Ennui, but there are methods for recalibration. I have some thoughts on that, and I want to emphasize that they are my own. The thoughts are in contrast to what I’m being told, repeated assurances that, “This happens, Draymond does this, it’s happened before, etc.” Today’s turmoil can indeed be tomorrow’s footnote. This isn’t even the first time Draymond caused discord by calling someone a “bitch.” He did that to Steve Kerr back in 2016, when they were separated in the Oklahoma City locker room. It might have actually been the least vulgar thing Draymond said to Kerr in that exchange.

Anyway. The most interesting comment in Kerr’s pregame press conference Tuesday was perhaps the most boring, superficially. When asked to describe the relationship between Kevin Durant and Draymond Green, Kerr said:

“They have won championships together, they have been teammates now for three seasons and they were teammates on the Olympic team. You can draw your own conclusions.”

Not exactly a ringing endorsement of a brotherly bond. Not exactly a reaffirmation of what brought them together. Whatever is happening could pass, but whatever is happening is not being treated like it will. And that is rather strange.

Kerr and Bob Myers are not stupid men. They levied this suspension, knowing it would escalate a situation that could otherwise be dealt with in private. They knew this could seriously alienate Draymond. There’s broad agreement within the organization that Draymond crossed a line, but the public punishment is curious. It’s not a move that makes a lot of sense in a vacuum.

Unless there are other forces at play. Draymond Green will be 30 years old when he’s up for his next contract, which would be a $226 million super max in 2020 if he had his druthers. Draymond turned down a more modestly priced three-year extension in pursuit of a bigger prize. He is an amazing basketball player, who’s still underrated. You could see him continuing a career of defying NBA odds well into his 30s. Then again, not everybody buys this trajectory. Some within the Warriors might note that NBA longevity correlates with size, and shooting, neither exactly an advantage for Mr. Green.

The Warriors will never replace what Draymond Green has meant to them, but they could get a good starter at a third of the price going forward. You think Joe Lacob is unaware of this? And if losing Draymond is the cost of keeping KD? Lacob’s choice is obvious, emotions be damned. Of course, losing both players is, theoretically, the worst of all worlds, and a real possibility in this high stakes poker game. But the cost of paying these salaries keeps rising and there’s still an open question as to whether the Warriors want Draymond at the price he sees fit. That question would be open even if KD left. One wonders if this current catastrophe presents its own opportunity, its own pretext. As another Master of Coin once said, “Chaos is a ladder.”

Again, Draymond Green isn’t the problem. Winner’s Ennui is the problem. Sadly, there’s no solution to this problem but to shake up the roster, as recalibration can serve as its own challenge. Perhaps that means letting KD leave for New York or wherever else and recapturing a “Strength in Numbers” ethos. That’s likely not the outcome Lacob favors, even if Draymond is his guy. Two superstars are still better than one.

Iguodala is right when he says, “Everything come to an end,” but the owner of this team wants to end “the end” and reign over this league forever. That’s great for Warriors fans, insofar as an impossible aspiration can be maintained for a while. For individual players, perhaps not so much. Hard calls must be made, and feelings suppressed. The future is uncertain for a team that remains title favorites. Draymond might not be the problem, but the Warriors showed the world that he might be Kevin Durant’s problem. Perhaps it’s a last ditch effort to impress the seriousness of this situation upon a man who has meant so much to this franchise. That would be the more innocent read. It’s possible, even within the bounds of a business that remains jagged and brutal. As Kerr says, “You can draw your own conclusions.”

— Reported from Oakland

Greta Van Fleek (upper mississippi sh@kedown), Wednesday, 14 November 2018 20:25 (five years ago) link

Reading that first article I can't help but think Draymond's self-defense amounts to:

Yeah, big deal, so I fucked up and stepped way over a line that I shouldn't have, disrespecting my teammate. Sure, I expect to be punished for that, but quietly and maybe have to cough up a bit of pocket change in the way of a fine, and now it's so UNFAIR that I was slapped down hard in public -- even though I slapped KD just as hard and just as publically. And *ouch* that's a lot of money! Why'd they hafta do that to ME?!

iow, just a lot of bullshit self-regarding

A is for (Aimless), Wednesday, 14 November 2018 20:36 (five years ago) link

thx! xp

lag∞n, Wednesday, 14 November 2018 21:00 (five years ago) link

ok i just dropped a hundo subscribing to the athletic and espn+ lol god bless im a responsible content consumer now, let me know if u need any draft info pasted here

lag∞n, Thursday, 15 November 2018 19:14 (five years ago) link

oh nice may need some + content at some point

Spottie, Thursday, 15 November 2018 19:17 (five years ago) link

i hate paying the mouse but my status as a draft thought leader has been eroded by lack of insider access

lag∞n, Thursday, 15 November 2018 19:19 (five years ago) link

(feel good abt paying the athletic)

lag∞n, Thursday, 15 November 2018 19:20 (five years ago) link

bless u

Spottie, Thursday, 15 November 2018 19:20 (five years ago) link

Lagoon your thought leader status must be preserved at all costs

The Poppy Bush AutoZone (upper mississippi sh@kedown), Thursday, 15 November 2018 19:33 (five years ago) link

im glad were on the same page here

lag∞n, Thursday, 15 November 2018 19:35 (five years ago) link

lagoons thought leader status is critical to maintain if ilh wants to have synergy with its core competencies and best practices, and of course to remain the omni channel king of hoops

Spottie, Thursday, 15 November 2018 19:39 (five years ago) link

its mission critical to our brand identity and product market fit

lag∞n, Thursday, 15 November 2018 19:41 (five years ago) link

ok i just dropped a hundo subscribing to the athletic and espn+ lol god bless im a responsible content consumer now, let me know if u need any draft info pasted here

― lag∞n, Thursday, November 15, 2018 2:14 PM (six hours ago)

I for one welcome our new content overlords. I too have subscribed to this great online service

k3vin k., Friday, 16 November 2018 02:04 (five years ago) link

three weeks pass...

Where does the NBA's MVP race stand nearly two months into the 2018-19 season?

It's never too early for MVP narratives to take hold, as what was once a topic for the spring now has become a season-long discussion. And indeed, betting markets and straw polls suggest that Milwaukee Bucks forward Giannis Antetokounmpo is the early MVP leader on the strength of his team's surprising start, with LeBron James the other leading contender in pursuit of his fifth Maurice Podoloff Trophy.

Yet narratives don't always match statistical reality, so let's ponder some of the big questions about the MVP with the help of advanced metrics, including whether Giannis is the right front-runner.

Can a center be most valuable?
The leaderboards in most advanced stats at this early stage have a decidedly tall slant. Basketball-Reference.com's value over replacement player (VORP), for example, rates six centers and four other players listed as power forwards (one of them is Kevin Durant, who has actually played more minutes at small forward) among the league's top 14 players. Meanwhile, the PER leaderboard -- once we've filtered out low-minutes players -- is even more heavily tilted toward the frontcourt, with 19 centers in the top 30, including reserves Montrezl Harrell, Nerlens Noel, Jakob Poeltl, Dwight Powell, Domantas Sabonis and Jonas Valanciunas.

These results reflect a topic I addressed ahead of the NBA draft: Because the floor is so well spaced, it's never been easier to get productive play from centers. Indeed, consider the average PER by position (as defined by Basketball-Reference) weighted by minutes played:

Avg. PER (Weighted For Minutes)
PG 14.7
SG 13.1
SF 13.0
PF 14.9
C 19.6
Across all positions, the average PER is always set to 15.0. However, that varies widely across positions now, with centers naturally dominant and wings much weaker. It's not just the very best centers who are most productive, but also the ones who are cheaply available to teams -- including Noel and JaVale McGee, both of whom are in the top 30 in PER after signing one-year deals for the veteran's minimum as free agents this summer.


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When we're determining value, then, position has to be taken into account. To be as relatively valuable on a per-minute basis as a small forward with a 25.6 PER (like Kawhi Leonard), a center would need a PER of 32.2 -- something that's never been achieved in NBA history.

In other words, it's probably not possible for the best center in 2018-19 to be more valuable than the best wing player, which has important implications for the MVP chances of not only Joel Embiid (who's not actually among those high-rated centers, ranking 17th in PER and 26th in VORP) but also Anthony Davis (mostly -- though perhaps not exclusively -- a center).

Should Giannis be the front-runner?
Although I used PER over average to make that point, the better way to define value in the context of MVP is as compared to replacement level -- the production we'd expect from a free agent signed for the minimum salary -- so as to properly credit players for their durability.

My wins above replacement player (WARP) metric now reflects a much higher level of replacement for centers, and to a lesser extent power forwards, as compared to wings in particular. With that adjustment, here's how WARP ranks this year's most valuable players (projected to 82 team games so as not to disadvantage players whose teams have played fewer games thus far).

2018-19 WARP Leaderboard
LeBron James LAL F 19.2
James Harden HOU G 19.2
Kevin Durant GSW F 18.3
Paul George OKC SF 17.1
Damian Lillard POR PG 17.0
Giannis Antetokounmpo MIL PF 16.5
Kyrie Irving BOS PG 16.2
Kemba Walker CHA PG 15.2
Anthony Davis NOP C 14.1
Mike Conley MEM PG 13.5
Projected to 82 team games
While LeBron tops this list, surprisingly it's last year's winner who's in a virtual tie with him. James Harden's stat line is basically identical to what he posted in 2017-18, but because his Houston Rockets have stumbled to an 11-12 start after winning a league-best 59 games last season, he's gotten zero attention as a possible repeat candidate. It will be interesting to see whether that changes if the Rockets turn things around. Damian Lillard, whose Portland Trail Blazers have fallen off after a strong start, is in a similar position after finishing fourth in last season's MVP voting.

The most interesting MVP candidate that position-adjusted WARP identifies is Paul George, who also ranks third in wins produced based on ESPN's real plus-minus (RPM), which isn't adjusted by position. George has played a key role in the Oklahoma City Thunder's league-leading defensive rating and has helped keep their offense afloat with 2016-17 MVP Russell Westbrook missing eight games. According to NBA Advanced Stats, Oklahoma City's offensive rating drops to a dismal 94.7 points per 100 possessions with George on the bench.

Those takeaways noted, let's dig deeper into the comparison between Giannis, LeBron and KD -- only two of whom can make the All-NBA first team because they all play forward. Why does Antetokounmpo lag behind the other two stars?

The first reason is the lower replacement level at small forward, where Cleaning the Glass estimates James has played 66 percent of his minutes and Durant 65 percent as opposed to 12 percent of Antetokounmpo's minutes.

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The Lakers' positionless lineups show the challenge in using position to determine value. Cleaning the Glass considers LeBron the small forward when he plays alongside power forward Kyle Kuzma, but in practice the defensive matchups with those lineups depend more on the opponent than any rigid position. And offensively, James tends to operate more as a point guard (particularly during Rajon Rondo's absence, as ESPN's Brian Windhorst recently broke down) than as a forward.

However, I think Durant's example reinforces the importance of positional replacement level. His ability to defend small forwards has allowed the Warriors to start Jonas Jerebko -- another big man who's excelled while making the veteran's minimum -- at the 4 in Draymond Green's absence rather than going deeper into their weak wing rotation.

The other key factor here is minutes played. Not only has Giannis missed a game due to injury, he's playing fewer minutes per game (33.8) than either LeBron (34.8) or KD (35.7), meaning Milwaukee has relied slightly more on its bench than those teams. While the difference isn't dramatic, along with position it helps explain why Antetokounmpo can rate better on a per-minute basis than James and Durant, yet still land behind them in terms of value.

When it comes to RPM, Antetokounmpo is actually third of the group in terms of per-possession rating and just 12th overall in RPM wins. As a result, I don't think Giannis should be considered the MVP front-runner based on advanced stats.

How many games does Curry need to play? How about Kawhi?
Though playing time is a relatively small difference between the MVP front-runners, it's a huge factor for Stephen Curry (who has missed 11 of Golden State's 26 games) and a large one for Leonard (he's missed six of 26). When Harden won last season, the 10 games he missed were the most for an MVP since Allen Iverson (11) in 2000-01. That would basically imply Curry can't miss any more time and have a chance to win.

However, history should be considered a guide rather than a hard-and-fast rule, as Westbrook winning the MVP on a 47-win team offers a recent reminder that voters can always rethink MVP tradition. So instead, let's ponder the question of how many games Steph and Kawhi would need to play to be most valuable statistically. If we flip the leaderboard to WARP per 82 player games rather than team games, Curry shoots (pun intended) to the top:

2018-19 WARP Leaderboard
Stephen Curry GSW PG 22.4
James Harden HOU SG 22.1
LeBron James LAL PF 19.2
Kevin Durant GSW PF 18.3
Giannis Antetokounmpo MIL PF 17.3
Kawhi Leonard TOR SF 17.2
Paul George OKC SF 17.1
Damian Lillard POR PG 17.0
Kyrie Irving BOS PG 17.0
Russell Westbrook OKC PG 16.8
Per 82 games played
Nonetheless, in part because he's played just 33.3 minutes per game, Curry will be hard-pressed to lead the league in WARP. Harden would beat him if they both played the remainder of the schedule at their current pace, and LeBron's 82-game pace isn't far behind. Voters might be willing to reward Curry even if he's slightly less valuable if it's strictly due to injury, but he can't miss many more games.

Since he hasn't been as dominant when he's played, Leonard's task is even more difficult. While he cracks the top 10 on a per-player game basis, Kawhi is still behind both Giannis and LeBron and would have to rely on the narrative power of leading the Raptors to the NBA's best record. They're currently three games up on the Denver Nuggets for that honor, with the Warriors four games back.

Curry staying healthy the rest of the season might actually have more impact on other candidates for MVP than his own hopes. If Golden State surges ahead of Toronto with Curry (the Warriors are 12-3 in games he's played this season and 5-6 without him), that could hurt Leonard's candidacy. It also becomes a lot more difficult for voters to pick Durant if he's not even the most valuable player on his own team -- something that was evident when Golden State struggled early on in Curry's absence, though it did give Durant the opportunity to put the team on his back during the Warriors' final four games without Curry, when they went 3-1 with an overtime loss in Toronto.

Whether Curry can stay healthy the rest of the season is just one of the many questions to be answered about the MVP race, which should still be considered wide open with more than two-thirds of the season left to be played.

lag∞n, Friday, 7 December 2018 20:02 (five years ago) link

thx. interesting.

Celtoes Adidas (Spottie), Friday, 7 December 2018 20:11 (five years ago) link


love my adidads celtoes

— Les Alizés Dénudés (@Marco0o0os) December 7, 2018

lag∞n, Friday, 7 December 2018 20:16 (five years ago) link

oh damn, great minds etc.

mine is pulled from:

Celtoes Adidas (Spottie), Friday, 7 December 2018 20:19 (five years ago) link


lag∞n, Friday, 7 December 2018 20:21 (five years ago) link

pete rock >>>>> premo

The Poppy Bush AutoZone (upper mississippi sh@kedown), Friday, 7 December 2018 20:49 (five years ago) link

alright lets MFN DO THIS lol

lag∞n, Friday, 7 December 2018 20:50 (five years ago) link

I LOVE that album btw.

not sure i'd go that far xp but it's pretty close! poll it!

Celtoes Adidas (Spottie), Friday, 7 December 2018 20:55 (five years ago) link

tube amp warm glow vibes

Celtoes Adidas (Spottie), Friday, 7 December 2018 20:58 (five years ago) link

cool pete rock song imo


lag∞n, Friday, 7 December 2018 21:00 (five years ago) link

thats warm too. v good

Celtoes Adidas (Spottie), Friday, 7 December 2018 21:10 (five years ago) link

On the road with an NBA spy: The grinding work and lifestyle of an advance scout

Ethan Strauss Dec 12, 2018 78
“Goddammit!​ Fucking​ shit!​ Would you​ look at​ this​ fucking guy!” Our​ scout is pointing​ at​ a portly man who stands​ between​ us​​ and the escalator pathway. This is the truest enemy he knows. Our scout is never present for when the team that employs him faces a rival franchise. His only rivals are those who thwart arrivals on the league’s loneliest trail.

Every night features the arena’s stimulus overload, the roaring crowd, honking hype men and jangling music. His work ends in the wee hours of the morning, in a hotel, poring over film. It’s disorienting. My brain broke from merely observing. Details started blurring. I nearly missed a flight due to a dead certainty that my hotel was attached to the airport. Wrong, my brain was holding on to what had been true the night before, in a different city.

The problem was, I had no system for whatever this lifestyle is, not like our scout had. He was on a well-worn path. Our scout did not see the North American landscape as a collection of cities to be enjoyed, each with their own character and customs. No, he saw this terrain through the portals of his convenience. This city’s tram gets you to the hotel from the airport. This city’s skyways shield you from the cold. New York’s “N” train is all you really need to know about. Turn here. Down this hall.

The man is a travel sherpa, guiding you through the chaos of the ambling crowd. Every movement is propulsive. Every movement smoothly assertive, at least until those damned people get in the way. There’s a mini human traffic jam as we step onto an airport tram. “Folks who try and get on before everyone exits piss me off,” he mutters. You wouldn’t know from the running commentary, but this man is not a misanthrope. He’s actually quite kind, considerate even. He keeps looking out for me as I blithely lose myself in more crowds than Waldo. The road may have taken this man’s patience, but it hasn’t stolen his soul.

“Anyone flying to New York?!” a sharply dressed guy shouts to the tram passengers. There’s a gleam in the stranger’s eye, one that stays burning despite the lack of response. “Anyone flying to New York?!” He then asks our scout for the time and gets a blank stare. We exit the tram.

“Con artist,” our scout says. “I’ve seen it before. My job is to size things up.” The con artist, if he is a con artist, would be employing a predatory strategy called, “Forced Teaming,” as coined by Gavin de Becker in his bestselling book, “The Gift of Fear.” Good luck trying that on a professional lone wolf.

We keep walking, his steps always a few in front of my own. He’s as excited about Toronto’s tram to downtown as he was fearful of delays at customs (“You never know when there’s some damned Canadian holiday!”). Our schedule is always calibrated to hit ports of entry at the point of minimal crowding. “You see, if we were here in the morning …” is a common refrain.

Our scout is a middle-aged man who has been at this longer than seems sustainable. His specific trade is “advance scouting,” or NBA spying to put it in layman’s terms. He sits as close as possible to coaches and intercepts their play calls for upwards of 150 road games per season. Though this is the job description, it’s a less than clandestine existence. Teams know who he is, why he is there and even provide him the credentials. It’s part of NBA culture: Everyone is allowed to do this and may the best spies win.

Our scout is regarded as one of the best. Though his job is difficult and highly routinized, he made an exception for a slight detour. After my article on NBA spies garnered more interest from readers than anticipated, our scout wondered if I might delve deeper. I had only cracked the surface here. To understand this life, I had to live it, just a bit.

So, I would trail this member of a monastic sports caste. I would see how he fights for a team absent the camaraderie supposedly essential to team competition. It would be six games in seven nights, which by the way, is a merciful slice of schedule. Our scout has done 13 road games in 13 nights before. It’s not like merely high-level business travel, the kind represented by George Clooney’s “Up in the Air” character. This way is a blast furnace aimed at all your senses, interspersed with moments of crushing solitude.

So why does he do this?

The Rosetta Stone
One reason is because, unlike so many people, he can do this. The job requires a certain visio-spatial acuity. While walking briskly to an arena, our scout self-assesses, “I believe I might be on the spectrum.” I cannot offer a free diagnosis but can conclude that he’s capable of things that, to my mind, read as incredible.

At a hotel, we flip the TV to the end of a game involving a team he had recently seen in person. I ask for a running commentary of a crunch-time play, which our scout obliges, augmented by quick gesticulations. “They did this in the game we were at. These two guys are going to scissors off this pick. He’s going to cut to that corner, he’s going to cut to that corner. He’s going to pin that guy to the top. And then high pick-and-roll.” Boom. Boom. Boom. The play unfolds as predicted.

Our scout can tell us what’s going to happen before it happens, with the reliability of a “Minority Report” precog, and that’s even without the benefit of seeing the coach’s hand signal. One wonders how much a team could improve if all its players somehow magically absorbed this knowledge. Instead, teams settle for a more realistic reduction of this vast database, specifically tailored to each opponent, taught in film session to the roster, game by game.

Right now, our scout is deep into his hotel room routine, the work he does in addition to the report he sends from the arena. He’s typing away on Fast Draw, the league’s favored play diagramming software. The program is the evolutionary descendent of the days when IBM, as a major NBA sponsor, manufactured something to get NBA coaches toting ThinkPads on the sidelines in nationally televised games. Unfortunately for IBM, computer-based play diagramming, like writing, was always meant for solitude. The whiteboard just wouldn’t relinquish its grip as the public face of strategy.

Spurs coach Gregg Popovich uses a whiteboard to draw up a play against the Warriors. (File photo from 2013: Garrett W. Ellwood/NBAE via Getty Images)
Once all the plays are drawn, our scout adds the personnel report (statistics, depth chart, top plays and player tendencies). Finally, the capper, a written report with offensive and defensive notes, which normally includes the future opponent’s top-play frequencies. In his room, “call sheets” are strewn across the table, records of team plays with their corresponding coach’s hand signals. I ask for the Warriors’ records, since I want to learn about the team I supposedly know all about. “It can’t be that much material,” I say, “Considering how many of their offense is transition play.”


He plunks the file down with a thud.

“Here, take a look, I don’t give a shit,” he says. “It ain’t our team’s secrets.”

Before me lies the intellectual framework of the Steve Kerr era, represented in the NBA’s version of hieroglyphics. Everything I theoretically knew, or at least saw at some point, has been chronicled for a particular kind of posterity. Or perhaps more accurately, this is Kerr’s basketball 23andMe results, a genealogy of thought. There are over 100 plays, with tally marks to indicate frequency. I ask to know where all this comes from. What can we divine of Kerr’s influences while leafing through these pages? Our scout starts rattling off what he sees.

“Hmm, all the Weak and Strong series is Gregg Popovich. All the Pop clones run Strong and Weak. Another big one is Doc Rivers, by way of Alvin Gentry, ’cause Alvin was his first lead assistant. Dribble, Drag, Backdoor is 100 percent from Doc Rivers. The Floppy series is from Pat Riley. He never played for Pat, but that got around the league. His Loop series is Popovich. His Pistol series, originally known as the 21 series, is Mike D’Antoni. His Pick-and-Roll series is called ‘Rub,’ and that’s from Popovich. He and Pop both rub their chests when they call that, but Pop sort of does it like he’s straightening his tie. Kerr also has a Slice series and that’s definitely from Doc Rivers. His Wedge series is Pop.”

I’m not hearing one name in particular. Whenever I followed the Warriors to New York, their local media would obsessively ask about then Knicks president Phil Jackson, hoping to draw some connection between Kerr and his former Hall of Fame coach. They often asked some version of, “Are you running the Triangle?”

“To be honest, looking through this playbook, I don’t see anything from Phil Jackson,” our scout concludes. “Not one damned thing.”

To be fair, there is at least one damned Phil Jackson thing in the Warriors repertoire: an out of bounds play called “What The Fuck” that dates back to the Bulls days. Perhaps there are some other plays, here and there. But in general, Jackson’s strategic influence on Kerr appears dwarfed by some coaches Kerr never even played for or worked with. Maybe Jackson’s impact is more subjective and generalized. Maybe the Zen Master’s legacy is a more abstract echo, like the loudest of one-handed claps.

Popovich’s legacy looms largest, perhaps over the league and certainly over Kerr’s whiteboard. Pop’s “Weak Roll,” a play that gets the ball moving side to side, is an absolute favorite of Kerr’s. Our scout chuckles about Kerr’s proclivity with that one. He pictures the coach rubbing his hands together in glee like Monty Burns at the mere prospect of calling this play. “Ah yes, yes, Weak Roll,” our scout intones with a grin. He’s not necessarily against the predictable nature of coaches, but he does find it amusing on occasion. “Lemme tell you something. Nobody, and I mean nobody, is a creature of habit like NBA coaches are.”

How it works
Time is of the essence because there’s a lot of work that needs doing. When I look over our scout’s shoulder, I’m watching a chain reaction. Minutes after the buzzer, he’s sending his work to the organization for processing and later, implementation. It’s a process by which thousands of miles and many hours of effort will get condensed down to a 6-8 minute video that our scout will never see.

Here’s how the chain works, the exact process by which your favorite teams prepare for battle. Our scout flies to a game featuring a team (let’s call them the Kings) that’s say, two games away on the schedule from playing his own. Ideally, he is granted a courtside seat, “the down seat” in scout parlance. Armed with a pen and a laptop, he watches closely and listens carefully, with extra focus on Kings coach Dave Joerger, a “pain in the ass” who’s liable to obscure his play calls from prying eyes. Our scout spends all game looking for visual and vocal representations of plays, followed by the plays themselves. A call of “fist up!” paired with the making of a fist reads easy enough, for instance. Or it would, anyway, if “fist” had a universal meaning.

NBA coaches have a tendency to use the same visual terms (fist, horns, thumb) to mean all manner of different things. It’s as though everyone speaks the same language, but nobody means the same thing when they speak it. The same holds true for defensive calls, which, unlike offensive calls, tend to be colors (“red,” “blue,” etc.) rather than visual representations. With an uncommon understanding of this Tower of Babel, our scout types the visual call, vocal call and resulting action into his “call sheet.” The pen is for noting new plays and frequencies of plays. The buzzer finally sounds and it’s time to quickly send this information to the video coordinators for tagging purposes.

Back at Team HQ, a video guy has stashed a few games of the upcoming opponent “in his editor,” most likely in a program called SportsCode. He’s working on a refining process, purging these games of random, useless filler, preparing a reel for the assistant coach tasked with the Kings matchup. “The video guy will go through and remove all the crap plays, the garbage, maybe they didn’t run something right,” our scout says. “He’ll clean all of that out and what he’ll give the assistant coach is all of the actual plays.” There’s an optimal kind of play to feature, with an eye towards the motivations of athletes. “Preferably, the play is an example of proper execution. We tend to want examples where they score. We want to play up the fear to the guys.”

With the assistance of our scout, the video guy now can tag these plays according to their names and visual representations. It’s one thing for your players to see tendencies and another to know they’re coming, when they’re coming. Watch for this next time you’re at a game in person, because the television vantage rarely picks it up. Often when the camera is trained on the after basket inbounds, a defensive player is out of view, on the other side of the court, gesticulating the offense’s next play to his teammates.

Steve Kerr uses a hand signal to call a play during a Warriors game in Utah earlier this season. (Gene Sweeney Jr./Getty Images)
Before such information can take root, it must be prepared, reduced down to a digestible size. In further consultation with the assistant coach, the video guy produces that 6-8 minute video of the opponent’s most common plays, to be shown in morning shootaround and again in pregame. This video serves as the basis for morning “walk-through,” when players are physically guided through their strategy preparations. “Normally the video edit is going to highlight two examples of the opponent’s top plays, and include maybe a dozen to 15 plays total,” our scout says. “At walk-through, you might physically go through a half dozen of the most important ones.”

The point of walk-through isn’t just to key your players on what to watch out for, but also to specifically prepare them for such actions with an organized defense. It’s a process that got more granular with time, fit according to whatever talent you’re facing. “Back in the day, there was ‘The Rule of Nowitzki,’” our scout recalls. “You had to adjust to defend him. The real key to this is not just identifying who they are. As soon as you get that call, not only do you need to know what’s coming, but also how to stop it.”

Scout’s honor
We are in a hotel lobby, with a younger scout from another team. We sit near the bar, but not at the bar. They haven’t the time for drinks but commiserate a bit over the college game playing in the background. Finally, as our scout gets ready to leave, the younger scout asks, “Hey, did you get all the plays tonight?” Younger scout missed a few and our scout is happy to help. This is part of the culture, in the way that offering lecture notes to a friend in college might have been part of yours.

Oftentimes, in the bowels of an NBA arena, two scouts from different franchises meet in a conspiracy against the home team. It’s a common sight if you know what to look for. You might be in Brooklyn, in the media room, watching the Pacers scout and Wizards scout at one table, trading secrets on how to foil the Nets next week. As the ancient proverb goes, “The enemy of my enemy is my friend.” In that media room, these scouts are brothers-in-arms, united in purpose against a common enemy. That is, until the Nets scout and the Wizards scout find each other in Indiana’s arena, both looking down the barrel at an upcoming Pacers game. Then it’s time to forge a new, convenient bond.

Collegiality has its limits. In Memphis, a seat next to our scout goes wanting. It was allotted to another team’s scout who never bothered to show. We have it on good authority that this scout got trashed the night before and decided to sleep this game away. Though this is a job often given to grinders, it’s also a spot where fringe NBA characters can get stashed on a part-time basis. Sometimes, it’s just a place for coaches to get a buddy a gig.

That’s fine and well, so long as such people don’t expect any help. Our scout sees the slacker at the airport the next day. On the plane, he gets approached and queried on whether he got all the plays. “How’d you make out?” the truant scout asks. He adds that he was there but bought a game ticket because he just wanted a better angle. This is bullshit. In Memphis, scouts tend to get the courtside seat and last night was no exception. He would know this if he actually showed up to work. “I did OK,” our scout says curtly. That reply effectively ends the conversation.

“I would have helped him if he just admitted he got bombed,” our scout says. Then he mutters, “serves them right for hiring a regional scout.”

The professional advance scouts largely look down on regional scouting, a system by which teams outsource scouting to hired guns in certain cities, some of whom are employed by multiple NBA teams. It was a system popularized by Popovich in the mid-2000s, theoretically out of mercy for the league’s most brutal profession. There was also some sense to Pop’s push back then. That era’s top Western Conference teams featured known quantities like Jackson, Jerry Sloan and Rick Adelman. Why grind some poor soul into dust when you already have so much information on these veteran coaches? The West has since been shaken up, but Pop’s reform lingers. Our scout believes the system is less reliable. “I can’t trade notes with a regional scouts. You never know if what they’re getting is right.”

Though Popovich might have undermined advance scouting as a profession, head coaches are the traditional allies of NBA spies. General managers and assistant GMs don’t tend to feel similarly. After I published my initial article on advance scouting, I received pushback from staffers in the GM camp. They weren’t sold on such spycraft mattering in the end.

“That sounds like GMs,” our scout says, when I relay this. “We can’t do shit for a GM. Their reputation is based on making a big personnel move. It’s the coaches who have an appreciation for us busting our asses on the road to get them what they need.” Whatever the merits of either perspective, this much is true, politically: The advance scout is yet another salary under the coaching aegis, rather than capital devoted to a GM’s cause.

Trade made
Our scout is inhaling a mound of vanilla ice cream, a guilty pleasure in Philly, which features one of the lesser credentialed guest meals. When asked why he’s not fat, given his lifestyle, our scout shrugs and says, “genes. And a lot of walking.” A younger staffer from his team happens to be at his table, looking at Twitter. “We made a trade!” the young guy says, having just learned the breaking news from social media. Our scout shrugs and offers that he wishes they’d do a deal for a younger player who’d been struggling. “What have you got to lose?!”

I ask if anyone from the team is calling. No, our scout’s phone is not blowing up. He’s not getting an inside scoop on how this all went down. On personnel decisions, he is out of sight, out of mind, a far off satellite that delivers perpetual information, tethered to his home planet by the most tenuous of gravitational tugs. This won’t change his job at all. He keeps eating.

The team that pays his salary seems to almost exist in a parallel universe. Our scout is never there for the games he studies for. When I hopped on the road with him, I looked in anticipation to his team’s upcoming game against the opponent he was spying on. We traveled thousands of miles following this prey, as he stalked them as the most dedicated hunter. When that game finally arrived, I had to remind our scout that it was in progress. We were at yet another game, in yet another arena, and he was tracking a new foe. “I hope my work helps, but there isn’t enough time to live and die with the game results,” he says. Our scout was already a few days in the future, the only place he truly resides. A glance at his laptop is a peek through a rear view mirror, where the present reads more like a quickly disappearing past than a moment the world lives in.

People have a finite amount of attention and this is certainly the case for our scout. He needs to prioritize, taking exactly what he needs in the moment and leaving everything else. When you’re, say, spying on both coaches in one game, basic game details slip away. “Often, I can’t tell you if one team is up by 40 or down by 40,” he says. Our scout is only fixated on what teams are running, a focus on process that fully eclipses results. In the end, our scout lives inside this riddle: He watches games but does not see the score and he prepares for games he does not see at all. Such is life in the alternate time space.

Dog, house
His house is nice, if a little unkempt. Good neighborhood, two stories. There’s water damage that he might fix if he were ever here long enough. When I arrive it’s darkly lit but for the radiant energy generated by his loyal four-legged companion, a buoyant yellow lab. Scout dog is back from day care and thrilled to see his nomadic man. The grizzled scout takes a soothing tone with the dog, whispering baby talk to the happy beast. After we leave the house, our scout says, “I gotta be honest. If it was most people in the river and my dog, I’m saving my dog.” He now takes the dog on the rare, close road trip. Certain hotels have more relaxed restrictions than others. I’m told the dog makes connections with hotel workers faster than our scout ever did. The road is less lonely with a dog, not just due to the companionship, but also because strangers seem to offer more of their humanity in the presence of an animal.

Beyond his evident popularity, scout dog provides stability in a life on the go. Not everybody can or would keep up. Our scout is single, his longest romantic relationship having lasted eight years. Our scout has plenty of friends, though, especially in the basketball business. They see him all the time, just not so much in person. His phone regularly pings with the same kind of text message: a photo of our scout on TV, seated courtside, staring with a coldness that could make a rink out of hardwood. As he shows me the latest such text, he smiles widely, and suddenly looks unrecognizable from the haunted visage on the phone.

Our scout achieved a measure of emotional fulfilment when his team won the NBA championship. It was the culmination of a career, and moreover, just plain fun. Unlike everyone else, he got to relax a bit through the process, as his side of the preparation was largely done. He got to watch the games with his own team for once. He wasn’t out on the road by himself for once. And then, there was the thrill of ultimate victory and the quiet satisfaction in knowing you pitched in.

Except, that night, the euphoria had an undercurrent. “My celebration was kind of, you know, muted,” our scout remembers, with a grimace. That girlfriend of eight years had finally left him, weeks before the championship, for someone else. It was all fairly predictable. How can you share a life with someone who’s never there? How can you plan for the future with a man who lives entirely in an alternate time space? When asked if he has any regrets regarding multiple relationships this job undermined, our scout is steadfast. “No. Basketball was all I ever wanted to do.”

Why? That part is less clear. He was in love with the game growing up, so much so that he traded away certainty for whatever this is. He was premed at a top-flight college, only to ditch it all when a college coaching opportunity came up. He never looked back. “If you could have told me, back then, that I’d be working in the NBA? Shit. Of course I’d do it all again.”

What is the reward system for such labor? It used to be clearer. One of his happiest memories and biggest accomplishments happened long ago, back when he was working as a college assistant coach. He prepared like hell for an undefeated Duke team, despite his squad’s lack of a realistic chance. The college game is simpler, with not as much strategy altered according to opponent. Our scout had some different ideas for big, bad Duke, suggesting pick-and-roll coverages, fit according to the offensive threat. Nothing groundbreaking, but unexpected at that level.

Duke was caught unaware. The Blue Devils shot poorly, got somewhat unlucky and lost. The upset unleashed bedlam in the college town. Our scout went to a bar his friends often frequented, taking in the crazy scene he knew he had a secret hand in causing. A woman he was hooking up with at the time approached him. She did not mince words. They would be getting together later that night. “That felt pretty good,” our scout says, reminiscing.

Life is a bit different these days. When victory happens, there is no bedlam and no visceral spoils. It’s usually hundreds of miles away and hardly registered. Winning and its rewards have been traded for the process that once secured that massive victory over Duke. Now that our scout is older, this process not only remains but sustains. “I like the work,” he says. At least it remains constant.

The end
“Go! Go! Go!” Our scout is exhorting me into the car with the verve of a NASCAR pit crew member. This will be our last trip, and unfortunately, it will be a hurried adventure. He’s running late and the streets are choked with weekend festival-goers. After struggling with the trunk, I leap into the front seat and suddenly feel my face engulfed by a warm dampness. Scout dog is here and he’s saying hello, nearly licking my glasses off. We zoom out to the doggy day-care dropoff and then to the airport.

The conversations bounce around various topics. Our scout discusses what he’s read most recently, a book on George S. Patton. He doesn’t have the free hours for many hobbies but enjoys reading about World War II. “Not joining the military is one of my biggest regrets,” he says at one point, adding that, when he sees military members on his flights, he feels guilty. Tactics and hardware obsessed him from an early age. He can rattle off details from different battles, the tanks they used, what technology proved decisive and differentials in man power.

With the clock ticking, we get to life subjects. What exactly happened with that long-term girlfriend? What happens now in your life? The former has a clear answer, but the latter far less so. Our scout eases into a parking space and opens the door. I get a text informing me that my flight is delayed. I wish to relax in my newfound pocket of languor but will keep pace with the hurried for now. Our scout says, “You know, I do want to have kids. Someday, if I meet the right woman …”

We exit the vehicle and commence walking briskly. He will make his flight. He had more time than he thought, just not nearly as much as I did.

lag∞n, Friday, 14 December 2018 17:38 (five years ago) link

I couldn’t finish that pretentious shit. Barely made it through the intro.

EZ Snappin, Friday, 14 December 2018 18:07 (five years ago) link

ESS is really a lot to handle it's true

J0rdan S., Friday, 14 December 2018 18:47 (five years ago) link

We exit the vehicle and commence walking briskly.


lag∞n, Friday, 14 December 2018 18:52 (five years ago) link

he can be a lot but i really liked that one

call all destroyer, Friday, 14 December 2018 19:07 (five years ago) link

i love ethan

тпсбlack (Spottie), Friday, 14 December 2018 19:11 (five years ago) link

non basketball but supposed to be amazing


J0rdan S., Wednesday, 19 December 2018 03:33 (five years ago) link

lol the title alone is very good

lag∞n, Wednesday, 19 December 2018 03:35 (five years ago) link

The Passion of Mike Piazza: How the midlife crisis of a baseball Hall of Famer led to the demise of a 100-year-old Italian soccer club

By Robert Andrew Powell 227
When​ Mike Piazza arrived​ in Reggio​ Emilia,​ he was greeted​ as a hero.

It​ was June 18, 2016.​ Everyone​ remembers​​ the exact date. Piazza had just purchased a controlling interest in A.C. Reggiana 1919, the Italian city’s soccer club. Few locals had heard of him. Even fewer understood his Hall of Fame career catching for the Mets, Dodgers, and three other teams in the American sport of baseball. “When I learned he was the new owner, I went out and bought his autobiography,” says Jacopo Della Porta, a reporter for La Gazzetta di Reggio. “I think I’m the only one here who has read it.” Piazza was obviously rich. His U.S. citizenship gave him a certain baseline allure. Above all, it was his stated plan to return Reggiana to the top flight of Italian soccer that inspired several thousand fans to squeeze into a public square to see him in person.

Reggiana had languished in Serie C, the Italian third division, since the turn of the century. For a club that has known glory—Carlo Ancelotti coached the team into Serie A, in 1996—the long spell of mediocrity has been dispiriting, even embarrassing. Piazza declared, in translated English, that the club was back in solid financial shape. He said he was in Italy for the long haul, invested in the community, and committed to Reggiana’s success. At the rally, smoke from ignited flares swirled around him. Maroon flags waved. Ultras raised their scarves and chanted songs and reached out to shake Piazza’s hand. “Dai c’andom!” Piazza shouted. “Come on!”

Two years later, A.C. Reggiana no longer exists. The club is bankrupt. A court-appointed accountant is distributing its assets.

In what should have been Reggiana’s centennial season, a different team, not owned by Piazza, now represents the city, down in Serie D, which is only semi-pro. The mayor of Reggio Emilia accuses Piazza of “disrespecting” his town. Those ultras who initially cheered Piazza painted death threats on the walls of the team’s headquarters.

When it all ended last summer, Piazza and his family fled Reggio Emilia so abruptly that the fans—along with team, staff, and even the players—felt blindsided. “They ghosted us,” says Sonya Kondratenko, an American who handled social media for the second and final year Piazza owned the team.

Piazza thought he had embarked on a romantic new chapter of his life. He believed he would stay in Italy for the next three decades, running Reggiana and eventually handing the club down to his children. His wife, Alicia, who never wanted him to buy a soccer team, to whom Piazza handed control of the club after a disastrous first year, and who many in Reggio Emilia blame for the club’s implosion, saw the possibility of a different ending. As they stepped off the stage in the plaza, she pulled her husband aside.

“Either we’re going to have the best experience ever,” she told him, “or we’re going to get rolled.”


Reggio Emilia is a small city about an hour’s train ride south of Milan. Nestled in Italy’s “Food Valley” alongside Parma, Bologna, and Modena, Reggio Emilia is known for its pumpkin tortellini and its namesake cheese, Parmigiano Reggiano. The tricolor national flag first flew in Reggio Emilia, in 1797, its creation celebrated in a museum in the old town center. The headquarters of fashion house Max Mara sit not far from a new train station designed by Santiago Calatrava. Locals are well-educated; Reggio Emilia is known around the world for its progressive schools. They’re also wealthy, though they tend not to flaunt it. The city has a history with communism and retains a collectivist ethos. “We work,” one resident tells me, summing up the city’s view of itself.

The Piazzas, for the two years they ran Reggiana, lived in a rented villa outside the city. They spent their summers in South Florida, where they’ve kept a home for more than a decade. I visited them in Florida in August, arriving as the sun set on Sunset Island II, a triangle of extremely expensive homes connected by a short bridge to Miami Beach.

“This interview’s going to be wet,” Mike said soon after I arrived. He stepped toward a bar in the living room and smiled. “I hope that’s okay with you.”

Mike poured me a glass of Grande Alberone Quintus, a red blend. Alicia sipped a chardonnay. My crystal glass was etched with the letter P in a curled script. Mike cupped his glass in his fingers as if it didn’t have a stem or a base.

“We do this every night,” Mike said, popping a chunk of cheese into his mouth as he settled into a striped Louis XIV chair. Behind him glimmered a swimming pool, and then the calm waters of Biscayne Bay. Alicia sat opposite Mike, near a tray of vegetables.

“It’s a tragedy,” Mike said of his soccer-team ownership. “Like an opera.”

“It was fucking hell,” said Alicia.

After retiring, Mike slipped into the languid life of ex-athletes in Florida. I’d seen pictures of Mike and Alicia appraising paintings at Art Basel. They hosted a benefit for the National Italian American Foundation at their waterfront house. He smoked cigars and golfed with Mario Lemieux and Michael Jordan and James Pallotta, the American owner of Italian soccer club Roma. He golfed a bit more than he cared to, actually.

“I think we got to a point in Miami where we got a little too melancholy,” Mike said. “Maybe that was part of it what fueled what I was doing. I wanted to do something different. And I wanted to do something interesting, and I wanted to do something creative.”

Piazza, who recently turned 50, came of age during the best days of the North American Soccer League. Growing up in Pennsylvania, he was a fan of the Philadelphia Fury, and also the indoor Fever. After he retired from baseball, his appreciation for soccer blossomed. He sat in the stands in Genoa in 2012 when the U.S. men’s national team defeated Italy for the first time. He and a friend flew to Brazil for the 2014 World Cup—“a bucket list sort of thing.” He loved how, unlike baseball, soccer is truly global, played and watched in every country. He began to think that owning a soccer team might be the most interesting thing someone in his position could do.

“I was retired when my second daughter was born,” he said. “And it’s my kids—I would never trade them for the world—but I remember thinking, ‘Here I am, I used to be hitting home runs in front of 43,000 people, and now I’ve got shit under my fingernails from changing diapers.’ There is nothing you will ever do after you retire that will give you the same buzz as playing. I’m sorry. I was able to recognize that and rationalize it and come to a point in my mind where you know maybe it”—buying a soccer team—“was like this super rebound.”

First, he looked at the Premier League. Everton. He flew into London and took a train up to Liverpool, visiting the port city for the first time. Eventually, he concluded the numbers would never work. He dropped down a league to investigate Reading, and also Leeds United. (“I’ve always liked Leeds. It’s weird.”) He pivoted back to the Americas, meeting with the president of Liga MX to discuss maybe buying Las Monarcas de Morelia. (“That would have been crazy.”) Then he investigated his options in Italy. That country seemed like the best fit.

There was the chance to actually live in Italy. Mike’s maternal grandparents are from Sicily. (Piazza translates as “public square;” the welcome rally in Reggio Emilia was held in Piazza Prampolini.) He didn’t visit his homeland until he was in his 30s, but when he did, he felt Italian. He loved the food, the wine. He identified with the people. Also, the soccer landscape appeared much more open.

“I believe that Italian soccer clubs are the most undervalued assets in sports,” says Joe Tacopina, the American owner of Venezia FC. Tacopina was also part of the initial group of Americans that bought Roma, in 2011. “This worldwide club, one of the best-known teams on the planet. And we paid just 110 million euros. For the whole club! For Roma! You can spend that much on just one good midfielder!”

Piazza first wanted to buy Parma, a Serie A club then in bankruptcy. Ultimately he felt Parma carried too much debt for him to absorb. Reggiana looked more attractive. Despite being in Serie C, the team’s passionate fans bought an unusually high number of season tickets. Reggiana also played in a top-flight stadium shared with Serie A club Sassuolo. Unlike a Premier League team, or a team already in Serie A, this was a club he could buy cheap and build.

Alicia, who refers to Mike’s ownership dream as “his midlife crisis,” offered up a counter argument.

“Who the fuck ever heard of Reggio Emilia?” she asked. “It’s not Venice. It’s not Rome. My girlfriend said, and you can quote this—and this really depressed me. She said, ‘Honey, you bought into Pittsburgh.’ Like, it wasn’t the New York Yankees. It wasn’t the Mets. It wasn’t the Dodgers. You bought Pittsburgh!”

In their Miami living room, Mike tried to interject but she stopped him.

“And imagine what that feels like, after spending 10 million euros. You bought Pittsburgh!”

“It’s not easy for an American to come to Italy and try to do business in Italian soccer,” says Gaël Genevier, a midfielder and the Reggiana team captain during Piazza’s ownership. “It’s a jungle. And when you have money, it’s even worse. Mike had a big wallet, he was American, and he didn’t know the soccer in Italy. And I think that’s why he had a lot of problems.”

Soon after Piazza bought Reggiana, he set out to raise the visibility of the club. He gifted Jimmy Kimmel a maroon jersey, on air. The New York Times flew over a reporter for a feature story. On Sports Illustrated’s “Planet Fútbol” podcast, Piazza talked about market discipline, about having a financial plan, about sticking to the plan for the long haul.

“When I took over the club I had a meeting with all the staff,” he told host Grant Wahl. “I said, if you don’t believe we can get to Serie A in five years, then I respectfully ask you to leave right now.”

Turns out, that’s not how it works in Italy. Piazza was free to fire anyone, but whoever he did fire still had to be paid, often for years. Contribute, they call it. In the three months between Piazza’s purchase of Reggiana and the moment he actually took over operations, the number of people employed by the club ballooned. The sporting director he inherited collected a bigger salary than the sporting director of Lazio, in Serie A—and for three years, guaranteed, no matter what. The players’ contracts were exceptionally generous for the Italian third division. The team captain told Piazza so. “They were attractive contracts for even B, one level up,” Genevier says. Piazza was overpaying for everything.

The year before Piazza bought Reggiana, the club finished in seventh place in its division, with operational costs of around 500,000 euros. In Piazza’s first season with the club, Reggiana finished in fifth place, but at a cost to Piazza of more than six million euros.

“When the auditors told us that, it was deafening to our ears,” recalled Alicia. “I turned to Mike and said, ‘What the fuck did you just do?!”

Mike decided he could no longer work with the front office he’d inherited. He also cut ties with his original partner, an Italian he knew from Miami. Looking around for someone who could protect his interests, he didn’t see many options.

“Alicia became the only one I could trust,” Mike said. “I basically took the budget and I turned to her and went, ‘Help. I don’t know what to do.’”

From that point on, Alicia Piazza took charge of Reggiana. And she started making changes.

Alicia Piazza began modeling in her teens and kept at it for a decade. After appearing in Playboy—Miss October, 1995—she saved some lives on the TV show “Baywatch” before showcasing a Broyhill dinette set as one of Barker’s Beauties on “The Price is Right.” She earned a master’s degree in psychology while in Miami. For more than a decade, she had seen herself primarily as a mom to their three kids.

Suddenly, she was vice president of AC Reggiana 1919.

Cost-cutting became her priority, in a way that felt personal. Every dime squandered was a direct hit to the family’s net worth. She ordered the drivers for youth team buses to stop dropping off players at their houses, to save on gas. She ordered the players to wash their own uniforms. (“I don’t think she realized that in Italy not everyone has a washing machine,” says Kondratenko, the American who handled social media for Reggiana.) She typed angry texts, calling employees she fired “conmen” and “frauds” and “liars.” The salutation of one text Alicia shared with me, sent to the team’s former sporting director: “Fuck off, loser.”

“I was the bitch,” she admitted. “I was the bad guy. And I’m sure I have a lot of enemies, and I’m sure you heard a lot of bad things about me and I don’t give a shit. I ripped the mask off so many faces.”

The Piazzas put their Miami Beach house on the market in January. Alicia sent a general email asking if anyone in the front office might want to buy it, asking price $18.5 million. She encouraged a friend of hers in Parma—the one who compared Reggio Emilia to Pittsburgh—to design a jewelry line to celebrate Reggiana’s 100th anniversary. The whole office sat in meetings to decide which rings and bracelets in the collection worked best. “I always thought the club would never fold before the anniversary, just because of all the time she put in on the jewelry,” says Kondratenko. Deviating from her mission to cut costs, Alicia renovated the players’ locker room, adding new tile and an extra toilet. One day, Kondratenko was pulled from her regular work assignments to shuttle Brande Roderick—a Playmate, a “Baywatch” lifeguard, and Alicia’s close friend—to the train station.

“My life plan is not to be doing errands for Playmates,” Kondratenko tells me.

The clear goal in the second season was for Reggiana to earn promotion to Serie B. New sporting director Ted Philipakos, an American who came over from Venezia FC, upgraded Reggiana’s quality on the pitch. He also found a new coach in Greece, where Philipakos holds dual citizenship and retains connections in the sport. They agreed on terms. The coach flew up to Reggio Emilia with his staff, ready to sign his contract and get started. Only after he arrived did the Piazzas balk at the compensation. Alicia offered to pay him and his staff 15,000 euros less than the original offer, a relatively small sum. After the coach protested, she floated a smaller cut of 7,500 euros. The coach flew back to Athens, on principle.

When Mike named Alicia the club vice president, he stepped back a bit. “He likes to stay above the fray,” she said. “It’s not like he’s a pussy or he needs his wife. It’s the way he’s comfortable. He’s always been like that.” In her newly elevated role as Reggiana’s “first lady,” she became a bit of a media sensation. She gave interviews at the team headquarters. She answered questions at restaurants when reporters approached her table, filming. “Alicia always talked down about Reggiana being a peasant team in a peasant town,” says Kondratenko. “She thinks these people have no class, but in some aspects they were super impressed with Alicia. She has money, she’s from the U.S., she has a Chanel bag and a Gucci bag.”

The influential magazine Sportweek invited Alicia to sit for a long interview. It’s her understanding that she was the first club vice president ever to be formally interviewed, and the first woman at any level in Italian soccer.

“I knew we had to get our story out about the stadium,” she said. “And I was feeling there was a conspiracy and I was feeling something (dark) in this underbelly.”

When Reggiana rose to Serie A in 1993, the club and the government of Reggio Emilia recognized the need for a home stadium worthy of the top flight. Locals funded much of the new stadium themselves, purchasing season tickets years into the future to cover construction costs. But Reggiana lasted only two campaigns in Serie A. The club itself went bankrupt. Ownership of the stadium reverted to the city, and the mayor put it up for auction. A billionaire named Giorgio Squinzi bought it, cheap.

Squinzi is the head of Mapei, a conglomerate that sells paint and adhesives. He also owns Sassuolo, a Serie A club which now plays its home games in Reggio Emilia, in the stadium Reggiana built, which Squinzi renamed after his company. Reggiana still played there, too, though they had to pay rent. In a development that Alicia noted on Instagram, the rent almost doubled in the short time between when Mike bought the club and when he actually took over its operation. That’s what Alicia wanted to talk about with Sportweek publisher Andrea Monti.

“He’s balding but he’s powerful and he’s become sexy,” she said of Monti. “He apparently never comes into these interviews, but he comes in and shakes my hand. Everyone thinks it’s because I’m cute, I know. But I was hungover and I was not cute that day. He crosses his legs and he stays for 45 minutes. Then he says this to me, which I will never forget:

“‘Reggio is a strange town and it’s run by the politicians. Don’t you wonder why that town has the (Calatrava) train station? There’s a lot of money there but it’s all controlled by Squinzi. But I think you, my dear, are going to give him a run for the money.’”

From that meeting on, Alicia vowed “not to give fucking Mapei another dime,” she said. “And let me tell you, that was the point where it was like, ‘Alicia sank the company.’”

On March 8th, reportedly at Alicia’s urging, Mike Piazza held a press conference to address Reggiana’s growing debt to Mapei. “It was the worst day of my life,” says Kondratenko, who recorded the press conference in a video that went viral, not just in Italy but around the world. Piazza sat at a table, Alicia silently on his right, an interpreter to his left. Ads for Riunite wine and Parmigiano Reggiano flashed and dissolved on a screen in front of his microphone. “We’re invested in this community,” he said in his opening. “I’ve moved my family here, my children here, to be part of this community.” He slapped the table, hard. “And we deserve respect!”

While Mike spoke in English, he showed impressive fluency in Italian hand gestures.

“We are not going to be PUSHED AROUND by a multi-billion dollar corporation,” he continued. “The stadium was built for this team.” He tapped his index finger on the table three times. “By these PEOPLE!” He tapped a couple more times, furiously. His voice almost cracked when he said, “We’ve reached out in friendship to try to form a coalition with the mayor, with Mr. Squinzi, with Sassuolo, with Mapei, and we’ve gotten”—he slammed down a fist—“NOTHING!” His hand slashed the air with a karate chop. “NOTHING!” He pointed his index finger. “And I’m sick of it! I’m tired and sick of Reggiana being pushed around. I’m frustrated and I’m….” He inhaled a breath. “Ffffffffreakin’ pissed off!” He fell back in his chair and let the translator have at it. Alicia remained motionless.

This went on for more than 10 minutes. He said he isn’t a quitter, but he has his limit. If the rent wasn’t lowered to at least the league average for Serie C, he’d walk away.

“Probably that was the first step in an exit strategy,” says Gazzetta reporter Della Porta.

There was a period early in the second season, in the fall of 2017, when Alicia wasn’t there. She returned to Miami for a bit, to prepare their house for sale. Right after she left, in a development Reggiana supporters tell me is no coincidence, the play of the team dramatically improved. Reggiana strung together two unbeaten streaks of eight games each, vaulting the club from 15th place into second, tantalizingly close to automatic promotion to Serie B. Mike, who stayed in Italy, got hands-on with the team, pulling players aside for one-on-one interviews.

“We knew he was a good athlete, he won a lot of things,” says Genevier. “His Italian wasn’t very good—he spoke in English and the translator translated everything to the players—but he was very, very positive inside the locker room. I remember the players were very happy after each speech of Mike’s. He was the president but he was like a player.”

Without the Greek coach they’d failed to sign, the team was forced to use a Frankenstein’s monster for a manager: One man, who had his coaching license but no experience in Serie C, became the titular leader, while two coaches from the youth teams—both lacking the proper licenses—picked the rosters and the tactics and ran the training sessions.

Somehow it worked. Mike witnessed away victories over Santarcangelo and AlbinoLeffe. Before kickoff, he’d shake hands with the ultras and give his pep talks in the locker room. He followed the action closely.

“When that ball went into the net, I felt like I was playing again,” Mike said. “I’ve never done cocaine, I’ve never done crystal meth, I’ve never done hard drugs, or any drugs for that matter besides aspirin. But let me tell you, that was fucking intoxicating.”

Reggiana finished the regular season in fourth place in their division. The team could still rise to Serie B by winning a playoff tournament. In the quarterfinals, Reggiana matched up against Siena, a strong club, for a home-and-home series. Reggiana won the opener, 2-1. In the second leg, down in Tuscany, Siena held a 1-0 lead deep into the second half. The tie in aggregate meant Siena would advance thanks to that club’s better regular-season finish. But in the first minute of stoppage time, Reggiana scored. In his box, Piazza leapt from his seat.

“Mike was into these games,” says Philipakos. “Obviously he had a lot of money on the line—that was a factor. But the raw emotion wasn’t just about protecting his investment. It was about competition. He was very engaged. When we equalized in stoppage time, he exploded. What followed minutes later was visible heartbreak.”

What followed was decried as “unjust” by Reggio Emilia mayor Luca Vecci. In the sixth minute of stoppage time, a Siena midfielder lofted a ball into the Reggiana box. In the scramble, a Siena player pushed over one of Reggiana’s defenders. Somehow, the referee called a hand ball on the toppled fullback. Yes, the ball briefly touches the player’s arm, but he was on his back from the fall, and he fell because he’d just been bodychecked. Still. Penalty. Siena converted in the 109th minute, with the last kick of the game. Reggiana lost the series. No promotion. Ultras stormed the pitch, looking for blood. Even the mayor ran to midfield.

“It was horrible,” says Genevier, the team captain. “I’ve never seen anything like it. I’ve played more than 300 games in Italy and this one was really the worst one.”

The next day, Mike Piazza posted a message on the official Reggiana website:

“Last night I could not comment because I had to go home with my children. I regret that they had to witness such corruption and incompetence. I’m deeply disgusted and angry. I’m really sorry for our fans, they do not deserve this. It’s really a sad day for Italy and for Italian football. I will never understand how some dirty and corrupt individuals managed to make something so beautiful so repugnant and ugly. I’m sick.”

Two days after the Siena loss, the Piazzas appeared to have emotionally recovered. They hosted a thank-you rally in a small, old stadium near the center of Reggio Emilia. The ultras turned out, as always. Flares burned, flags waved. Smoke floated around Mike, just as it had two years earlier at his grand arrival. The players trooped out in their jerseys, Genevier holding the hand of his young son. The Piazzas stood in front of them. Mike spoke first, in little snippets followed by pauses for translation.

“I want to thank the first lady,” he said, turning to Alicia. She curtseyed in her orange dress. The fans chanted her name. “I’m just going to tell you how much work she has done in the office behind the scenes. And it’s true when I tell you the only reason we’re here today after this beautiful season is because of Alicia. She convinced me to go on. So we all owe a debt of gratitude to her. Grazie!”

Mike kissed her. The ultras continued chanting her name. A female fan stepped onto the grass to offer Alicia a bouquet of white flowers.

“These guys played their asses off and they played with so much heart and determination,” Mike continued, turning to the players. “And it’s really sad the way it ended. But that doesn’t change the effort and the drive and the love they applied.”

Mike held up his fists over his head, a signal of strength and resolve. “I salute this team,” he concluded. “God bless! Enjoy the summer! Well done.”

Everyone left the rally thinking the mission continued. The team would stay together, the Piazzas would remain as owners.

“From my perspective, we had righted the ship,” says Philipakos. “If not for a totally absurd referee’s decision maybe we’d be in Serie B right now. We still had all these great things in place. The key players weren’t going to go anywhere. Most of the starters were under contract. We could have hit the ground running, and should have been a really strong favorite for promotion.”

The rally took place on June 5th. Mike flew to New York to throw out the first pitch before a Mets-Yankees game. Alicia stayed in Italy. On June 8th, a Friday, she invited the front office to lunch at a neighborhood café. Everyone shared a spread of cured meats, cheeses, and fresh pasta. Corks popped off wine bottles. It felt upbeat and celebratory. Alicia told them that with the season over, they should all consider themselves on vacation.

She meant more than that. On Monday, a chain and lock hung on the front door to the offices. Zip ties secured the gates to the parking lot. The Piazzas were gone. The players didn’t know what to do. Should they find new teams? Kondratenko says she didn’t know any more than the players. Should she fly back to the States?

“I woke up to a thousand WhatsApp messages asking what was going on,” she recalls. “I couldn’t take a coffee because so many people were coming up to me asking for information.”

On the 13th of June, on the team website, Mike Piazza announced that he’d put the team up for sale. Alicia issued her own statement: “Unfortunately, Reggiana has been under attack from negative forces since Mike’s arrival. … The suspicious loss in Siena was the final blow. We are generous but we are not crazy.”

One week later, the Piazzas returned to Reggio Emilia and were spotted at the team offices. More than a hundred ultras marched into the office parking lot, chanting and demanding answers. Carabinieri—national police aligned with the military—showed up for the Piazzas’ safety. The police advised the Americans to avoid the front door of the complex and exit through the back. Mike assured them it wouldn’t be necessary—he had always enjoyed a good relationship with the fans.

The carabinieri informed him that the relationship had changed. The Piazzas slipped out the back door, under police escort.

At their house in Miami, drinking wine, both Piazzas told me the end was inevitable. The plane was in a nosedive when they entered the cockpit—when they first arrived in Reggio Emilia—and they knew it immediately. They hung on for two full seasons, at great personal expense, only to get robbed in the playoffs against Siena.

“And we had enough!” Alicia shouted. “And they’re like, ‘Well, let’s sign up for next year and lose another four million euros altogether.’ Who’s losing the four million? We are! We’re losing the four million and not you. So we each took a pill”—she’s speaking figuratively—“we said, ‘Romeo and Juliet did this, we’re going to kill ourselves before you fucking get to kill us.’”

The Piazzas and their Italian attorneys initially tried to sell the club to a group of Reggio Emilia businessmen. When a deadline for fielding a team in Serie C passed, the businessmen opted to simply start up their own, new team, with the mayor’s blessing. Reggio Audace—“Bold”—play down in Serie D, with a roster of amateurs and unpaid professionals. The president of the new team tells me he’s still friends with the Piazzas. He wants them to grant him the official Reggiana name, now that they are done with soccer in the city. The Piazzas have said they will probably turn over the name, once the dissolution is complete.

In the public square where Mike made his initial arrival, there’s a small sign stating that it was there, in the same plaza, that Reggiana was founded 100 years ago. The square is ringed with restaurants and shops, including the official Reggiana team store. Piazza still owns the store, technically. When I was there in August, team jerseys remained for sale even though the team itself no longer existed. One T-shirt featured the “C’mon!’ phrase that Piazza cried out at his introduction. A poster of Piazza, from his days in baseball, had been taken down. No one wanted to see it anymore.

“Maybe it could have been different,” Mike told me in Miami Beach. “If I could re-engineer the whole thing I’d go back and save a lot of the money that was squandered. I’d put in my own people, people that knew what we’re doing. But that’s what we learn! We learn those lessons the hard way! There’s a lot of shoulda, coulda, woulda, but I don’t regret doing it.”

I can still see why it was attractive. In the States, Mike Piazza is a former great. A legend. In Reggio Emilia, with Reggiana, his role was active. Running a soccer team in Italy: It really is a romantic idea. He wasn’t simply a rich guy drinking wine on an endless vineyard tour. He wasn’t merely eating incredible food or lounging in a seaside cabana. He was living. He had an identity beyond his days of baseball, which by now are well behind him. “I need to have a project,” he once told Kondratenko. “I don’t want to just play golf all the time.”

I can also see why Alicia wanted out: She never wanted in. “I’m free,” she told me. Instead of sinking more of the family’s cash into a soccer team, they can spend that money weekending in Barcelona, or how about London? “My kids will be fluent in Italian and maybe also French,” she said. “I’m happy.” She didn’t want the soccer project the way Mike wanted it. But then, she’s never hit a home run in front of 43,000 people.

The Piazzas returned to Italy in late August. “I’m surprised they did this,” says Gian Marco Regnani, a calcio blogger in Reggio Emilia. “They’re the enemy.” The family rented the same villa outside of town from when they owned the team. Recently they moved closer to Parma, where the kids go to school. The Piazzas told me their status as outsiders might have been a central problem. They had the ability to pack up and fly away, while for everyone else Reggio Emilia is home.

“I always had a feeling that they were going to leave,” says Regnani. “I never thought they were going to be here forever.”

When I spoke with the Piazzas in Miami, Mike was careful to stress that he had not bankrupted Reggiana. He and Alicia were “dissolving” the club, he said. They were “executing a soft landing.” But they didn’t “bankrupt” a 100-year-old soccer team and civic institution, he insisted.

That was in August. On December 4th, the Piazzas asked a judge to declare the club bankrupt. On December 5th, the judge granted the request. More than 100 creditors, including Mapei, are currently carving up the Reggiana carcass.

In October, Mike flew to Scotland for a week on the Old Course at St. Andrews. In November, he posted a picture from a golf course in Tuscany.

I’ve spoken to him a couple times, at length, since he returned to Italy. The last time we talked, we discussed Reggiana for a while, naturally, but the team and its problems and his brief time running the club seemed like a closed chapter. We talked about Donald Trump and how being an American abroad has given Piazza a wider perspective on immigration. We talked about the Mets for a bit. He told me he’s started getting into rugby on TV. And also Formula 1. He said he doesn’t like to watch Italian soccer anymore. Not even Serie A. “I just don’t,” he said. “Or I think I’m just too hurt to care.”

lag∞n, Wednesday, 19 December 2018 03:35 (five years ago) link

the wife's quotes are completely out of control

J0rdan S., Wednesday, 19 December 2018 03:37 (five years ago) link

lmao i can hear her

lag∞n, Wednesday, 19 December 2018 03:50 (five years ago) link

Alicia, who refers to Mike’s ownership dream as “his midlife crisis,” offered up a counter argument.

“Who the fuck ever heard of Reggio Emilia?” she asked. “It’s not Venice. It’s not Rome. My girlfriend said, and you can quote this—and this really depressed me. She said, ‘Honey, you bought into Pittsburgh.’ Like, it wasn’t the New York Yankees. It wasn’t the Mets. It wasn’t the Dodgers. You bought Pittsburgh!”

In their Miami living room, Mike tried to interject but she stopped him.

“And imagine what that feels like, after spending 10 million euros. You bought Pittsburgh!”

J0rdan S., Wednesday, 19 December 2018 04:42 (five years ago) link

five months pass...

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‘The board man gets paid’: An oral history of Kawhi Leonard’s college days

By Jayson Jenks 42
This is my new favorite quote: “The board man gets paid.”

According to former teammates, coaches and managers, Kawhi Leonard didn’t say much during his two seasons (2009-11) at San Diego State. But he did say that, all the time, and it is wonderful: “The board man gets paid.” It says so much about who Leonard was and still is, and it absolutely belongs on a T-shirt.

This is the story about his two years at San Diego State, during which the Aztecs went 59-12 and made the NCAA Tournament both seasons under coach Steve Fisher.

Tim Shelton, forward: He was probably one of the hardest recruits that you’d ever deal with who was that talented. (California’s Mr. Basketball in 2009.) He wasn’t going to text you, he wasn’t going to pick up the phone and talk to you. He just wouldn’t do it.

Justin Hutson, assistant coach: I wouldn’t say hard. I would say different. You couldn’t get him on the phone. Once a week, I’d just have to go up there to his high school (100 miles away in Riverside, Calif.), and I’d make sure he was there first.

Shelton: And it’s part of why the Pac-12 teams didn’t put in extra effort. They were like, “He’s kind of a four-man, and, shoot, we can’t call him and talk to him. He must not want to talk to us.”

DJ Gay, guard: I took Kawhi on his official visit. Honestly, the only thing he wanted to do was get in the gym. We were like, “Kawhi, what do you want to do?” And he was like, “Let’s go work out. Let’s go get some shots up. Let’s play.”

Shelton: We had open gym and were playing. We stopped in between games and introduced ourselves as a team and just chopped it up a little bit more with his mom than him. He introduced himself, “I’m Kawhi. Hey, what’s up.” But if you tried to talk to him, he was like, “It’s cool, everything’s cool, so far it’s cool, it’s nice.” But then he just grabbed the ball and went to shoot. Even during his visit, I’m telling you.

Gay: I think we started up our day playing two-on-two and finished our day getting shots up. That’s just what he wanted to do. He wanted to work. I honestly had no idea what to expect when he left. He didn’t say much. He just wanted to hoop. I had no idea if we were getting him or not. I told coach Fisher: “I’m sorry, I don’t know what to tell you. He didn’t say much.”

Dave Velasquez, assistant coach: My favorite story about Kawhi is when he got to San Diego State his freshman year. He had a math class at 8 a.m. and a writing class at 10 a.m. It was Monday through Thursday, and it was really tough. Our job was to make sure the freshmen were up for that 8 a.m. class. So we were always knocking on their dorm room at 7:30. When we had to find Kawhi for his 8 a.m. class, he was rebounding by himself.

Gay: By far the hardest worker I’ve ever come across, I’ve ever known.

Alex Jamerson, manager: I’ve never seen anyone, ever, work harder in my whole life.

Jamerson: I would show up early to our arena to get things set up for practice. I’m thinking, “Oh, I’m going to be the first guy in the arena just to get things set up,” and I walk out to bring the balls out and he’s already got one or two with him shooting in the dark in the arena. All by himself.

John Van Houten, manager: We used to have to break into the volleyball gym.

Shelton: This was before they had all these swipe cards. We had just one key that we would share to get into that gym. When you didn’t have the key available, you could put the finger under the door at Peterson Gym, and if you knew how to wiggle it right, you could push the latch up and unlock the door.

Van Houten: At first, you could get in and you had access to the lights, you had access to the hoops and everything was good. And then they started cracking down, so we started breaking in, but the lightbox would be locked.

Shelton: So Kawhi had a lamp, and on different occasions, Kawhi would be in there late and the lightbox would be locked, so he’d bring a lamp in there. He’d put his finger under the door and unlatch it and he’d go in there and shoot with just his lamp.

Van Houten: And that’s when they got a new locking mechanism on the doors. And that’s when I got a key to an LDS church, a Mormon church, and they had a full court. … He was gonna find a way to work.

Jason Deutchman, guard: We lost in the first round of the NCAA Tournament my senior year on a Thursday. I took the rest of the weekend off and then I was like, “I’m going to go start training on that Monday.” I remember going in that very first night, three days after we had lost — and he was already there.

Coach Velasquez: We had Saturday morning conditioning, so not only would he be running hard and be in the front, but everybody else would go home after. He would go to the gym.

Gay: There were several times I tried beating him in the gym, but no matter how early I got there, he was already there. Or I tried to stay late, but it got to the point that I just couldn’t do it anymore.

Coach Hutson: Knowing Kawhi, he probably just stayed until somebody left. I’m serious.

(Chris Carlson / AP)
Gay: The most he talked was on the hard court, and Kawhi was not afraid to let you know that you weren’t going to score on him, that you couldn’t get past him or that he would score on you. Every time the ball went through the net, he just said, “Bucket. Bucket.” That was it.

Tyrone Shelley, guard: Most people say it like, “Oh, I’m about to get buckets on you.” He was just like, “Buckets. Layup.” Just one word.

Shelton: He’d be like, “You’re not scoring. You’re not doing anything.” Or he’d be like, “No, no, no.” He’d just move his feet and say, “No.”

Gay: You couldn’t score on him, so that’s what he would say: “Nope, nope, nope.” And when he would score on you: “Bucket. Bucket.”

LaBradford Franklin, guard: If he was grabbing a rebound, he’d say, “Give me that” or “Board man” or “Board man gets paid.”

Coach Hutson: If I heard it once, I heard it 50 times. “Board man. I’m a board man.” That’s what he said. Absolutely. “I’m a board man. Yeah, I’m a board man. Board man gets paid.” He spoke in phrases like that.

Shelley: Instead of saying, “We need to walk to the store” or “Let’s go to the store,” he’d just say, “I’m up.” When he leaves, he just says, “I’m up.”

Shelton: If he joked, it would be like one or two comments, and he’d go like, “Yeeee.” He’d make more sounds than he actually talked.

Franklin: What stood out to me about Kawhi was everyone else wanted to score or shoot threes, but he wanted to get every rebound. And one of the quotes he always said was, “Board man gets paid.” The rebounder man, he gets paid. And it’s true. He would say that every day. He would take pride in that. If you think about it, defense and rebounding, those are the two things you might not want to do. That’s not the pretty stuff. But he took pride in that. He cared. (And led the Mountain West Conference in rebounding two years in a row.)

Shelton: Guys coming from high school have trouble with help-side defense. Kawhi made a comment to coach Hutson, who was the defensive coach at the time, and he was like, “I don’t get it, coach. Why can’t they just stay in front of their man like I do? Like, why do I have to play help side?” That was his only comment I ever heard him make about defense: “They should just be able to stay in front of their man like I do.”

Coach Hutson: We would talk about rotations and how to help. I would get him on it about. He was respectful, but he would be very frustrated and say, “Why can’t everybody just guard their own man?” Those were exactly his words. “Why can’t everybody just guard their own man?”

Kelvin Davis, guard: In his mind, everyone should be doing what he was doing. But he didn’t realize everybody couldn’t do what he did. He was a walking nightmare.

Gay: In practice, he would tell us, “Don’t help, I don’t need help, I got it, I don’t need help.” That’s just how he was. That was his mentality. “I don’t need help; why do you need help?” But then it made us better because it challenged us: If Kawhi doesn’t need help, I don’t need help, either. And we turned out to be one of the best defensive teams in all of America that year.

Shelton: He didn’t say much. But he would tell you if you were fouling him in practice. He’d be like, “They fouling me, coach.”

Coach Velasquez: There’s one thing we always laugh about as a staff, and it would always happen at practice. He would drive in there, and he’s big and people would be hitting him all the time. At practice, you don’t really call that. I can’t tell you how many times he would look over and go, “But they fouling me. But they fouling me.”

“Kawhi, you’ve got to kick that.”

“But they fouling me.” It was over and over. In games, he wouldn’t really have a lot of dialogue with refs, but you’d definitely hear, “but they fouling me,” two or three times a game.

Shelley: There was no backtalk. Unless he was getting fouled.

Coach Hutson: There was a certain time I wanted everybody to lock and trail in practice. I was very clear that there are times you don’t have to trail on the baseline; there are times you can cheat the screen and shortcut and get there. But right now we’re going to work on lock and trailing. I was very clear that this was the way we were going to do it. And I remember Kawhi just takes his own route. I made everybody run, and he was upset about it. He was definitely pissed about it. A man of few words, but every once in a while he said something.

Van Houten: The coolest part about Kawhi: He plays mini hoop. In every house I’ve ever been to, he always had a mini hoop. You can only play with your left hand. You can’t play with your right hand. That’s a really cool thing because he’s working on his game even when he’s just at the house.

Franklin: He had a Nerf goal on the back of the door in his apartment, and he would just shoot. Friends would come over, playing 2K, and he would challenge us to a free-throw contest.

Van Houten: He’d come over to my house and he’d watch Michael Jordan highlights. We called them “Mike highs” … I mean, like four or five hours at a time.

Coach Velasquez: We’d be done with the game and he’d be on his phone watching Jordan on YouTube. Right away. He wasn’t texting. He was watching Jordan on YouTube. He’d watch it all day, every day.

Shelton: You would see him watching that stuff. But he still wouldn’t talk about it.

Coach Velasquez: Coach Fisher had a no-cellphone policy at team dinners, but Kawhi would have his phone on his lap watching Jordan highlights. He would really study his moves.

Franklin: On his phone, his background was Michael Jordan. … He would always say, “I’m Mike. You like LeBron, you like Kobe? Yeah, they’re cool, but I’m Mike. I want to be the best, the greatest.” And from how he carried himself, we knew he was serious. We knew that’s what he really wanted.

(Lenny Ignelzi / AP)
Van Houten: The only thing we’d give him shit for was his hands. Like, “Damn, you make that iPhone plus look like an iPhone 5.” Or like, “Damn, it should be a cheat code to play with those hands.”

Deutchman: There were definitely a few jokes about self-pleasure techniques. (His hands) could be helpful or harmful, depending on your perspective. With those, he could probably do a lot more damage with yourself if you get a little too much into it, considering the size of your hands.

Franklin: I’d always get on him about his braids. Like after a practice or after a long road trip, we’re all sweating, and it would look like he just got out of bed with his hair. But he didn’t care at all.

Gay: I used to call him an Avatar. A freakish Avatar, that’s what he was in college. Long limbs, long body, could run like the wind.

Franklin: From what I can remember, if it wasn’t Michael Jordan highlights, he was watching an episode of the Martin Lawrence show. He could be entertained with that. He’s so low-maintenance. Low maintenance, high production.

Shelley: I don’t remember him going to any parties except for one, and he was just kind of off in the corner hanging out until we left.

Shelton: He would be with the team and kick it and party a little bit because it was San Diego and we were winning. But he’d still be the first person up, and he’d be in the gym shooting.

Gay: I used to tell him that I had an unblockable step-back. It took him a while, but he finally started blocking my step-back. And that’s when I was like, “This is just ridiculous.” I was just like, “Yeah, my time is over.”

Coach Velasquez: I’ll never forget when we played at Cal. He remembered that Cal didn’t think he was good enough. He heard that the head coach at the time, Mike Montgomery, didn’t think he was good enough. He made it his personal mission to go out there and want to destroy Cal. They had a really good team. Allen Crabbe was there. They had a squad. But Kawhi went up there at Cal, and you knew when he walked on the floor that game, they had no chance. It was ridiculous.

Shelton: We played at Fresno State against Paul George, and that was when Paul George was getting some hype. I remember Kawhi watching his clips and us doing the scouting report. Now, he never said anything that he was going to lock him up or that he wasn’t any good. He was just like, “OK.”

Franklin: We were playing against Jimmer and BYU in the tournament. He screamed to coach Fisher, “Let me guard him.” At that time, Jimmer was killing everybody in the country. He was Jimmer Fredette. Kawhi had no business taking that challenge or saying that he was better than Jimmer then, but he did it.

Coach Velasquez: (Coach Fisher) would always say, “Kawhi paid the bills.” Kawhi rebounded. Kawhi was the best defender on the floor. Kawhi ran the hardest in transition. Kawhi always did all the little things that helped your team win.

Shelton: He says the most by his actions. He’s probably the only person that I know, that I’ve met, that I’ve seen, that speaks that loudly through his actions. People are like, “Kawhi’s quiet.” I’m like, “No, he’s not. Have you seen him work? Have you seen the dude work out? Do you know what his routine is over the summer?”

Van Houten: He always found a way. If he wants to become the greatest, he’s going to find a way. If he wants to get in a gym and work out, he’s going to find a way.

Franklin: To this day, I apply everything I learned from him. He was the hardest worker. While we were going to class, he would hold his couple papers for the class in his hand and in his backpack he had his sports gear: his shoes, the ball. He was always in the gym. At night, in the day. You could definitely learn from him. That work ethic can be applied to anything. That was the most craziest thing I saw.

Coach Hutson: I was fortunate enough to be around a genius. He had a genius work ethic.

(Top photo: Harry How / Getty Images)

What did you think of this story?



Jayson Jenks is a features writer for the Athletic Seattle. Jayson joined The Athletic after covering the Seahawks for four seasons for the Seattle Times. Follow Jayson on Twitter @JaysonJenks.
Add a comment...
Anmol K.
Jun 3, 11:25am
Kawhi is a future HoF.
Rick M.
Jun 3, 11:38am
Wow what an awesome story. I can’t recall ESPN ever doing a story like this. I want someone in the media to ask Kawhi about “The Board Man Gets Paid!”
Breanna S.
Jun 3, 11:59am
He's like Kobe with a Tim Duncan personality.
J S.
Jun 3, 1:25pm
Tim Duncan seems normal by comparison
Frankie C.
23h ago
He's better than Kobe, though
Scott E.
19h ago
Tim Duncan would never have exited San Antonio the way Kawhi did.

Keep in mind I mostly sided with Kawhi. But still.
Nick Z.
Jun 3, 12:00pm
A+ effort
Baskar G.
Jun 3, 12:08pm
Mad genius
Paul D.
Jun 3, 12:40pm
As a former basketball Aztec myself, I am so proud of Kawhi. His game is beautiful.
Ansar H.
Jun 3, 12:47pm
Omg what a story - the board man gets paid!!!!!!!!
Marcus G.
Jun 3, 1:14pm
"If he joked, it would be like one or two comments, and he’d go like, “Yeeee.” He’d make more sounds than he actually talked."

Kawhi is a living, breathing meme
Myles S.
Jun 3, 1:35pm
These oral history pieces are probably my favorite feature The Athletic does.
Greg B.
Jun 3, 2:02pm
1 like
@Myles S. Totally. More please.
Ned R.
Jun 3, 1:46pm
Great story with insight into Kawhi.
Beta 3.
Jun 3, 2:13pm
Fantastic work Jayson. What an interesting read.
Emet L.
Jun 3, 2:14pm
I still can’t get over Dame Lillard using his friend’s Netflix account when he was in the NBA
David R.
Jun 3, 2:19pm
This is one of the most hilarious and revealing stories I’ve read about a basketball player. Kawhi is such an enigma, and I felt like I had no idea what made him tick, but this story really opens a door on him. Very impressive guy. I was at that Cal game and I remember him wrecking us. I only hope the dubs find a way to stop him because his inner determination is obviously EPIC.
Jordan T.
Jun 3, 2:41pm
Kawhi is deadass the Terminator lol
Mark G.
23h ago
1 like
Needed this insight into Kawhi...good story!
Adam A.
23h ago
1 like
Wish I started at SDSU in 2010 instead of 2011 so I could watch kawhi
Kenneth C.
23h ago
The NBA can definitely benefit from more guys like Kawhi who just walks the walk. The league is filled with prima donnas that put their personal agendas before team goals. They can say they care about winning more than anything else but what they care is how much it goes in their pockets.
Seth F.
23h ago
In terms of body control and the ability to be a dominant (and game altering) force on defense, I absolutely feel he’s Jordan-esque. Also ‘Board Man Gets Paid’ shirts on Breaking T in 3...2.....
Frankie C.
23h ago
I honestly cannot believe that nobody really talked about this guy in college. It's not like he was just ok, and would be a solid role player, or was at a mid major and barely played against good teams. SDSU was a legit top 10-15 team those 2 years & they were beating good squads, yet we heard more about Fischer, because he also coached the Fab 5, than we did about Kawhi. How crazy is that?
Alex N.
19h ago
@Frankie C. That 2010-11 team was pretty stacked. Lot of good seniors on that squad that went on to have pro careers overseas. They definitely had the talent to go all the way that year.
Adam G.
23h ago
"Why can't they just guard their man like I do?" Hahaha, made me laugh. I know that feeling, but on a much, much muuuuuuch smaller scale at work.
Colin G.
23h ago
I thought it would be impossible for me to like Kawhi after he killed my Sixers, but you gotta respect him after reading a story like this.
Norman L.
23h ago
This article is everything. What an absolute joy to read.
Zaid T.
23h ago
The “board man gets paid” motto really showed last night vs GSW. Plenty of possessions where he recovered an offensive rebound.

Good to know!
Alex C.
23h ago
As a special education teacher, I wholeheartedly believe that Kawhi is a little autistic or something, which is really really cool. I'd love for him to open up and hear more of his story.
Jeremy G.
13h ago
I came here to say, this article makes me wonder if Kawhi is on the spectrum. Barely talks, extremely insanely focused, repeats the same habits over and over, makes more sounds than words.
Young K.
21h ago
1 like
What a killer robot Kawhi is!
Forrest B.
20h ago
Wow, what this article shows me is how well researched the clippers are with Kawhi. This year they've talked about being a black top team, a team that works, a team that doesn't want drama, Doc comparing Kawhi to Jordan. It's crazy.
Dan M.
12h ago
If the Clips get Kawhi and KD ... gulp. Dynasty probably over in the Bay.
Jeff J.
18h ago
As an SDSU grad I feel so blessed and proud of guys like Kawhi because San Diego State will never be a power 5 school where these kinds of guys are on a regular basis. There are a lot of very good players in lots of sports to come out of SDSU, Kawhi, Tony Gwynn, Marshall Faulk, and it feels good to in some small way be a part of that.
Gary F.
15h ago
He seems like a genuinely nice guy. Very easy to hang out with
Will O.
12h ago
Danny M.
12h ago
I watched him at SDSU. That 34-3 team was so good and I was bummed that he left after the 2011 season because I really thought they had a very good chance to win the NCAA tourney. That said, I’ve followed his NBA career and hope him continues to work hard and win more titles. He’s the reason I watch pro basketball again. Thanks KL.
Dan M.
12h ago
1 like
Man oh man. What a great story. I am an Aztec alum ... and a life long Warrior fan ... talk about being conflicted.

What I can say, is that Aztecs love Kawhi. LOVE HIM.

There’s a whole lot of pride, and happiness, for all his success.

There is tremendous gratitude to him- during his sophomore (last) season on The Mesa, we had the greatest team we had ever had, and likely ever will, have.

It was like we were Duke, North Carolina or Kansas for a season. I really believe we were one of the 2-3 best teams in the nation that season - we grabbed the highest #2 seed in the tournament that season, so they had us as #5 overall going in. We won our first 2 games in tournament history, I was blessed to be in Tucson for both. I was “fighting them back” as the clock ran out to beat Temple to go to our first sweet 16.

We lost to eventual national champion UConn the next week, some very questionable calls in an incredible game that went down to the final possession. I have no doubt we clobber Arizona the next game, as UConn did, to go to our first and only Final 4. So close.

Kawhi was the difference. Even though he was so raw, could barely shoot a lick... I had never seen such a force of nature before, his effort, his attitude, his intense desire to win. An absolute demon on the boards and defensively. He was surrounded by an incredibly long, athletic, talented team that defended as well as just about any team I’ve ever seen in college basketball. What a incredible season that really put SDSU on the national basketball map for a run of 4-5 years.

Of course, despite Aztec nation’s claimed that he wasn’t ready to come out for the draft. Needed one more season in college. He thought differently. We all know how that has turned out. Nobody was going to deny Kawhi.

There are some incredible Kawhi stories I’ve read and heard about him that speak to his ridiculous work ethic, his focus and single-mindedness to be the best, and a spotlight on what he cares about- his mom, his close friends and family ... and basketball.

lag∞n, Tuesday, 4 June 2019 17:52 (five years ago) link

I wish that Paul George anecdote had gone somewhere

reggae mike love (polyphonic), Tuesday, 4 June 2019 21:13 (five years ago) link

google australia free web proxy
paste in the espn url except with .au after the .com like espn.com.au
you are an insider now

lag∞n, Tuesday, 18 May 2021 13:13 (three years ago) link

three weeks pass...

Inside the Mavericks front office, Mark Cuban’s shadow GM is causing a rift with Luka Doncic
Tim Cato and Sam Amick 34m ago 50

In early February, during the second quarter of a home game against the Golden State Warriors, Luka Doncic carelessly turned over the ball and received feedback from a Dallas Mavericks employee he didn’t care for: Haralabos Voulgaris, a well-known sports gambler hired by team owner Mark Cuban in 2018.

Voulgaris, sitting with an open laptop in his typical courtside seat across from the Mavericks’ bench, motioned downward with his hands, which Doncic specifically interpreted as Voulgaris telling him to calm down, multiple team and league sources tell The Athletic. Doncic snapped back, telling Voulgaris, according to one source’s recollection, “Don’t fucking tell me to calm down.” The same sources say Voulgaris later professed that his motion wasn’t solely directed at Doncic, but regardless of intent, it only worsened an already inflamed relationship between the two.

Doncic, multiple league sources say, intends to sign the supermax extension — which he will be eligible for once named to this season’s All-NBA team — with Dallas, worth more than $200 million over five seasons after his rookie contract expires next summer. “I think you know the answer,” he said, smiling, when asked whether he would at last week’s exit interview. But a high-level power broker within the league says the Mavericks recognize that there’s urgency to build a contending team around Doncic after losing in the first round in each of the past two seasons. The clock is ticking.

Internally, there are concerns the front office’s dysfunction has hurt its ability to do so — and that poor relationships Doncic has with key members of the franchise, including Voulgaris, could impact his current desire to remain in Dallas long-term. The team’s most recent postseason defeat against the LA Clippers served as a direct indictment on the roster constructed around him. Can Mavericks management remedy that in time? Or, as some team sources fear, will they pay the price for the dysfunctional dynamics that exist in some corners of the organization?

Dallas announced Voulgaris’ hiring in the fall of 2018 with a title — director of quantitative research and development — that vastly understated his actual role. Multiple league and team sources tell The Athletic that Voulgaris has been the most influential voice within the Mavericks front office since joining the team, either initiating or approving virtually every transaction made over the past two seasons. Those same sources add that Voulgaris has frequently gone as far as scripting the starting lineups and rotations for longtime head coach Rick Carlisle.

That influence has spanned Doncic’s three seasons in Dallas. While he had been drafted prior to Voulgaris’ arrival — Donnie Nelson, the team’s longtime president of basketball operations, was the driving force behind trading up to acquire the Slovenian wunderkind, a process he described in detail to The Athletic last year — Cuban had sought out Voulgaris’ basketball advice in the years before putting him on the team’s payroll. As one team source says, “Mark Cuban is the most powerful person in the organization, but whoever he’s listening to is second.” Cuban was won over by Voulgaris’ vision: an analytics-driven spread pick-and-roll offense with Doncic as the focal point which he has tried implementing in the past seasons.

It’s unclear when the Cuban and Voulgaris relationship began, but their coming together is perhaps unsurprising given Cuban’s origin as a self-made tech billionaire whose first major purchase was the Mavericks. Voulgaris has never been shy about his desire to run a team. In an ESPN feature from 2013, Voulgaris is quoted as saying, “The whole process (of becoming a highly successful gambler) has led me to believe that I’d be able to put together a better team than almost any general manager in the league. If not maybe all.”

The way Voulgaris tells it — the ESPN feature is the only notable reporting ever focused on him, and he declined an interview request from The Athletic shortly after being hired — he began gambling on the NBA in the late 1990s and had made millions by the early 2000s. His success, he says, came in part from an instinctual reading of certain coaches. It finally failed him during the 2003-04 season, causing him to lose much of his gambling wealth and step away temporarily, only returning once he’d developed an analytics model that brought back his old edge. He says he did exactly that, his new model beating the odds at a rate higher than five percent. In 2009, he gave up gambling again to consult for an unnamed NBA franchise. The advisory role lasted one season; he returned to his previous life afterward and began publicly promoting himself. In the coming years, he became a well-known presence in the basketball world.

Voulgaris spent a limited amount of time around the Mavericks during his first season of employment, attending about one-quarter of the team’s games. He attended fewer games the following season, but his imprint on the team’s roster grew substantially that offseason. It was Voulgaris who initiated the team’s acquisitions of Seth Curry and Delon Wright, with multiple sources telling The Athletic that Voulgaris believed Wright should start next to Doncic. “He was the only person that believed that,” one team source says. Wright did start the season opener before being moved to a full-time bench role the following game, barely playing in the team’s first-round defeat in the 2020 postseason. He was traded that offseason.

Because Voulgaris’ influence was greater than his official role, those within the front office — and executives around the league who interacted with them — were often confused about who actually held power. “We had two general managers,” a team source says. Nelson remained the team’s president of basketball operations, a role he has held since 2005, and other executives and agents continued largely communicating with him or Cuban regarding personnel matters. Nelson continued to spearhead major moves, including trades for Kristaps Porzingis and Tim Hardaway Jr. in 2019, Josh Richardson in 2020 and J.J. Redick in 2021. But team sources say Voulgaris was supportive of the transactions — or explicitly approved them.

Multiple league and team sources point to the 2020 draft as a particularly egregious example of Voulgaris’ power, an evening one source described as “embarrassing.” Most members of the scouting department joined the team’s war room remotely through Zoom and were surprised when Voulgaris, attending in person, didn’t consult them for either of the team’s first two selections (Josh Green and Tyrell Terry) despite disagreements they held with at least one of the players he picked.

“What did (he) sell to Mark to make him believe (he) can do this?” asks one source with an intimate knowledge of the situation. “Nobody knows.”

It marked another throughline of Voulgaris’ tenure with the Mavericks: that his personality and decision making has steadily irritated and exasperated the team’s front office employees and players over the course of the three seasons he’s been employed. “He doesn’t know how to talk to people,” that same source says.

That’s best exemplified by Dallas’ franchise player disliking him. Doncic’s strained relationship with Voulgaris predated their incident in February, multiple sources say. It wasn’t the only incident, either. This season, Voulgaris attended his first game in mid January, frequently appearing courtside at home and also traveling with them on the road in the months that followed. In mid-April, during the final minute of a home defeat to the New York Knicks, Voulgaris was seen on the game’s broadcast footage standing up and leaving with about 45 seconds remaining. While the Mavericks were trailing by 10 points at the time, they cut the deficit to six and extended the game seven more possessions before eventually losing.

Doncic noticed Voulgaris’ early departure. In the locker room after the game, multiple league and team sources say he told teammates he viewed Voulgaris leaving before the game’s conclusion as him quitting on them. Voulgaris would not attend another game the rest of the year.

Multiple team sources confirm Voulgaris remained involved in the team’s gameplans and in-game adjustments in a remote role. But Voulgaris, who earlier this season appeared likelier than not to wrest further control over the front office and perhaps even drive out Nelson entirely, now heads into a summer with his contract set to expire and uncertainty surrounding his future.

When reached for comment on Monday, Cuban defended Voulgaris’ involvement. “I really like what Bob brings to the table. He does a great job of supporting Rick and the front office with unique data insights.”

Cuban added: “Bob has a great grasp of AI and the opportunities it create for gaining an advantage. Which is important to me. But he isn’t any more influential than any other data source on the team.”

Voulgaris declined to comment for this story when reached on Sunday.

Doncic’s relationship with his head coach, Rick Carlisle, has been publicly scrutinized since joining his team. It’s expected Carlisle will return next season, multiple league sources say, something Cuban publicly voiced support for last week shortly after the first round defeat.

“Let me tell you how I look at coaching,” he told ESPN. “You don’t make a change to make a change. Unless you have someone that you know is much, much, much better, the grass is rarely greener on the other side.”

Multiple sources were surprised to see Cuban’s prompt backing of Carlisle, however, even though Cuban’s support for Carlisle has hardly wavered over the past decade. During the season, it was believed Carlisle’s future could be reconsidered following the season, partly due to a belief Doncic had tuned him out.

“It was very much up in the air,” one source with intimate knowledge of the situation said.

Sources say some players have been frustrated with Carlisle after they lost playing time despite doing exactly what they felt he had asked of them, and for stiff rotation patterns, the latter of which they viewed — correctly, team sources confirm — as being dictated directly to him by Voulgaris. Early on, Doncic also disliked Carlisle’s timeouts and frequent calling of plays.

But Carlisle, who’s “adaptable as a motherfucker,” as one league source put it, began to modify his coaching style as a way of relieving some of the pressure from this sensitive situation. Beyond Carlisle’s obvious coaching acumen, he has always been able and willing to, in essence, read the room when it came to which personal battles he could win and which ones he couldn’t. This was no different.

Doncic’s greatness, so evident so early on, clearly compelled Carlisle to consider the changing hoops politics at hand. Since being hired in May of 2008, Carlisle has had his fair share of friction with key players, in large part because of his well-known tendency to be controlling. But Rajon Rondo, this was not.

In truth, it was far closer to the difficult dynamic that he’d successfully navigated with then-point guard Jason Kidd en route to winning the franchise’s first and only title in 2011. It took an intervention of sorts to get through that friction back then, when then-Mavericks assistant coaches Tim Grgurich, Dwane Casey and Terry Stotts stepped in to tell Carlisle that he needed to loosen the reins on Kidd. In the end, of course, it was a wise and necessary move.

The championship took Carlisle’s credibility to another level in those coming years. He was, with good reason, virtually untouchable when it came to the job insecurities that most coaches face. Such is life when you reach the NBA’s mountaintop for a franchise that has never been there before.

But as Doncic started to look more and more like a modern-day Dirk Nowitzki these past three seasons — the kind of once-in-a-generation player who the Mavericks could build around for the next two decades — the landscape that surrounded Carlisle began to change. And Carlisle, quite clearly, decided to change along with it.

“You can’t win against the next Nowitzki,” one source said.

Doncic has a healthy relationship with the Mavericks organization at large. League sources say he angled to be drafted by the team in 2018, and he has been particularly complimentary of his relationship with Nowitzki, whose final season coincided with Doncic’s first. Those feelings could change if the team’s postseason struggles continue, as the Mavericks haven’t advanced past the first round since their 2011 championship run. It’s not that Doncic’s situation with the team is at a critical inflection point right now. Multiple team sources simply fear that it’s heading that direction.

Those concerns mostly center on Cuban and the decisions he makes regarding who he trusts and imbues with power. Sometimes, it’s examples like Voulgaris, a sports gambler with no league experience being given near total control of the team’s roster. Other times, it’s the relationships he doesn’t sever: The Mavericks’ front office has come to be known around the league for its long-existing power structure that, Voulgaris aside, has barely changed.

Doncic has provided the Mavericks a chance to return to prominence. He’s a generational star the team was fortunate to draft, seamlessly taking the mantle from the franchise player before him. But after beginning another offseason sooner than hoped for, the focus falls upon the organization around him: on how the dynamic that existed over the past seasons was allowed to operate in such a haphazard manner, and whether it can be fixed before it’s too late.

call all destroyer, Monday, 14 June 2021 15:56 (three years ago) link

the only notable thing in there to me is that doncic doesn’t like voulgaris. the rest of the stuff — bob’s influence in the front office in particular and his butting heads with colleagues, seems run of the mill for an NBA franchise

k3vin k., Monday, 14 June 2021 17:56 (three years ago) link

one month passes...

On the Miami Heat, reloading again with Kyle Lowry and P.J. Tucker -- how they keep doing this, and what they look like for next season: https://t.co/7Fm8AW1s97

— Zach Lowe (@ZachLowe_NBA) August 3, 2021

anyone have espn+ ?

J0rdan S., Tuesday, 3 August 2021 17:54 (two years ago) link

IT'S FITTING THAT the Miami Heat's latest all-in reload involved sending out Goran Dragic in their mammoth sign-and-trade for Kyle Lowry -- the first major domino of this NBA free-agency period.

It was Miami's flipping two first-round picks to acquire Dragic (on an expiring contract) at the 2015 trade deadline that set off the first round of fearful snickering among rivals -- clucking that Pat Riley was mortgaging the team's future because that future would belong to his successor. The clucking was always laced with anxiety: Somehow, the Heat -- slick, beachy, with a friendly tax regime -- would climb out of whatever hole Riley dug.

Three years later, it appeared as if the Heat might be buried without a shovel. Chris Bosh's blood clot issues upended the promising 2015-16 Heat featuring Bosh, Dwyane Wade and Dragic. The Heat struck out on Kevin Durant in 2016 and then Gordon Hayward the next offseason, and responded by re-signing their own free agents to huge deals: Hassan Whiteside, Tyler Johnson, Kelly Olynyk, James Johnson, Dion Waiters.

As the calendar flipped to 2018, they all looked like cap-clogging overpays whose contracts would be hard to move. Justise Winslow, the manna-from-heaven pick that represented Miami's salvation, was injured and developing unevenly. Their quiver of first-round picks was half empty.

When I spent a week in Miami that January, those in and around the franchise were as uncertain about their path forward as I had ever seen or heard them. They were determined, hopeful, but unsure. On the Lowe Post podcast last year, Dan Le Batard, who knows Riley well, recalled strolling Heat headquarters around that time with Riley and passing walls adorned with photos of Waiters and Whiteside. "He, like, snorts in disdain," Le Batard said, "and he just blurted, 'Our so-called leaders.' And I'm like, 'Oof. This is not a good place for these people to be.'"

Two years later, they were in the Finals -- one of the greatest short-term turnarounds ever executed from an on-paper position of weakness. The Heat nailed late lottery picks (Bam Adebayo, Tyler Herro) that usually yield league-average players at best; turned undrafted guys into starters and key contributors (the newly ultra-wealthy Duncan Robinson, Kendrick Nunn, Derrick Jones Jr.); and swapped one second-round hit (Josh Richardson) into the best star that was realistically available to them -- Jimmy Butler, about to sign a mega-extension that will take him into his mid-30s, sources said.

They caught some breaks, as any team does amid a successful retool. The Butler situation with the Philadelphia 76ers went haywire. Teams passed on Adebayo and Herro in favor of worse players. The Heat got off a lot of those bad contracts with minimal pain thanks to injuries and desperation in trading partners, and the Memphis Grizzlies' lust for Winslow -- with the Heat sending out James Johnson and Waiters in that deal, and somehow netting Solomon Hill, Andre Iguodala, and Jae Crowder.

Crowder was the last puzzle piece that made sense of the 2020 Heat: the small-ball power forward with enough size, toughness, and 3-point shooting to unlock Adebayo-at-center lineups that had two-way balance. The Heat in 2020 demurred on one last trade for Danilo Gallinari, wary of committing too much future cap space over too many years -- and wagering Crowder and Iguodala would perform.

The same shielding of cap space cost them Crowder, who signed a long-term deal with the Phoenix Suns after Miami's Finals run. The Heat last season never found a replacement, toggling between imperfect solutions. Makeshift lineups were either too small, with Butler at power forward and multiple below-average perimeter defenders, or lacking in shooting.

AP Photo/Lynne Sladky
ONCE THE HEAT finalized their deal for Lowry on Monday, the biggest remaining question about their roster -- perhaps aside from depth -- was whom Erik Spoelstra would start at power forward. Could they find another Crowder? (The other big question following Lowry's signing -- bigger than the game of point guard roulette going around the league -- was this: What is Philadelphia's backup plan after missing out on Lowry for the second time in four months? Are they just going to stand pat and wait out the Ben Simmons market?)

Candidates flew off the board: JaMychal Green, Jeff Green, Nicolas Batum, others.

And then Miami capped its day with a bombshell: stealing P.J. Tucker -- switchable, mean, still trucking along -- from the postseason starting five of the NBA champion Milwaukee Bucks.

Those Bucks, of course, obliterated the Heat in the first-round of the 2021 playoffs with an emphatic, avenging sweep. That humiliation was catnip to skeptics who dismissed Miami's 2020 Finals appearance as the fluky product of the bubble and the restarted pandemic season from hell.

There is some truth to the notion that Miami was well-suited to the isolated, all-basketball-all-the-time setting of the Orlando, Florida, bubble. But three of the final four teams from Orlando trudged through unremarkable seasons, with the fourth -- the Denver Nuggets -- slumping away once injuries destroyed its guard rotation. (They were exhausted too.) The Heat in 2020 were the only postseason team to take more than one game from the champion Los Angeles Lakers. They would have a hard time reaching the Finals again, but that didn't mean they weren't good or deserving.

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But the Heat recognized the status quo wasn't good enough, with Milwaukee having proven itself on the biggest stage and the Brooklyn Nets looming as title favorites entering the 2021-22 season. And so they did their best to rekindle the magic of 2020.

Tucker is a downgrade from Crowder. He is five years older, and starting to show his age. Tucker only launches from the corners, and his mark on those shorter 3s dropped to 34.7% last season -- and 31.4% during a postseason in which he was a total non-threat. The spacing will look cramped at times with Butler, Tucker, and Adebayo on the floor.

Crowder might be the league's streakiest shooter, prone to some ugly backboard bonks, but he is willing to chuck from anywhere and hits at about the same accuracy from the corners and the wings. He's nimbler than Tucker with the ball, quicker as an extra-pass guy.

But Tucker showed in hounding Durant in the second round of the playoffs that he still has much to give on defense when the stakes are high. A well-timed hot streak from the corners could swing a playoff series. No one remembers you shooting 31% on corner 3s for the season if you go 6-of-10 in the right pair of playoff games.

The Heat hope the upgrade from Dragic to Lowry compensates for any drop-off from Crowder to Tucker. Miami was able to pull this sign-and-trade because it coaxed Dragic back last offseason on a two-year, $37 million deal with a team option in Year 2 -- an overpayment in annual salary in exchange for flexibility. The Heat struck the same agreement with Iguodala.

HOW CAN MIAMI keep doing this? Some of it lies in its inherent advantages -- the lack of a state income tax in Florida, and the attractiveness of living in Miami. But it goes beyond that. Players who thrive there grow to love the franchise. Even having been cast aside, Dragic adores the Heat, sources said. Serious veterans appreciate Riley's commitment to winning.

"We never once spoke about Miami as a city," Butler's agent, Bernie Lee, told me last year in explaining Butler's desire to be there. "Obviously it's an amazing place with amazing people, but Jimmy wasn't going there for the beach. Since he's gotten there, I think we have gone out to eat less than 10 times and one of them was the Super Bowl. We didn't even talk about the tax advantages. The only questions he asked were of the background of the people involved and how they would build out the team."

A healthy Lowry is almost a perfect fit next to Butler and Adebayo. He is a more accurate and prolific 3-point shooter than Dragic, and a much stronger defender. Lineups featuring any two of Dragic, Robinson, and Herro had two spots for predatory opposing offenses to pick at. Lowry vaporizes one of those spots. A closing five of Lowry, Robinson, Butler, Tucker, and Adebayo is formidable. Against some opponents, it will be safe to exchange Herro for Tucker.

There is so much improvisational creativity to Lowry's game -- so much more than rote high pick-and-rolls. He can do plenty of that, of course; the Lowry-Adebayo dance will be an important part of Miami's arsenal, and perhaps a bulwark when Butler rests.

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Lowry bobs and weaves in the midrange, cutting randomly, working an impromptu give-and-go, setting unexpected screens, sneaking in for offensive rebounds. Butler and Adebayo live in that space from 20 feet and in. The Lowry/Butler/Adebayo trio overflows with ad-libbing IQ. All three are good to great passers. Adebayo is emerging as a very good midrange shooter. His bully-ball game against switches is coming. Butler is reliable from midrange, in part because of his ability to draw fouls and double-teams.

Cleverness and versatility in tight confines can overcome so-so spacing. Miami's offense is going to sing in the dead zone of the midrange. Robinson's ability to attract two defenders will often give Miami's three stars a head start, some territorial advantage, when the ball reaches them in the midrange. Robinson has grown as a one- and two-dribble pick-and-roll ball handler, and his handoff game with Adebayo is lethal in pulling two defenders toward the arc -- opening easy slip passes.

Lowry is a nasty screener, and he will set ball screens for anyone and everyone: Butler, Robinson, Adebayo -- whatever presents the most danger to the opponent. The diversity of the Heat's offense -- how they seem to run multiple systems within the same possession -- is hard for opponents to adjust to. It's just a little different -- unpredictable, always moving, hard to grasp. Lowry amplifies all of that.

THERE ARE LOTS of questions before putting Miami on the level of Brooklyn and Milwaukee. Lowry is 35, and dropped off a hair last season. Maybe it was the inevitable malaise of playing in Tampa Bay instead of Toronto, and for a team that never recovered from a huge bout with the virus in the middle of the season. Small guards don't tend to age well, but Lowry fits some of the characteristics of one we might expect to buck that trend: smart, stout physically, ace shooter, and someone who didn't pile up as much wear and tear as a reserve early in his career.

Still: Lowry's age places this nucleus on a short, urgent timetable. They have to win immediately. Even minor slippage from Lowry torpedoes that plan.

They are also somewhat shallow. They re-signed Dewayne Dedmon, Gabe Vincent, and Max Strus late Monday, and might be too close to the hard cap -- triggered by acquiring Lowry via sign-and-trade -- now to retain Kendrick Nunn.

The Heat had talks with Bobby Portis, sources said, and the Portis-Adebayo frontcourt would have offered an intriguing combination of shooting and size. Portis would have been Miami's new and probably superior version of Meyers Leonard and Olynyk -- center-ish bigs the Heat paired with Adebayo (another center) because Adebayo can defend anyone, allowing Spoelstra to hide weaker tag-team partners.

Portis re-signed with the Bucks instead. Precious Achiuwa, a promising second-year player, is headed to Toronto as part of the Lowry trade. KZ Okpala is perpetually almost ready.

The Heat will find a player or two on the minimum. (They have no other choice at this point.) Herro disappointed in his sophomore season after rollicking through the bubble, but he's just 21. Development is not linear. A leap in Year 3 is possible.

The Bucks just won the title, and the Nets looked as if they were going to roll there before James Harden and Kyrie Irving got injured. Losing Tucker to the Heat hurts Milwaukee, but you probably can't put the Heat higher than No. 3 in the East at this moment -- and both the Atlanta Hawks and Sixers would have something to say about that.

But the Heat are better today than they were 24 hours ago, and they didn't give up all that much to revamp their team. If things go right, they'll have a puncher's chance in the East. What they really surrendered was future cap flexibility in committing big long-term money to Lowry and Butler as they age.

Did you expect anything less from Riley? If you get Butler and reach the Finals, this is what you do. And history suggests that if the hole gets deep, Riley will find a golden shovel.

pure rim rest (Spottie), Tuesday, 3 August 2021 20:01 (two years ago) link

two weeks pass...

Just getting ahead of the inevitable request:

Let’s be honest. This past NBA season missed one thing: Klay Thompson.

So The Athletic called up a dozen of Thompson’s teammates, former teammates and coaches and asked for their best stories.

Matt Barnes, guard: We had just won the Western Conference Finals. Everyone was enjoying everything, talking and eating and having a drink. And here’s Klay with two 9-year-olds at his locker, teaching them how to make paper airplanes and flying them across the locker room.

Jarrett Jack, guard: Only Klay, man. Only Klay.

Steve Kerr, coach: When I got the job, first thing I did was I called every player. Klay wasn’t responding to me. So I called Bob (Myers) and said, “Bob, I’m really worried that Klay, maybe he’s angry about the coaching change. He won’t call me back.” Bob just started laughing. He just said, “Welcome to Klay’s world.”

Marreese Speights, forward: We’d go to a city and he’d just hop off the bus and go to a CVS or Walgreens with a thousand people outside.

Barnes: That’s the randomness of Klay.

Lachlan Penfold, head of physical performance: All he wanted to do was shoot hoops and play with his dog.

Speights: He’d talk about his dog all the time. Or the Bahamas.

Jerry DeGregorio, assistant coach: It’s impossible to know him and not love him.

Festus Ezeli, center: Because Klay is very, very … pure.

Barnes: Klay is just Klay. He’s like a national treasure.

James Michael McAdoo, forward: Shaun Livingston would always say: “Never change, Klay.”

Jack: We’re in Atlanta and we wanted to hang out at a nightclub. We’re all there, texting Klay, and he’s like, “Where are you guys at?” I’m like, “Yo, we’re over here.” He’s like, “Cool, I’m about to meet you guys.” So Klay comes, but when he walks in, he walks in by himself. I’m like, “Yo, man, how did you get here?” He’s like, “Yeah, man, I was hanging out at this bar, some people asked me where I was going, they said they were going to the same place, so, shit, I just hopped in the cab and split a cab with them.” I’m like, “What people?” He’s like, “That couple over there.” And it was like two married, middle-aged White people.

Speights: We were all in Miami one trip. So we all go to dinner and then everybody goes their separate ways. We all come back to the hotel, and some kind of way, Klay’s in the room. He comes out and his whole eye (is bruised). So it’s like: “Klay, what happened? We just got back. How did you do that?”

Ezeli: Sometimes he’s a little air-headed.

Speights: So we looked at him and were like, “Klay, what happened? Somebody beat you up or something?” He’s like, “Nah, I tripped over the dresser and hit my head on it.”

Ezeli: Never change was both good and bad.

McAdoo: In the preseason we would go to San Diego. We would always stay at ridiculous hotels. One time I went out to the beach. Took my towel and went out there and was just taking in the sunset. So I’m just laying down there, and out of nowhere I see Klay down there by the water, just walking, by himself. Just going for a nice healthy walk right along the shore.

Barnes: He’s unapologetically him.

Mike Brown, assistant coach: I know the manager of one of those restaurants over there on the water. The Ramp. Klay and I were talking and he was like, “Mike, you know anywhere I could dock my boat?” I’m like, “Yeah, I know the manager of The Ramp.” He asked if I could connect them. I was like, “Sure,” but I was still in the process of that.

Benjamin Giler, general manager of The Ramp: Klay was kind of sneaking around. He’s this big tall guy, hella athletic. And he was kind of just walking around, and we were like, “Klay?” And he was like, “Well, yeah, it’s me.” He was like, “Who do I talk to about getting a spot? This would be great for me if I could just go to games from here.”

Brown: Literally the next practice, Klay comes up: “Oh, hey, Mike, appreciate it!” I’m like, “For what?” He’s like, “Yeah, yeah, I parked my boat there.” He parked his boat there without asking.

Jason Thompson, center: I was going to San Jose with Klay, and I wasn’t sure if we wanted to drive up there and follow each other. He’s like, “Nah, man, let me know where you’re at and I’ll come get you and we’ll go together.” So then he was like, “Yo, I’m here.” I’m living in an apartment complex where they have valet, so he pulls up and I’m like, “Yo, where you at?” At this time, I think he had just signed his second deal. I didn’t know what car he drove. He’s like, “Yo, bro, I didn’t drive, I’m in an Uber.” So I’m looking for like a black car and a Prius is just chilling in the front. I’m like, “That’s probably one of the neighbors.” He sticks his head out and is like, “Yo, bro. You ready?”

Speights: He don’t care about no Uber Black or none of that.

Charles Jenkins, guard: Our rookie year, we used to go out quite a bit. Just in the Bay. My brother was there, and my brother is a big party guy. So there was one time, I was just starting the car and my brother had to run back upstairs to get a change of shirt or something. I just remember him running back out full speed like, “Fuck driving, Klay’s gonna take us. Klay’s going, too.” I was like, “Whatever.” I went to the front of the building and Klay was in a stretch limo.

Nate Robinson, guard: This one time, me, Klay, Brandon Rush, we all had like telepathic powers. The club was so loud, and I looked at Klay and I looked at Brandon Rush and it was like we could hear each other’s thoughts without speaking. It was so hot in the club. I just looked at Klay, and he just looked at me, and we just got up. “Aight.” And we just got up and went outside. It was like we all connected at one time, and we all felt it.

Chris DeMarco, assistant coach: We had a road practice, got back to the hotel and he wanted to take a lap because it was New York City. He wanted to walk around, grab something to eat. We went to lunch and then on the way back, a reporter stopped us as we were walking by and asked us if we wanted to do an interview on scaffolding. I was in the middle of saying “No, we don’t live here,” and Klay just goes, “Yes.”

Kevon Looney, forward: He did the interview like he was just some local citizen.

DeMarco: He just sat there and was giving thoughtful answers on the subject.

David West, forward (from Instagram Live): The night he had 60, Klay had missed shootaround.

McAdoo: Like, he overslept.

West: He probably said like five words the whole day before that game. Then just came out, let off, and didn’t do no dribbling.

Scott Machado, guard: He scored 60 when he only dribbled the ball 14 times.

DeGregorio: He had the ball in his hands a total of 90 seconds that game. Think about it.

West: That was the craziest — all he did was catch and shoot the ball. He didn’t make no moves.

McAdoo: That was one of those moments where Shaun was like, “Never change, Klay.”

Penfold: He doesn’t give a fuck about anything, except basketball and his dog, basically.

Ezeli: Klay and Rocco. Wow.

McAdoo: Rocco was always with him.

Ezeli: When I got drafted and started hanging out with Klay was when he first got Rocco. He would always want to spend time with the dog. He didn’t even really like hanging out with people. I’d be like, “What are you doing?” He’d be like, “Hanging out with Rocco.” I thought it was (a person) at first before I met the dog. I was like, “For real?”

McAdoo: He’d be like, “Yeah, I took Rocco down to Ocean Beach and let him run around.” I always used to get a kick out of that because I have labradors. Rocco is not a Labrador. He’s a bulldog. He’s not really a beach dog. But he’d still take him.

DeGregorio: Klay’s first contract, they were negotiating, and in the middle he had to leave. He was like, “Guys, I have to go home now, I got to go home and feed my dog.”

Looney: We were in the playoffs. I think we were about to go to the conference finals. Rocco just walked into the locker room. He went into the shower while everybody was showering, just walking around.

McAdoo: It was nothing for Rocco to show up at the practice facility.

Looney: I’m like, “We just let dogs just come into the locker room, walking around, chilling, wandering into the showers during the playoffs?” I remember (Anderson) Varejao telling me, “Hey, nowhere else in the NBA could this happen. Only Klay.”

Jenkins: Random times, he would just follow through. I would be at his house and we’d be playing video games or fucking around and listening to music, and he would randomly just shoot without a ball.

Speights: There’s a reason he has so much success.

Jenkins: One time we were outside of a nightclub, just waiting for someone to come let us in, and he was doing like form shooting.

DeGregorio: His rookie season, there was a game where Klay took too many 3s for Monta Ellis’s liking. During the next timeout, I remember Monta Ellis just ripped into this rookie: “You’re taking too many shots. Pass the ball. You’re just a rook.” That type of deal. I remember watching Klay the whole time, and he never flinched. He never wavered. The very next offensive possession, ball swings, goes to Klay. He takes the first shot and makes a 3. I’m thinking, “This kid is an ice-cold killer.”

Ezeli: One game, I think we were up three with about 15 seconds left and somebody threw the ball to Klay. At this point, you just hold the ball, right? As soon as it touches his hands, Klay shoots it. I can’t remember if he made it or not, but I remember his conversation with Draymond afterwards. Draymond was like, “Yo, what were you doing?! Why would you shoot that?” And Klay said, “Dog, they pay me to shoot the ball.”

DeGregorio: I remember our interns used to call him Dexter, you know, the serial killer. He was unflappable.

Ezeli: The first 10 games of that season, I remember Klay struggling. Like, he couldn’t throw it in the ocean. He was shooting so poorly at the start of that season, one game he shot it so bad and he was so angry at the end of that game that he left the arena.

Jack: I’m usually one of the last people out of the locker room, and I look and Klay’s clothes are still hanging in the locker.

Jenkins: I was just hearing, “Klay’s gone.” I was like, “How?” I think he left before Coach got there.

Jack: So the next day, when I come in, I talked to the equipment guy. He’s like, “You won’t believe this shit. Remember when I asked you where Klay was and asked you about his uniform? So apparently Klay was so mad, or so frustrated, that he left the arena and drove home in his jersey.”

Ezeli: Like, his whole jersey and everything.

Jack: So now, mind you, this is early Klay so there’s a bunch of guys that live in the same building. I’m like, “Man, when y’all got home, bro, did you see him?” They’re like, “Man, Klay was on the elevator, game jersey, game shorts, game shoes.”

Joe Boylan, assistant coach: I remember thinking: “That’s awesome. I’m glad he cares so much.”

Shaun Livingston, guard: We were toward the end of that first (title) season. We’ve already made the playoffs. We may have already clinched seeding. There is nothing really on the line. I think we were out in Phoenix or somewhere. We end up winning, but Klay missed the game. It might’ve been the first game all season he missed. He was out due to injury. So we’re all huddled up postgame in the locker room and he stops us and says, “Guys, I just want to apologize for not suiting up tonight. My bad. I take great pride in not missing any games.” I remember looking at Steph. I remember looking at Andre. Those were our captains. I’m like, “Is this dude serious?”

Ezeli: He held himself accountable so much. Nobody ever needed to tell Klay what he needed to do.

McAdoo: If there was a guy on our team that had previously played for the other team, Klay would always say, “They didn’t want you!”

Brown: If we’re about to play the Cavaliers … “They didn’t want ya, Mike B!”

McAdoo: Literally every time, everyone would laugh.

Kerr: He does his homework, too. He knows every single guys’ connection to every team. One time we were in Denver and we get done going through the scouting report and he goes, “They didn’t want you, Mike Brown!” Mike was a video coordinator in Denver under Bernie Bickerstaff in the late ’90s, mid-90s. Mike was like, “Wait, what? How’d you know that?” I think he goes through the game notes.

Zaza Pachulia, center: We play cards on the plane. I always enjoyed his reaction when he gets busted. I had a pretty cool moment where he had to write a check for me to pay off. … That’s why he’s special. Who can imagine Klay Thompson writing a check? He pulled out his checkbook and wrote it right in front of me.

Ezeli: The other day, he got really into the conversation about like the history of trade, like something where he was like, “Oh, yeah in Japan and Germany…”

Barnes: His randomness is what makes him great.

Ezeli: He just started spouting off history. I’m like, “Dude, what?!? Why do you even know this?”

DeGregorio: The beauty of him: He understands what he likes, he understands who he is, and he doesn’t waver from it.

Kerr: He really, really cares about people and the team and the world around him.

Ezeli: That’s just Klay. Never change.

DJI, Monday, 23 August 2021 15:47 (two years ago) link

haha i was just gonna post that in the basketblolz thread

pure rim rest (Spottie), Monday, 23 August 2021 15:52 (two years ago) link

Nate Robinson, guard: This one time, me, Klay, Brandon Rush, we all had like telepathic powers.

Penfold: He doesn’t give a fuck about anything, except basketball and his dog, basically.

the cab-splitting story is so good lol

call all destroyer, Monday, 23 August 2021 16:30 (two years ago) link

a reporter stopped us as we were walking by and asked us if we wanted to do an interview on scaffolding.

I'm imagining the "reporter" was John Wilson.

Taliban! (PBKR), Monday, 23 August 2021 17:10 (two years ago) link


pure rim rest (Spottie), Monday, 23 August 2021 17:13 (two years ago) link

klay should do some videos with John Wilson

in terms of hoops, this:

Scott Machado, guard: He scored 60 when he only dribbled the ball 14 times.

DeGregorio: He had the ball in his hands a total of 90 seconds that game. Think about it.

it is to laugh, like so, ha! (Aimless), Tuesday, 24 August 2021 03:33 (two years ago) link

four weeks pass...

Gersson Rosas’ dismissal just days before the Minnesota Timberwolves opened training camp is stunning on its face, a change at the top of basketball operations as the team begins a critical season and is in discussions to try to trade for a disgruntled star to bolster its chances.

It is also the culmination of months of evaluation by ownership and the franchise’s high-ranking officials about the state of Rosas’ leadership and the direction of the franchise under his watch. Ownership has listened to a vocal contingent of staffers express concern about the way Rosas conducted his business, sources told The Athletic, and finally came to the conclusion that they could not wait any longer to address the situation.

Some described Rosas’ reign as dysfunctional, with tension rippling through the front office, according to some sources. Outside of it, rival team executives and agents would complain about how Rosas treated relationships and negotiations. The complaints reached as high as the ownership level over the last several weeks, lending a perception of inevitability to the end of Rosas’ tenure.

Rosas was just days away from starting his third season as leader of the team’s basketball operations, but the Wolves informed him on Wednesday that he would not continue. Rosas’ teams went 42-94 in those two seasons, missing the playoffs both years.

“Today, the Minnesota Timberwolves parted ways with President of Basketball Operations Gersson Rosas,” owner Glen Taylor said in a statement. “As an organization, we remain committed to building a winning team that our fans and city can be proud of.”

Sources said Taylor made the 90-minute drive from Mankato to team headquarters in Minneapolis to take part in the meeting with Rosas personally on Wednesday, notable for an owner who has in the past sometimes left moves like this to those who work underneath him.

Text messages were left by The Athletic for Rosas seeking comment that have not yet been returned. The Athletic also reached out to Taylor for further comment.

The Timberwolves named executive vice president of basketball operations Sachin Gupta as their new overseer of basketball operations, making him the first person of Indian origin to run a franchise’s basketball operations. Minnesota is expected to have a full search process, but team officials are fond of Gupta and will provide him a chance in the No. 1 role, sources said.

It is hard to imagine the timing of a move of this magnitude being more challenging. The Timberwolves are set to host media day on Monday and start training camp the next day and are in the middle of trying to make a play for 76ers star Ben Simmons, who wants to be traded. It also shocked Timberwolves players, including franchise star Karl-Anthony Towns.

Prior to the announcement, The Athletic had spent the last several weeks investigating the working environment under Rosas and interviewed numerous sources on the current staff about the situation after learning of mounting discontent. Some said Rosas worked his staff long hours without giving much input into the decision-making process. Others took issue with decisions made on personnel moves and trades, including the light protections on a first-round draft pick that landed them D’Angelo Russell from Golden State, Rosas’ signature move.

“It’s hard,” one member of the organization who followed Rosas to Minnesota after he was hired said. “He’s not who I thought he was.”

Rosas also had several backers in the organization, who said the current issues they were facing were more related to the pandemic and the stress brought on by the ownership change than Rosas’ leadership style.

Some of the issues were exacerbated this summer when Rosas and Gupta butted heads over Rosas’ decision to block Gupta from making a lateral move to the Houston Rockets with increased pay, sources said. Rosas said the timing of the request, coming right before the draft and free agency, made it impossible for the Timberwolves to let someone with as much proprietary knowledge of the team’s plans go to a competitor. The tension between Rosas and Gupta only grew later in August when Rosas banished Gupta from the team’s offices and granted him permission to seek employment elsewhere, according to sources. The issue was resolved in early September after ownership got involved and Gupta decided to stay.

Earlier in the year, Rosas drew criticism when then-coach Ryan Saunders was fired immediately after a road game loss in New York and replaced with a hire outside the organization, with no minority candidates or others given a chance to interview for the position. Some were also unhappy with the way Saunders was taken to New York on a road trip only to be fired immediately after the game. The decision to part ways with Zarko Durisic, a beloved longtime scout who had been with the organization for more than two decades, did not sit well with some in the organization either.

“Zarko had an incredible career here in Minnesota and really did a great job while he was here,” Rosas said in August. “Just a different stage in his career for us and different stage of where we’re at as an organization. The Ryan decision was one where, after studying, after evaluating, we knew we needed to make change.”

For some, the all-business approach to some of these decisions flew in the face of Rosas’ “family” mantra.

“There’s no way we can survive if we keep going like this,” one person said at the time. “Too many people are unhappy.”

While working on the story, The Athletic brought these concerns to Rosas, who vehemently disputed them. He denied that there were any overwhelming problems with the culture of the front office and said he worked hard to foster an environment of collaboration and diversity.

“There’s going to be some growing pains, there’s going to be some challenges, there’s going to be some misdirection we have to address,” Rosas said several weeks ago. “I put our program and our group next to anybody’s. Once the results show, they will understand the work that went into it and the decisions that had to be made. That’s what we’re working towards.”

He said most teams would have denied Gupta permission in that scenario because it was not a promotion and said he fought hard earlier in his tenure for Gupta to get the Sacramento Kings GM job. He also granted Gupta permission to seek other opportunities after free agency concluded, but Gupta ended up staying on staff in Minnesota and now is replacing Rosas as the lead decision-maker on basketball matters.

Rosas has said on multiple occasions that the timing of Saunders’ firing was unavoidable, and he understood the pushback from some who objected to how it played out. But he said he stood by his decision to hire Chris Finch from the Toronto Raptors, a rare move to go outside the organization in the middle of the season, because he believed so strongly in Finch’s ability to lead the team. Finch has received strong reviews internally from players, coaches and executives and he will remain in place as coach. On Durisic, Rosas said the two had discussions about him remaining on but could not come to an agreement on the role going forward.

One person who said he had no qualms with how Rosas led and thought there was a collaborative environment did say that the overall vibe in the front office was tense. Some of that, he believed, was due to the disenchantment of other members of the staff, but he also believed the pandemic played a role.

“It is not a root cause, but it’s an accelerant,” the source said in August just before the staff left for vacation. “It’s not the spark that lit the flame, but it’s something that makes the flame burn hotter. We haven’t had a day off in basically two years.”

Also factoring into things was a changing ownership group, with tech entrepreneur Marc Lore and former MLB star Alex Rodriguez joining Taylor team with the intent on becoming principal owners in two years. New owners often bring new ideas, and new employees. The fact that they were coming into a situation that has been short on success on the court applied significant pressure to the staff to deliver and hold on to their jobs.

Over his two seasons in Minnesota, several player agents privately had issues with Rosas’ negotiating tactics. Rosas had a responsibility to his organization and ownership, but scenarios would arise where representatives expected better treatment. Just this offseason, Rosas reneged during negotiations with restricted free agent Jordan McLaughlin and misled him about his role, according to a source directly involved in the talks.

“Rosas was the cause of mishaps and pulled his promises,” the source said.

McLaughlin was one of the first players Rosas reached out to when free agency opened, but things changed when he acquired veteran guard Patrick Beverley in a trade with Memphis. Beverley is a more established player and the younger McLaughlin quickly went from being prioritized as a ball-handler who figured to get significant minutes to a reduced role behind D’Angelo Russell and Beverley on the depth chart.

Add to those complaints that the Wolves have been among the worst teams in the league during Rosas’ two years and did not have a draft pick in the 2021 draft because they traded both to Golden State for Russell, and the pressure was on for the upcoming season.

Many of the complaints reached Taylor, Marc Lore and Alex Rodriguez, the newly minted minority owners. There were major concerns about what they were hearing, sources said, and a belief among some in the organization that the working environment that was created by the tension was not sustainable and ran counter to the visions they have for how things should be run.

It was a startling depiction of a man who was hired to breathe new life into the organization when he replaced the fired Tom Thibodeau in 2019. Rosas entered the franchise pledging to be collaborative, innovative, communicative and help the team recover from the disastrous Jimmy Butler trade and Thibodeau’s impersonal demeanor that alienated some in the organization.

He promised to bring a fractured organization back together and chart a new course toward sustained success after Thibodeau’s one playoff appearance was followed by a flameout of spectacular proportions.

It didn’t take Rosas long to make major changes. Midway through his first season on the job, there were only two players left from the team that he inherited. After initially endorsing Saunders as the coach he inherited, Rosas went out and got his preferred candidate in his second season. And he has been working feverishly this summer to try to get Simmons, considered by some in the organization to be the missing piece to pushing the team back into the playoffs again.

All of the turnover, coupled with the pandemic, made for a volatile two years. The Timberwolves failed to gain traction on the court under Rosas’ leadership, but caveats abound. The pandemic ensured that Rosas never presided over a full 82-game season. Towns, who did not miss a game in his first three seasons in the league, missed 22 games last season and 19 in Rosas’ first year while also dealing with the death of his mother and six other loved ones from COVID-19. Russell, the splashiest move of Rosas’ tenure, needed arthroscopic surgery on his left knee in the middle of last season and Finch, who was hired to replace Saunders shortly before the All-Star break, only got to coach sharpshooter Malik Beasley for six games, first because of a 12-game suspension for a police charge, and the final 23 game with a hamstring injury.

Rosas, meanwhile, plunged unapologetically forward right to the end. For a person who spoke so often of being process-driven, he narrowed his eyes much more toward results as the pressure rose. When the NBA Coaches Association made the incredibly rare move to criticize Rosas’s hiring process for Finch because it did not include candidates of color, Rosas pointed to a front office filled with people from varied ethnic backgrounds, including Gupta, and assistant GM Joe Branch and head of analytics Aaron Blackshear, who are Black. Robby Sikka, an Indian-American, was hired to a prominent medical role and was a driver of the team’s response to COVID-19 in addition to collaborating with the NBA on its protocols, left the organization this summer.

“There’s always going to be situations where individuals aren’t particularly happy with certain situations,” Rosas said. “You look at where we’re at with life in the pandemic and changes that we can control and some changes that we can’t control and you can’t please everybody. When you get to that stage, you make hard decisions to move forward.”

When it came to the on-court product, he acknowledged that there was vast room for improvement and the need to start showing real progress going into this season. He knew with new owners on board, the team had to make a good impression to solidify its long-term future.

If people did not agree with his decisions, as several in the front office did when they objected to his decision to include only light protections on a first-round pick that went to Golden State in the trade that brought Russell to Minnesota, he was confident that he would be validated in the long run.

“At the end of the day, it’s my job to make hard decisions and whether that’s popular or unpopular, the results will speak for themselves,” Rosas said in August. “Until we build a winning program, it’s my responsibility to make sure those changes are made when they’re made.

“My conversations with our ownership group, their guidance, the alignment that we have there and making sure that vision is executed is something that is flushed out day to day, what can we do better, how can we grow, how can we develop. All of that comes into play as we build this organization.”

With a handful of days before the start of training camp, people across the NBA were stunned by the Timberwolves parting ways with Rosas. It was clear the heap of issues, from office morale to the lack of success, had decayed the Timberwolves’ front office and sources say those were the driving force behind the move. But why now? In recent days, the organization discovered that Rosas, who is married, had a consensual intimate relationship with a member of the organization, The Athletic has learned from multiple sources. It made several people within the organization uncomfortable, sources said. While this was not the reason for Rosas’ dismissal, it certainly impacted the timing.

“This decision was made for performance reasons,” one high-ranking Timberwolves source said.

He departs with some positives. Finch has shown promise as a coach and a leader. Anthony Edwards, taken with the first pick in the 2020 draft, could be the franchise-type wing for which the team has long searched. Jaden McDaniels was a steal with the 28th pick in the 2020 draft and Naz Reid has blossomed into a solid big man off the bench after being signed as an undrafted free agent in 2019.

And he did have backers very late in the process. When some on staff learned The Athletic was working on a story about the workplace culture, they reached out, albeit mostly unwilling to go on the record, to defend the way things were going. Some insisted that it was an environment in which people could speak freely and offer their views on what needed to be done, and that teams across the league were dealing with issues of discontent among overworked scouts, executives, coaches and players.

Now everyone, those who were disenchanted with Rosas and those who were in his corner, have little time to adjust after the sea change at the top. Gupta has solid relationships with those still on staff and believes in Finch as the coach the team needs, sources said.

The challenge will be to calm a team full of players who have known nothing but change. Media day is on Monday, and suddenly a Wolves team that was hoping to take advantage of the dysfunction in Philadelphia to pry Simmons out of there for pennies on the dollar now faces a mess of its own.

Blues Guitar Solo Heatmap (Free Download) (upper mississippi sh@kedown), Thursday, 23 September 2021 03:05 (two years ago) link

“There’s always going to be situations where individuals aren’t particularly happy with certain situations... you can’t please everybody” Rosas said.

yeah lol

lag∞n, Thursday, 23 September 2021 13:39 (two years ago) link

someone was extremely ready to nuke him on the way out lol

call all destroyer, Thursday, 23 September 2021 13:46 (two years ago) link

sounds like multiple people

lag∞n, Thursday, 23 September 2021 14:12 (two years ago) link

talking that new age management stuff while behaving old school is not the best way to endear yourself

lag∞n, Thursday, 23 September 2021 14:13 (two years ago) link

also making bad trades for dangelo russell

lag∞n, Thursday, 23 September 2021 14:15 (two years ago) link

From that article, I would check the knife for Gupta's fingerprints.

Taliban! (PBKR), Thursday, 23 September 2021 15:26 (two years ago) link

I could have lived with it, Wiggins was so toxic here. But only getting top 3 protection on that pick was malpractice

Blues Guitar Solo Heatmap (Free Download) (upper mississippi sh@kedown), Thursday, 23 September 2021 15:26 (two years ago) link

The affair with a subordinate was sufficient for firing him, but it would have been easy to soft peddle it, quietly reprimand him and keep him on. I'm thinking it is being brought forward prominently because it gives ownership an obvious cover for something they wanted to do anyway.

more difficult than I look (Aimless), Thursday, 23 September 2021 17:03 (two years ago) link

couldn’t care less about the affair tbh but he was not good at his job, also sounds like no one will miss him, RIP

mens rea activist (k3vin k.), Thursday, 23 September 2021 17:36 (two years ago) link

i get the feeling you could write a similar story about a lot of execs around the league

micah, Saturday, 25 September 2021 13:12 (two years ago) link

they do tend not to last very long

lag∞n, Saturday, 25 September 2021 14:05 (two years ago) link

an executive who sleeps with employees and makes enemies both inside the organization and out, now I’ve seen it all!

mens rea activist (k3vin k.), Saturday, 25 September 2021 14:15 (two years ago) link

It’s been a rough stretch for the Indiana Pacers.
They gave head coach Nate McMillan a contract extension two years ago, then fired him after the team was swept out of the playoffs. Then, last year, the team went to pieces under first-year coach Nate Bjorkgren, reaching the second round of play-in games before getting run off the court by the Wizards and falling short of the playoffs. With stories swirling about internal difficulties and general dysfunction, team president Kevin Pritchard pulled the plug after just one season.
Now, in an effort to fix everything that fell apart, Pritchard has turned to a familiar face and voice, hiring Rick Carlisle, who left Dallas after a similarly uncomfortable season filled with palace intrigue. For the most part, the Pacers are poised to run it back with largely the same group as in recent years, with some changes. T.J. Warren still hasn’t recovered from the foot injury that sidelined him for all but four games of last season and will be re-evaluated sometime in the next few weeks. Edmond Sumner, the star-crossed rotational player, tore his Achilles tendon and required surgery. The Pacers also lost Doug McDermott to free agency after he had a career year.
But the core is still very much intact — for now.
And it will be Carlisle’s job to do in Indy what he did in Detroit in 2001-02 when he took a 32-win team and won 50 games twice in the next two seasons.
With training camp right around the corner, I stopped by his office this week for a chat:
Note: Conversation has been lightly edited for clarity and length.

As everybody knows, the Pacers are on their third coach in three years. Do you have any concerns about this being a difficult team to coach or worry about the buy-in from the roster?

Well, look, one of the things Malcolm (Brogdon) facilitated was all the players going to L.A. this summer for a three- to four-day period, play basketball, go to dinner and things like that, and they had full participation except for a few guys who were free agents, and Domas (Sabonis) was out of the country. That was a clear sign that they wanted to get things together. Everything we all heard about it was that it was really positive, a good experience.

I don’t look at it from a standpoint of how many coaches who’ve been here over a two-year period. I don’t. This is a part of the country that is very prideful. I believe this group of players has a lot of pride, and I believe they want to do better. Look, talk is cheap, and we all have a big task in front of us. We have a very difficult schedule early, and it’s going to be a long season. We’ve made some pretty significant changes to the rosters, and the team is going in a slightly different direction in terms of the makeup, but the core vets are still here. They’re good people, they’re damn good basketball players, and they want to do better. That’s what I’m hearing and seeing.

The other thing that’s positive: As of yesterday (Tuesday), we’ve had every single guy back in Indy, and most of the vets came in last week. Myles (Turner) and Domas had things planned and came in yesterday, but basically the whole group has one full week together before training camp, so that’s a positive.

Did you or any members of the coaching staff join them in L.A.?

No. I asked if it was appropriate. I thought it was a chance to see a lot of guys in one trip instead of traveling separately, and the message was pretty clear. They didn’t say I couldn’t come, but I understood it was a players-only thing, which is great. It’s great.

At your introductory news conference, you talked quite a bit about restoring the Pacers’ historic commitment to defense, which kind of went by the wayside last year. How do you do that?

Work. A lot of work. The No. 1 thing is to get them in great condition, develop chemistry and implement an offensive and defensive system that makes sense for this group. It’s pretty clear from our draft. We’ve brought in two guys (Chris Duarte and Isaiah Jackson) who were high-level college defenders. And then adding Torrey Craig, who’s a defensive-minded guy. So the offseason moves have all been in the direction of adding competitive defensive players. (Assistant coach) Lloyd (Pierce) is essentially going to be the defensive coordinator, and Ron (Nored) will work with him on defense. Our big emphasis will be on ball movement and defense. I should say defense and ball movement. The defensive side of the ball is something we’re really going to concentrate on. We’ve got to do better there.

It’s a significantly different game than the one you coached when you were the head coach here from 2003 to 2007. I still remember those 68-65 slugfests against the Pistons in the playoffs …

So much has changed in 13 years. An awful lot has changed in just the last three years. We’ve just got to navigate the aspects of today’s game, which are so important, and bridge that with our personnel. One of the obvious things is getting the two big guys (Turner and Sabonis) together. I don’t think it’s a complicated issue with them. They’re both young, and they still have a chance to improve their 3-point shooting, so they worked very hard on it this summer and they’re going to continue to work on it. The spacing aspect of the game is going to be critical. We’ve got to take advantage, strategically, of their size at both ends of the floor.

During that same introductory newser, you mentioned staggering Turner’s and Sabonis’ minutes.

I anticipate them starting together, but we’ll stagger them and separate them. We’ll have a lot of different things we’re going to look at.
We know what Turner can do and has done defensively, but are there other areas where you’d like to see some growth? It feels like we’ve been waiting for several years for him to develop a low-post game and become a more consistent rebounder.

Like you said, Myles is an elite defender and the best rim protector in the league. He can be an effective 3-point shooter. Now we’ve got to find more ways to get him effectively around the basket offensively.

T.J. Warren’s injury hasn’t resolved itself just yet; he’s going to be re-evaluated in a few weeks. How do you handle that?

Well, the possibility it could take longer was one of the factors that went into the decision to acquire Craig, who’s another wing defender, a three-and-D-type guy. He’s certainly not the kind of player as T.J. Warren is, but he’s a guy who’s experienced; he played in the Finals. He’s been a really positive guy for us since he got here two weeks ago. He wanted to be in Indy, wanted to play for the Pacers, and that was really important to us as well.

You said earlier that you really liked this team. Was that just news conference talk or are there things that really intrigue you about this group?

I do, I do. I mean, there are always matchup challenges with any team — it doesn’t matter who you are, which conference you’re in. Every night there are going to be challenging matchups. So you’ve got to navigate that stuff, but it’s stuff that’s got to be navigated as a team, and the guys that need help we’ve got to give help to. This group has a physical aspect to them and the ability to be a better rebounding team. We’ve got guards who can get more rebounds, too.

It’s a new situation, and that’s always exciting. I like that our core players are in their mid-to-late 20s, an age where they’re experienced enough to know better, and the hope is they can learn from the successes and the difficulties these past two, three years. We’re going to make our best effort to put this thing together and do better; it’s as simple as that. Listen, I’m really excited about our two draft picks. Duarte and Jackson are two guys who can help us right away. They’re both versatile, they defend, they can do special things offensively as well, so that’s exciting.

Both of them were very impressive during Summer League. What kind of impression did they make on you?

Duarte can score and he can defend. Very skilled guy. His natural position is two, but he can play the three and the one. Jackson got a little bit of a late start. He was technically in the (Russell) Westbrook trade, and he wasn’t cleared to play in the first Summer League game. He hadn’t practiced other than to ride a bike and watch the entire prep time in Vegas. Then he was cleared to play halfway through the first quarter of the first game; (Summer League coach Mike Weinar) inserted him for two-, three-minute stretches. He didn’t really get his legs under him until the fourth game, and he had seven blocked shots. He blocked three jump shots. The guy does some really unusual things defensively.

How do you fill the scoring hole left by Warren?

I think you can look at it several different ways. We’ve got to somehow replace his scoring and (Doug) McDermott’s shooting. Duarte is going to be a factor in those two areas. (Jeremy) Lamb is back, and he’s healthy. He’s another guy who can help with scoring in that spot.

This team did a lot of very good things last year. They moved the ball very well; they played with pace. We’re going to look very closely at it, and if we need to make changes to the roster, (team president) Kevin (Pritchard) will do it. He’s no shrinking violet when it comes to that kind of stuff. But I’ve felt all along that it was important to get them in here and see them and work with them before making huge decisions on the future of the roster. But I do like the fact that we’ve got a lot of guys who are entering the primes of their careers.

Do you feel like you need to fix some of the things that were broken last year?

That’s a karmically flawed question. (Laughing — sort of.)

I ask lots of karmically flawed questions.

I mean, look, last year was a fucked-up year. It was a fucked-up year for everybody. I look at this year’s draft. I remember trying to get information on some guys who might have been in our (draft) range, and the thing that kept coming up was, “It was such a fucked-up year.” Some guys had injuries, some had COVID, some left school. Now, you’ve got this Ignite team, which adds another aspect to this whole deal. This year, no one is sitting back with any complacency. We know there’s always a surprise around the next corner. Everybody’s got to be light on their feet and resilient and able to adjust.

Early in your first go-round as the Pacers coach, you called a lot of plays. That changed over time. Where are you on that?

The game has totally changed, and the nature of play calling has changed too. It isn’t as much plays as it is actions into playmaking. Because defenses have a lot more liberties now. You can play zone, you can have two guys guarding the guy who doesn’t have the ball, all that kind of stuff. We built an elite offensive team twice in Dallas playing flow basketball and playing with momentum, without play calls, and the desire is to do the same thing here.

You lost McDermott to free agency, but T.J. McConnell is back. Is it karmically flawed to suggest he’s very similar to J.J. Barea?

A little, but not as much as you think. T.J. is a unique player. There’s not another guy like him in the league. Now, Barea was a master at the pick-and-roll with (Dirk) Nowitzki. McConnell is more of a movement maker, and he’s a defensive pain in the ass. But he impacts the game. He has an insufferable sixth sense for disruption defensively. I’m very glad to be on this side of it now.

Your first staff hire was Lloyd Pierce. I recall you sang his praises back when he was let go by the Hawks.

I like everything about him. He knows the game, he played the game, he’s a great communicator. He’s got a lot of experience on the defensive side of the ball, he’s been an NBA head coach, he was just part of a gold-medal-winning Olympic team in Tokyo, and he remains our lead chair for Coaches for Racial Justice. He’s a very special person.

You’ve always championed progressive causes, but you were especially vocal during the period of racial reckoning last summer.

When the George Floyd murder happened, it was the beginning of a daunting education because it awoke our entire nation in ways we hadn’t seen in decades. There’s so much that I learned about systemic racism, the history of racial injustice. I learned a lot from working with Lloyd on our committees. And all the things we did during that period of time — there was a lot of work on voter rights; we worked locally on issues involving policing standards and practices. We were able to make an impact in Dallas, getting things changed and adjusted. I’m in the process now of learning about the Indy landscape, and I’m going to start doing more extensive research on local grassroots organizations.

I partner with Mothers Against Police Brutality — was just a phenomenal group of people and helped me learn so much. I was involved with the Equal Justice Initiative, the Obama Foundation and My Brother’s Keeper. So it’s an ongoing set of challenges, and the work goes on and it will continue to go on.

Sometime this camp, we’re going to a prison to do an interactive thing. Milwaukee did it a few years ago. Not sure when and where yet, but we’ll play basketball, get together and talk about things related to their experiences and our experiences. And Steve Simon (the son of team owner Herb Simon) is very involved with social justice issues. I’ll speak to him about the local landscape, those things that are meaningful and important from his point of view, and then figure out the best direction to go.

When Young Sheldon began to rap (forksclovetofu), Monday, 27 September 2021 12:52 (two years ago) link

ty forks

micah, Monday, 27 September 2021 19:55 (two years ago) link

four months pass...

How do you measure the absence of something?

That, at heart, is the problem with evaluating defense in virtually any sport. While we can tell relatively quickly what happened at the team level — the other team didn’t score — assigning individual credit for those instances is usually much more difficult.

In rare instances it’s easy — Tayshaun Prince deserves the lion’s share of the credit for this stop by the Pistons, for instance — but the vast majority of NBA defense is about stuff that doesn’t happen. It’s mostly about the shot the other team didn’t take, or the guy who was denied receiving the ball in his favorite spot, or the post player pushed two feet further from the basket.

I got a firsthand look at how this works with the grit-and-grind Grizzlies when I worked in their front office. On the perimeter, we had Tony Allen, who might be the best player I’ve ever seen at denying a player the ball. And behind him, we had Marc Gasol, who was the absolute master of the subtle slide, the split-second positioning, putting out fires before they ever got started. We think of dominant defense as blocking shots at the top of the square or picking a dribble at midcourt, but more often than not it’s the absence of openings, the inability to catch the ball, the play call that goes nowhere because the big on the weak side reads it a beat early.

Take these two play clips, for instance, both of which end in the same result — a missed Patrick Beverley 3-pointer from the right corner. How we get there and the quality of the resulting shot is radically different, however.

Here’s the first one, late in a tight game in Houston:

The box score simply reports that Beverley just missed a shot from the corner. The closest defender was Mike Conley, but he probably wasn’t close enough that you’d give him credit for “forcing” the miss. Houston got a wide-open 3 on this play.

And yet … the Grizzlies took away several options just by not screwing up and not overreacting. At the start, a double-drag for Beverley draws spectacular disinterest from the Memphis defense, as Courtney Lee nonchalantly goes under and Gasol doesn’t even bother hedging. Recognizing a non-threat is as important as reacting quickly to real ones.

There is an emergency on the left side, however, as the smaller Conley has picked up James Harden on a transition switch, and Harden has him on the left block.

Fortunately, Gasol and Lee see what’s happening and execute a perfect scram switch (which Gasol likely called out) while the ball is still in the air. (If you’re looking for Allen, he was injured for this game). For good measure, Gasol leaves Dwight Howard just long enough to tag Beverley and slow his cut, cleansing himself on defensive 3 seconds. Zach Randolph has the far less threatening Terrence Jones to collapse on Harden’s drive and force a kick out; Conley shades Jones to pass to the corner but can’t quite get a hand on the pass.

Memphis did lots of good stuff … but still gave up an open corner shot to a guy who shot 36.1 percent 3-point from 3 that season. Then the evil refs called a foul on Gasol even though Howard shoved him first.

You’ll find another “Beverley 3-point corner miss” on the last play of the game.

Notably, the box score just reports that Beverley missed a shot at the buzzer. Conley was the closest defender, so if you were trying to assign credit based on “forcing” a miss you might focus on him. Indeed, Conley got in his space and made a nice contest.

But all the action happened on the other side of the court. There’s an initial pick-and-roll that might have been dummy action but had to be respected; Gasol hangs just close enough to the dribbler to allow James Johnson to recover and knows that since Johnson that season was the king of blocking 3-point shots he could get back to Howard quickly.

Courtney Lee denied a wing catch for Harden, but — aha! — Houston may have planned for us to deny it and set up a play for Harden to back cut (indeed, this play may be the hardest off-ball cut Harden has made at any point in the last 10 seasons).

Fortunately, two other defenders see what’s happening. First, there’s a quick slide by Prince — theoretically assigned to Jeremy Lin in the corner, but already tagging Howard’s role and waiting to hand him back to the retreating Gasol — and then Gasol peels off his return to Howard when he sees Harden scampering through the lane. With plans A through C gone (and Johnson close enough to make a crosscourt laser to Lin in the corner exceedingly difficult), the only option left was a Beverley heave from the corner.

Go back through both of these plays, and the most notable stuff was the things that didn’t happen — on the first play, Beverley didn’t get any openings on his double drag, and Harden didn’t get a mismatch against Conley. On the second, Howard’s roll wasn’t open on the initial screen, and Harden’s back cut was off by two help defenders.

That, then, is the nature of the challenge in discussing defense.

It’s basketball’s version of “Seinfeld.” It’s a show about nothing, a discourse on events that didn’t happen. The flashy stuff of defense — chase-down blocks, open-court steals and the like — are a vanishingly small percentage of the overall number of plays a team defends and the correlation of these events to overall defensive success can be frustratingly small.

Even as advanced stats continue to evolve and nudge us in the right directions, the evaluation of defense is, to a greater extent than any other facet of the game, still heavily dependent on the good ol’ eye test. This is why you need a numbers guy to tell you who the best players were. (Wait, what?)

In all seriousness, as I endeavor on what is likely a foolish errand whose best-case scenario is me getting flamed by Kobe Truthers in the comments, keep two things in mind:

1. There have been a lot of great defenders in our game’s history, and I can’t possibly talk about all of them; even talking about a small handful of them will entail more of a summary than a long-winded exposition of their Absolute True and Final Value.

2. This is all, by necessity, opinion. Opinion informed by facts and video and stats and research and 40-year-old memories of a kid in New Jersey watching Bobby Jones guard Larry Bird on standard-def TV via an antenna, but an opinion nonetheless.
Bill Russell was the NBA’s premier defender for more than a decade. (Dick Raphael / NBAE via Getty Images)

In the beginning, there were the centers. For much of the NBA’s history rating defensive players was easier because so much of defense was just stationing the biggest dude on the court under the basket. Even as the 3-point era came along and the game evolved, the most impactful defenders in league annals were virtually all centers or “forwards” like Kevin Garnett and Tim Duncan who happened to be seven feet tall.

There were two dominant defenders in the 1950s and ’60s: Bill Russell and Wilt Chamberlain. Not that there weren’t some perimeter players in this era who could get it done (K.C. Jones, for instance, or Walt Frazier or Jerry West). But with offenses designed to play through the post and attack mismatches, and the concept of stretch bigs still either in the womb or very much in its infancy, having a giant who could block shots and guard post-ups guaranteed an awesome defense right up until the mid-’90s.

In the case of the league’s earliest days, we don’t have the exact statistical picture, not even relative to the gray shades now available to us. Even the team-level stats from half a century ago aren’t that great.

But we have enough circumstantial evidence to underscore the fact that Russell is an all-time great defender. Any analysis, no matter how ham-handed, would have to include that Russell impacted his team’s defensive results like no other player in history.

Based on the data we can pull together, for instance, (kudos to basketball-reference.com’s work), Russell’s Celtics ranked sixth in defense out of eight teams in the NBA the year before he arrived, and finished eighth out of 14 teams the season after he retired.

And in between, they were first in Defensive Rating for 11 straight seasons and 12 out of 13. They weren’t just squeaking by, either, often finishing multiple standard deviations ahead of second place. In 1961-62, for instance, the difference between Russell’s Celtics and second-place Syracuse was bigger than the difference between Syracuse and last-place St. Louis.

Thanks to the wonders of YouTube we now have more access to grainy tape of Russell kicking butt (Oh, hi, Jerry West, you weren’t thinking this was an open pull-up, were you?), and it is an impressive collection. If you want to geek out, you might consider starting here with Ben Taylor’s curated collection of his greatest hits.

Needless to say, even half a century later, any discussion of great defenders begins with Russell.

Russell’s dominance was part of a larger dynamic, though. For four straight years at the end of the 1960s, for instance, the top 3 defenses belonged to Russell’s team, Chamberlain’s team and Nate Thurmond’s team.

During the half-decade that followed, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s Milwaukee teams were either first or second by percentage points in the defensive standings; their rivals for that spot were Willis Reed’s Knicks, Chamberlain’s Lakers and the Wes Unseld-Elvin Hayes Bullets. Guards were nice, but defensively, your bigs determined your fate.

By the mid-’70s it was still very much a big man’s game, but it had evolved to the perimeter enough that we get our first glimpse at truly needle-moving perimeter defenders. As we got into the Larry Bird-Magic Johnson-Julius Erving era of wing athletes with size and skill, teams needed perimeter defenders to match up against these talents. Everybody good team had a defensive stopper: The Lakers had Michael Cooper, Milwaukee had Paul Pressey, Denver had T.R. Dunn and Houston had Rodney McCray.

However, three players from this era stand out: Dennis Johnson, Bobby Jones and Sidney Moncrief.

Across multiple teams and different lineup iterations, Jones and Johnson each guaranteed a top-notch defense for their employer. Contemporaries agreed, voting both to nine NBA All-Defensive teams. For five straight seasons from 1978-79 to 1982-83, they both were first-team choices.

(I should note here that All-Defensive votes are an extremely imperfect way of comparing historical greatness. Without saying names, let’s just say some players have been voted on because they were famous and played in a big market. Jones, Johnson and Cooper played for the only three teams that ever got on national TV in the 1980s and thus likely benefited heavily from this as well. However, Jones and Johnson were tabbed as first-teamers even while playing in flyover country before moving to glamour markets).

Johnson played nine straight years in a top-5 defense and repped the top outfit four times in three different places, going from Seattle to Phoenix to Boston. His Seattle team lead the league in defensive rating in 1980 while Phoenix finished fifth; his Phoenix team led it in 1981 while Seattle fell to 10th. When he went from Phoenix to Boston in 1983-84 the Suns fell from 3rd to 13th, while Boston rose from 7th to 3rd.

Similarly, Jones’ Nuggets had the best defense in the NBA as a fresh ABA import in 1976-77; he went to Philly and they finished first, first and second his first three seasons there despite lacking a dominant big man.

(While we’re in this era and talking about defense: Can we get a shoutout to Larry Brown for somehow leading this roster to the league’s top defense in 1983 and then, as only Brown could do, bailing the last week of the season to take the Kansas job).

Moncrief, meanwhile, won the league’s first two NBA Defensive Player of the Year awards — quite a statement for a small player in a small market — and, along with Pressey, helped a Milwaukee team not overloaded with interior defenders to a second-place ranking in defense for three straight years.

If there’s a fourth perimeter ace from this era to discuss, it would have to be Cooper. His prime didn’t burn quite as long and some of his impact numbers weren’t quite as impressive, but he guarded Bird as well as anybody (we’re now into the generation of players that I saw play) and he made eight NBA All-Defensive teams. While the Magic-era Lakers were mostly offense-driven teams — they were first or second nine times in 10 years — Cooper was unquestionably an elite on-ball defender.

What’s interesting is that all four players had good but not exactly amazing steals and blocks numbers; you had to dig more deeply to see their impact. Fortunately, around this time, we start getting slightly better-advanced stats. Jones, in particular, stands out when one looks at career defensive BPM leaders.

But hang on.

Only a decade after perimeter defenders start getting their due and Magic and Bird introduce a nation to the beautiful game, we get into the league’s tug-and-grab, beast ball era. The Bad Boys. Riley’s Knicks. 72-65 playoff games. Malice at the Palace.

The span from 1990 to 2005 contained many assorted slights to the sanctity of the game, but this was a glorious era for defense. In particular, a certain type of defense. With the pace slowed to a crawl and physicality at a premium, size and power mattered much more than quickness.

Not surprisingly, this was also the most notable big man era in league annals. While the 1950s and ’60s gave us Russell vs. Chamberlain, the ’90s gave us Olajuwon vs. Robinson vs. Ewing vs. Mourning vs. Mutombo vs. Eaton, and then right when we exhaled, Round 2 came along with Shaq vs. Duncan. There were so many good defensive centers in that era that Ewing only made three NBA All-Defensive teams, even as the linchpin of a Knicks team that annually ranked near the top of the league in defense.

As ever, rim protectors were among the most valuable defenders, and we had some great ones. Eaton ushered it in, an immovable 7-foot-4 mountain perfectly situated for an era of slowing tempo and big guys playing near the basket. A fourth-round pick, Eaton won NBA Defensive Player of the Year twice and unofficially shattered the league record for shots blocked without jumping. Countless times, he’d just stretch his arms up vertically and watch a guard shoot the ball right into them.

He also offered the first hint of what was to come in the NBA, when Golden State coach Don Nelson countered his size in the 1989 playoffs by playing five perimeter players in a playoffs series and forcing Eaton to chase them; the Warriors won in a sweep. We’ll see this movie again further down the road.

The finger-wagging Dikembe Mutombo was the next incarnation of this archetype and overall probably the best of them as a defender across any era. He entered the league as a 25-year-old rookie (put that in your draft model, nerds), led the league in blocks three times and won NBA Defensive Value of the Year four times. Mutombo was good enough as a rim protector that he played regular minutes until a career-ending knee injury at age 42, even though he had no offensive value for the final seven years of his career.

But the Eaton-Mutombo archetype was never quite as valuable as the mobile rim protectors of the same era, of which we were granted two jaw-dropping talents in the same state at the same time in the form of Hakeem Olajuwon and David Robinson.

Robinson gets short shrift in the discussion of great defenders largely based on two playoff series — a whirling, reverse-pivoting pantsing at the hands of Olajuwon in the 1995 Western Conference finals and an overwhelming physical destruction by a prime Shaquille O’Neal in the 2001 Western Conference playoffs when Robinson was 35. (Indeed, Mutombo held up much better against Shaq in those same playoffs).

Those two series are part of his record, but let’s not get carried away. Robinson was an awesome all-court defender who would have been even more dominant in the current era than the ones in which he played. He had the speed and mobility to cover smaller players on the perimeter and the size and shot-blocking ability to make the middle a no-fly zone. He did struggle with physicality at times (Hi, Shaq), but his impact stats are completely crazy; he has the highest defensive BPM rating in history, for instance. Seven years before Duncan arrived, Robinson’s Spurs led the league in defensive efficiency in 1990-91, and he also won NBA Defensive Player of the Year in 1992.

And then there is Olajuwon, who for my money is the most underrated defensive player of all time. If anything, he suffered from playing in the 1990s maul ball era rather than the current one, where he’d be effortlessly floating along the perimeter tracking guards, periodically picking their dribble with his frog-tongue hands or gently swatting away their misguided attempts at taking him to the rim. One of my prime childhood memories is of an otherwise overmatched Rockets team playing Boston in the 1986 NBA Finals-clinching Game 6. In the first quarter, Olajuwon stole the ball three straight times for breakaway buckets. (Go to the 25-minute mark to see for yourself).

Olajuwon would make you cackle with the stuff he did; I wish teams switched more back then because he had crazy hands that pilfered embarrassed guards. Despite playing center full time, he finished in the top 12 in steals five straight seasons from 1987-88 to 1991-82. In short, he was amazing. If you don’t want to see a full NBA Finals game, at least watch him defend the entire Bulls team for 10 seconds.

On a team level, the Rockets’ 1994 champions, which in terms of historical impact consisted of Hakeem and some guys, ranked second in defensive efficiency; previous editions finished third, second, first, fourth, fourth and third. Olajuwon never played with another great player until the late-model version of Clyde Drexler arrived in the spring of 1995, and he only played with one other All-Star caliber player (Ralph Sampson) for any length of time in his prime; we might esteem his career more if he had.

Four non-centers from that area also warrant mentioning in any discussion of all-time great defenders. Three of them played on the same team.

The Chicago Bulls from 1996 to 1998 might be the greatest defensive juggernaut in league annals even though they offered very little in the way of a traditional rim-protecting big man. They didn’t need it with three holy terrors at the 2 through 4 spots in Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen and Dennis Rodman.
Dennis Rodman, Micahel Jordan and Scottie Pippen formed a formidable defensive trio. (Andrew D. Bernstein / NBAE via Getty Images)

Jordan gets the most acclaim of the three, and the locked-in version of him in key moments was something to behold. However, his offensive load did force him to pick his spots at times, whereas Pippen could terrorize opponents with his length and mobility all game long. (Jordan also gambled a lot. No, I mean on the court.)

Again, it’s unfortunate that Pippen in particular couldn’t play in the current era rather than in the super-macho 1990s, where his ability to play passing lanes and gobble up acres of court would be even more of a weapon against today’s spread offenses. He also excelled at harassing opposing point guards with full-court pressure, even if they were much smaller. Even those who survived the experience were often forced to dribble ass-first up the court and chew up valuable time off of the shot clock.

The best case for Pippen is the 1993-94 and 1994-95 Bulls, who had neither Jordan nor Rodman but finished second in defensive efficiency while Pippen led the league in steals. Pippen never won DPOY, but he made 10 NBA All-Defensive squads including eight first-team selections. He outranks Jordan in career Defensive Win Shares, believe it or not, and his 4.0 Steal Rate in those two non-Jordan seasons were the highest ever for a player 6-8 or higher, by miles and miles. (It is a looooong scroll down before you get to George Lynch).

As for Rodman, he was awesome when the moment demanded, especially when he could lock horns against a big forward; his work on Karl Malone in successive NBA Finals stood out, but a younger Rodman also was entrusted with guarding Bird in key moments for the Bad Boy Pistons, where he won consecutive NBA Defensive Player of the Year trophies. Rodman quite obviously is the greatest rebounder ever, as I’ve already discussed, and that added more value on the defensive side, but in the second half of his career, he also would hurt himself at times with his reluctance to contest on the perimeter … leaving him too far from his desired board.

That misgiving aside, no list of great defensive players is even remotely complete without The Worm; he was a key element of two different suffocating, dominant defensive squads. Interestingly, the numbers are all over the place on him. Despite superior mobility for his size, he did not compile high rates of “stocks.” For instance, Rodman, who was so flamboyant in other respects, played a very fundamental brand of defense, preferring to keep players in front and contest late.

Finally, we get to one of the few point guards who had enough defensive impact to warrant mention in this discussion: Gary Payton. “The Glove” was a trash-talking pest who had size, wiry strength for the “arm-bar era”, and great hands, making his ball pressure particularly effective on a Seattle team that loved to trap and press. Payton made nine straight NBA All-Defensive teams and was the 1996 Defensive Player of the Year with his Sonics squads finishing in the top three in defense three times.

Some of this was perhaps a bit too reputation-based toward the end (he made first-team All-Defensive while captaining teams that were 26th and 24th in defensive efficiency in 1999 and 2001), but the mid-1990s version of Payton was the perfect mix of player and era. (While we’re here, a brief shoutout to Payton’s teammate Nate McMillan, who posted the highest steal rate in league history for that 1993-94 Sonics squad).

As the century turned we reached the nadir of the beast-ball era, with defenses miles ahead of offenses and physicality gone wild on the perimeter. Perhaps the defining player of that era is Ron Artest, now known as Metta Sandiford-Artest, who at 6-7, 260 pounds nonetheless posted the highest steal rate of the last quarter-century in 2001-02. Artest became famous for many other things, but as a defender, he had superhuman strength, surprisingly quick feet and great hands, and as a result, this era was a perfect time for him. He won the 2004 NBA Defensive Player of the Year award but only made four All-Defensive teams, mostly because he was so often injured or suspended.

Not surprisingly, bigs again ruled the defensive terrain. But as teams began to open the floor, the terrain began to subtly shift toward mobile bigs who could toggle between frontcourt positions. In particular, three players dominated the defense discussion in this era: Garnett, Tim Duncan and Ben Wallace.

Duncan was the successor to Robinson in the middle but started his career with a six-year stint where played power forward while paired with Robinson to form the league’s most dominant defensive frontcourt in memory. Even with a post-back-surgery Robinson, that team won two championships and finished in the top three in defensive efficiency six straight years, ranking first three times. Even after Robinson retired, Duncan led the Spurs to the league’s top defensive rating the next three years, and San Antonio landed in the top three five other times.

Duncan’s calling card was, of course, his unspectacular play. He didn’t talk trash, foam at the mouth or bang his head on things like Garnett, but his endless arms and surprisingly nimble feet (especially early in his career) let him check much smaller players and still protect the rim.

Duncan also virtually never made mistakes, true to his name as “The Big Fundamental,” while specializing in tippy-toe blocked shots at the point of release rather than skying to swat shots at their apex. He never won NBA Defensive Player of the Year but made the All-Defensive team an amazing 15 times (the most in history, by far), including eight first-team selections. He even garnered a second-team selection as a 38-year-old in 2015.

I’ll note that those Spurs teams in the aughts also featured Bruce Bowen, a perimeter stopper with a penchant for low-bridging jump shooters (which was quasi-legal then) who nonetheless was the classic “low-stocks” perimeter defender — his specialty was denying your specialty, and he could be especially aggressive on the perimeter knowing that Duncan was behind him. Bowen was NBA All-Defensive First Team five straight times with San Antonio. Paired with Duncan, they led the league in defense in four of those seasons.

And then there’s Garnett. The snarling, menacing, “6-11” forward was too slight to be a physical force, but as the Mike D’Antonis of the league rescued the game from itself and spawned imitators, the Garnetts of the world became increasingly valuable. His combination of length and mobility allowed him to be in five places at once, it seemed, especially when he defended actions at the top of the key and would fly in for the defensive board. While he didn’t have the extended run of one-team awesomeness that Duncan enjoyed, one can argue the peak version of the Garnett experience was the most breathtaking thing the league has seen on this end of the floor since Olajuwon.

Garnett made 12 NBA All-Defensive teams and won a Defensive Player of her Year award, but that still doesn’t do justice to his impact. The younger Garnett in Minnesota was a freak perimeter defender who could comfortably check smaller players. He moved to a more traditional frontcourt role in Boston and might have been even better. His 2008 Celtics team was an all-time great defensive squad that finished a staggering 8.6 points per 100 better than the league average, and his teams had three more top-two finishes in Boston.

Finally, Wallace is an interesting study, a “center” who was listed at 6-9 and might have been a couple of inches shorter, and an undrafted player who was on the end of Washington’s bench for three years and eventually become a throw-in to the Grant Hill sign-and-trade.

Once he was unleashed as a rim-running, shot-blocking force in the middle, however, few have ever defended with more ferocity. He had a relatively short six-year prime in Detroit … but one that had him at the centerpiece of one of the dominant defensive teams ever. Detroit’s 2004 championship squad was suffocating, with Wallace guarding Shaquille O’Neal one-on-one in the NBA Finals and yet still barricading the rim against other Laker drives. The scores from that series are almost unfathomable; L.A. had prime Shaq and Kobe and was held to 80 or fewer points three times in five games.

How you feel about him in the pantheon of defensive greatness largely hinges on the quality vs. quantity argument, but the peak version of Wallace was as dominant as any player on this list. He won NBA Defensive Player of the Year four times in five years and finished a close second the other year, with Detroit finishing second, third, fourth and fifth in defensive efficiency in those seasons.

While the mobile bigs were the dominant feature of this era, there is one great point guard defender to discuss: Jason Kidd. At 6-4 with a strong frame, he had the size to guard bigger players and often did, even against elite wings. But Kidd’s real specialty was cat-and-mouse games off the ball. Few have ever been better at pestering a post player without double-teaming him, but being just enough of a pain to make him miserable. Kidd also specialized in two-handed steals, ripping the ball away from shocked players in one motion.

A good example of Kidd’s value was his trade from Phoenix to New Jersey. The Suns went from second in defense to 12th, while the Nets went from 23rd to first and made the NBA Finals. Kidd was relegated to the second-team All-Defensive for five of his nine selections, but some of these votes are dubious in retrospect (Larry Hughes!). Even well after his peak, he went to Dallas and was a major defensive force on a championship team in 2011. Kidd also ranks 12th all time in Defensive Win Shares, the highest of any perimeter player.

That finally takes us to our modern era. Even in the last decade, however, we’ve seen the game change, thanks to a proliferation of small ball and stretch 5s. Remember how Golden State tried to pull Eaton away from the hoop in the late 1980s? Well, we got a modern version of that in 2014 as an underdog Atlanta team realized that Indiana’s rim-protecting defensive ace, the massive 7-2 Roy Hibbert, couldn’t hang if his man stayed at the 3-point line. The idea quickly caught on. Hibbert was an absolute master of verticality who nearly helped the Pacers knock out a team with James and Dwyane Wade and finished second in the 2014 NBA Defensive Player of the Year voting. But within two years he’d be unplayable.

Instead, the spirit animal for this era is Draymond Green, a 6-7 forward with the strength and length to play center in “small” lineups but the mobility, hands and IQ to switch on any player 1 through 5. It’s harder to evaluate careers in mid-stream, but it’s safe to say Green will go down as one of the all-time great defenders, and certainly one of the smartest ever. His current tally stands at six NBA All-Defensive selections and one Defensive Player of the Year award, but he’ll surely add to that. Green led the league defensive BPM twice and is leading again this season, while his career mark ranks third all time.

The other “mobile quasi-center” of this era who warrants discussion is Giannis Antetokounmpo. Again, we’re evaluating now so it’s harder, but Giannis’s numbers from the past four seasons are ridiculous: two straight seasons leading the league in defensive BPM, an NBA Defensive Player of the Year trophy, an epic blocked shot in the 2021 NBA Finals and an eye test that shows this ain’t the dude you want to go after. As with Green, his ability to toggle between small-ball 5 and power forward adds significant value.

Nonetheless, even in this era, rim protectors are the most valuable defenders … as long as they can also move on the perimeter. One stands out, for his ability to shine as a traditional rim protector while showing the mobility to play in the modern game: Rudy Gobert. A three-time NBA Defensive Player of the Year winner and Green’s probable rival for the award this season, Gobert has the eighth-highest block rate of all time even while playing in an era where centers are routinely pulled 30 feet from the hoop. Thanks to our more detailed stats of the last decade or so in particular, we have a very strong circumstantial case that Gobert and Green have been a cut above everyone else as dominating defenders.

Despite a relatively short peak, the other big rim protector we shouldn’t overlook here is Dwight Howard, who won three straight NBA Defensive Player of the Year awards as the centerpiece of a defense that led the league in efficiency in 2009 and finished third the next two years.

Finally, it’s easy to forget that even a decade ago switching was far less common, and teams would often put their best defender on an island against an opponent’s elite scorer. We, of course, did this with Tony Allen, who managed to make six All-Defensive squads despite a series of injuries (he only played 70 games in a season five times) and was a key part of two different great defenses — first with Garnett in Boston, and then with us in Memphis, where he teamed with 2013 Defensive Player of the Year Marc Gasol. Gasol was an interesting combination; he wasn’t a traditional above-the-rim shot-blocker, but was an awesome low-post defender and a high IQ pick-and-roll defender with just enough mobility to hedge and recover.

Allen might be the best I’ve ever seen at chasing players through screens, but on the ball the standout defender from this era has to be The Claw. Kawhi Leonard had length, feet, strength and tenacity, plus giant vise-grip hands that ripped the ball away from fools with robotic efficiency.

All that puts Leonard 14th on the career defensive BPM leader board, the highest of any non-center, despite a series of injuries; he has also defended MVP caliber players in playoff settings with great success. Leonard won NBA Defensive Player of the Year twice, but has only two seasons where he played more than 66 games and only 178 over the past five seasons; one hopes we’ll see him back on the court more regularly.

All of which leaves one player I haven’t talked about yet. Yes, LeBron. He’s a difficult player to rate in the traditional sense, as he’s often been in chill mode in the regular season before unleashing holy terror in the playoffs and thus has a more limited award résumé (five first-team selections, no DPOY trophies) than you might think. Certainly, his portf0lio of chase-down blocks is second to none, highlighted, of course, by the championship-saving swat on Andre Iguodala in 2016.

While he’s certainly the greatest player of the current century, and his sheer career length has him as an all-timer in career win shares, his peak-season defensive résumé is somewhat light compared to the likes of Gobert, Leonard, Antetokounmpo and Green; I’d categorize him closer to Jordan as a peak “big moment” defender.

So after all that, only a fool would try to rank the top 25 defensive players in history.

I am that fool.

Here’s one man’s undoubtedly flawed assessment of the top 25 defenders in league annals:

Bill Russell
Hakeem Olajuwon
Tim Duncan
Kevin Garnett
Rudy Gobert
Scottie Pippen
Draymond Green
David Robinson
Ben Wallace
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar
Dennis Rodman
Bobby Jones
Jason Kidd
Wilt Chamberlain
Kawhi Leonard
Giannis Antetokounmpo
Michael Jordan
LeBron James
Dikembe Mutombo
Sidney Moncrief
Dennis Johnson
Dwight Howard
Gary Payton
Bruce Bowen
(tie) Marc Gasol and Tony Allen

circles, Sunday, 30 January 2022 00:14 (two years ago) link

watching the rodman/pippen bulls guarding people was so much fun

i cannot help if you made yourself not funny (forksclovetofu), Sunday, 30 January 2022 00:35 (two years ago) link

some of the hakeem clips he linked to were crazy. it would be fun to see some of those guys like he & KG playing now where their athleticism and length would be even more weaponized

J0rdan S., Sunday, 30 January 2022 02:57 (two years ago) link

everyone in the comments to that piece are somehow very mad that nate thurmond wasn't on the list

symsymsym, Sunday, 30 January 2022 05:01 (two years ago) link

one month passes...

John Collins’ injury dilemma poses a valid question regarding the Hawks: ‘At this point, am I hurting or helping?’

Mar 11, 2022; Atlanta, Georgia, USA; Atlanta Hawks forward John Collins (20) attempts a three point basket against LA Clippers center Ivica Zubac (40) during the second quarter at State Farm Arena. Mandatory Credit: Jason Getz-USA TODAY Sports
By Chris Kirschner 6h ago 24
John Collins’ knuckle on his right ring finger looks as if it’s been inflated with an air pump. It’s over twice the size of his left ring finger. It can’t be properly straightened and he can’t bend it.

He spreads his hand out, looks down and finds sarcasm to ease the palpable frustration.

“It’s obviously not perfect, to say it in the simplest of sense,” Collins said on Saturday. “It’s obviously tough to play basketball with this.”

Collins has played with sprained fingers in the past, but never to this extreme. He played with a sprained finger in last season’s playoffs, still able to bend it but playing through the pain. He underwent an X-ray on his finger last week, and the results came back negative.

Deepak Chona, an orthopedic surgeon at Stanford University and the founder of SportsMedAnalytics, said Collins has a boutonnière deformity on his ring finger after examining an image provided to The Athletic. It’s related to a sprain but involves the structures that hold the tendons in place, so, essentially the person has trouble straightening the middle joint of the finger. It’s generally treated with the use of a splint full time, ranging from four to six weeks, followed by part-time use of the splint for another few weeks until the joint is able to straighten on its own. Surgery is needed in special cases, for instance, if the bone underneath the tendon is fractured, but that’s not common.

Chona said if Collins continues to play through this injury, his finger will not be able to undergo any meaningful healing, even over the course of several weeks, because the treatment requires the finger to be immobilized in a splint for the tissue to heal. The best-case scenario would be to hope for minimal partial healing in about two to three weeks and moderate improvement in his shooting with Collins becoming used to his shooting hand being compromised.

In Chona’s opinion, it’s “almost definite” Collins and the Hawks should not expect anywhere close to the efficiency Collins displayed prior to this injury. And that’s where the predicament starts for Atlanta. Before sitting out Sunday’s game, Collins played against Milwaukee and the LA Clippers with his finger taped, and the results were awful. He missed all of his jump-shots in both games, and he wasn’t particularly close, either. Most of his attempts were this far off:

It wasn’t just his shooting that took a hit either. He had difficulty squeezing the ball on contested rebounds and on some passes. On top of that, he’s also still dealing with a foot injury that doesn’t appear to be getting better. He missed seven games with a foot strain from Feb. 13 through March 3.

Collins said the Hawks’ medical staff has told him his foot strain is a pain-management injury, and there’s nothing it can do to treat it unless he completely rests. The pain will continue to linger if he doesn’t sit out.

The Hawks are in the middle of a Play-In Tournament race where seeding could be the difference between playing Brooklyn — with Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving — in a do-or-die game or, say, Charlotte or Cleveland. Atlanta is typically at its best with Collins in the lineup. Four out of the team’s top five lineups this season all feature Collins. He has established himself as one of the league’s most efficient offensive players, shooting 72 percent at the rim, 44 percent in the midrange and 37 percent from 3. There’s also a massive downgrade defensively if his backup, Danilo Gallinari, is out there instead. The Hawks are 1.9 points per 100 possessions better defensively with Collins on the floor and 1.6 points per 100 possessions worse defensively when Gallinari is on the floor.

Atlanta’s defense, as a whole, is a disaster and likely won’t improve this season. That’s notable because in a playoff series or in a Play-In Tournament game(s), defense is going to be critical if this team has any chance of advancing far. Collins is one of the few good defenders on the Hawks, and his being limited in any capacity hurts their chances.

When asked what his thought process was on fighting through both injuries rather than resting, Collins admitted that it was tough for him to gauge. If the Hawks were out of the race, it wouldn’t be a difficult decision to make, but he wants to help Atlanta in the final stretch of the season.

“I’ve never had a foot injury like this where it’s prevented me more from wanting to put pressure on my foot,” Collins said. “I always feel like adrenaline and the playoffs, my body might be more adrenaline-filled and attack it in a different sense. I’m not 100 percent sure. My fucking foot still has some pain. It’s not perfect.

“I always feel like for the team to fulfill its potential, you want all your players to be there and be ready. I obviously feel like I want to play. I want to be out there and make winning plays for my team. I’m just trying to understand these pain-management injuries that are more delicate to understand. I just want to go out there and win. I’m trying to manage the pain the right way if I can’t do anything to alleviate it throughout the rest of the season. It’s tough. I don’t want to come in here and be upset or angry because I’m not feeling well. I want to fix it if I can. It hasn’t been easy on me mentally to figure out what I want to do.”

Collins said his finger has progressively gotten worse because he’s jammed it in practices and games since he initially hurt it in the Detroit game. Because the finger isn’t close to healing, he’ll have to work through not being able to grip the ball properly, which is what he’s battling now. For his foot, Collins doesn’t have the same bounce as we’ve come to expect.

The Collins we saw in the Bucks and Clippers games is a liability for a team needing to win as many games as possible in the final few weeks of the season. It’s something Collins realizes himself.

“I definitely feel like I can be feeling better, which I know would help the team out, but I feel like with what I can do — and this is why I’m trying to play for my team — I feel like I can add winning and positive things to the team,” Collins said. “But at this point, am I hurting or helping? Am I going out there in the right mindset, not only my body, but am I mentally ready to play to help my team win? Or, am I too concerned about my mental state and am I hurting the team? That’s why I am trying my best to understand how I feel, because I want to help my teammates. It’s not easy.

“We’re more than likely heading for the Play-In. This isn’t last year where we secured a playoff spot. It’s a different situation. Every game counts more than ever for us. It’s damn tough. I want to rest. I want to feel right. But I know in an 82-game season, it’s not always going to be the case to feel 100 percent. If I am feeling this way, I would like to take care of it. If I’m not, I want to go out there and make sure I’m not hurting my team. It’s part of life of being a competitor and wanting to be out there. Basketball is my whole life. I want to play. I just want to make the right decision.”

Nate McMillan didn’t give any update on Collins’ availability for Monday’s game against Portland other than saying he’ll be a game-time decision. The Hawks should be concerned that even if Collins does press forward and play through these injuries, they’re getting a very limited version of one of their most important players.

This is what could decide the Hawks’ postseason hopes. They need Collins at full strength for a deep run, but the likelihood of him being 100 percent healthy is far away.

lag∞n, Monday, 14 March 2022 19:57 (two years ago) link

thanks (i guess)!

Heez, Monday, 14 March 2022 21:10 (two years ago) link

three weeks pass...

hollinger’s award picks

Most Valuable Player: Nikola Jokić, Denver Nuggets

A quick reminder before we start: This award is for the Most Valuable Player in the 2021-22 regular season. It is not for the player you think will be the best in the playoffs, or was the best player in last year’s playoffs, or for the guy who deserves it most because he hasn’t won yet, or for any other coded reason to avoid giving a second-straight trophy to the Joker.

We’re getting increasing amounts of this type of chatter in the blabosphere right now, mainly from people who have consumed an average of 0.04 Nuggets telecasts this season. So, let’s cut to the chase: Jokić was the most valuable basketball player in the 2021-22 NBA regular season. As great as Antetokounmpo and Embiid have been this year, I don’t see how anyone could study this in an intellectually honest way and come to a different conclusion.

The fact that Denver plays at an inconvenient time for a lot of people, plus its own ongoing local market TV blackout saga, has somewhat muted the discussion of what an insane, historic season Jokić is having. He’s been so good that even the phenomenal seasons by Embiid and Antetokounmpo still don’t quite stack up.

Consider this: Jokić is the entire focal point of his team’s offense, and yet he leads all high-usage players in True Shooting Percentage, a measure of shooting efficiency that takes into account field goals, 3-pointers, and free throws. He’s running Denver’s offense from the center position, on a club with no knockdown shooters in its core rotation, and it works well enough that the Nuggets are sixth in offense. He’s put up box score lines like 37-13-9, 39-19-8, 41-17-4 and 38-18-6 … this week!

Aesthetically, if you cut a mix of the best NBA passes from this season, they’d all just be Joker dimes. Even the Lukas and LeBrons of the world seem like rank amateurs compared to the Joker; as a passer, he’s on a completely different level. The question is no longer whether Jokić’s the best passing big man in league history; it’s where he ranks among the best passers, period.

The passing is awesome, but I also don’t think people understand how crazy Jokić’s shooting efficiency has been. He has a 66.0 percent True Shooting mark, or .660 if you move the decimal point. It’s not just that it leads all high-usage players, it’s that nobody is even close. Of the league’s top 75 players in usage this year – a pretty broad sample – Karl-Anthony Towns (.642) is the only one within 20 percentage points of Jokić. Again, he’s doing this on a team where every opponent’s entire game plan is to go kitchen sink at Jokić.

I say all this to underscore some of the “why” of how virtually every alphabet-soup metric available has Jokić rated as the top player in the league, and in fact, as having posted one of the best seasons in all of NBA history. No, this isn’t just some bug in the program.

Speaking of those metrics, Jokić is on track to break the PER record, set by Antetokounmpo two years ago, and the BPM record, set by James in 2008-09. (Mind-blowing stat while we’re here: Jokic leads the league in defensive BPM. He’s not some pudgy dude getting cooked in pick-and-rolls anymore, folks. Among centers, only Bam Adebayo has a higher steal rate.)

If the quality argument doesn’t win you over, the quantity argument should. Jokić is also doing this while playing more minutes than nearly every other star – he has played 301 more minutes than Giannis and 218 more than Embiid. That’s about a nine-game edge on the former and seven games on the latter, which is a big deal in an 82-game season. Giannis and Embiid have both been brilliant, don’t get me wrong — in any other year each would be a shoo-in MVP — but right now Jokić has quality and quantity on his side.

For those still resisting a vote for Jokić, riddle me this. How do you reconcile Denver (47-33) having nearly the same record as Philadelphia (49-30) and Milwaukee (49-30) despite what would appear to be an inferior supporting cast? The Nuggets are headed toward 48 or 49 wins even though they have two max contracts on the sidelines and an unshakeable addiction to playing Austin Rivers. Their next-best available option after Jokić was previously the third-best player on the Orlando Magic. Amazingly, nobody on this year’s Nuggets has a positive BPM except Jokić, while only Aaron Gordon has a PER above the league average.

In a related story, the Nuggets crumble into dust without their star center in a way that doesn’t happen in Milwaukee or even Philly. I know Sixers fans fret deeply that their team is outscored by 3.7 points per 100 possessions in the non-Embiid minutes. In Denver, the non-Jokić minutes number is minus 7.3.

I feel for Embiid here especially, as he’s never won the award and had a year that normally would make him an automatic pick. But the Joker has been even better. He’s the MVP.

Most Valuable Player
1. Nikola Jokić, Nuggets
2. Giannis Antetokounmpo, Bucks
3. Joel Embiid, 76ers
4. Luka Dončić, Mavericks
5. Jayson Tatum, Celtics

All-NBA Team

I ended up with 16 players for 15 spots and wasn’t really sure how to settle it. And it turns out, these decisions will actually matter – to the tune of about $35 million in Trae Young’s case.

We also have the issue of position eligibility to deal with, which brings up the question of … why? If you’re going to make Embiid and Jokić both eligible at forward — a position neither has played for one minute the entire season — then don’t have positions at all. For some reason, the league has a lot of trouble figuring out who plays what position (witness: every All-Star ballot), and it should dispense with this entirely. Doing so would have no material impact on the voting that I can see.

If we allow ourselves to put Embiid and Jokić on the first team (and there is no way I’m demoting one after the year each of them had), then there is only one difficult choice on the first team. Antetokounmpo and Dončić are no-brainers, but the last spot is a toss-up.

I went with Jayson Tatum over Devin Booker here. While I’m strongly tempted by the idea of rewarding Phoenix’s season-long dominance and superior clutch play, this is an individual award. Tatum has had the better season by most metrics, and by my eyes, and has also appeared in more games.

The second team, meanwhile, becomes something of a part-timers’ club; Booker joins Ja Morant, Stephen Curry, LeBron James and Kevin Durant on the “probably would have been first-team if they played all year” squad. Except for one thing: none of them are eligible at center. So I have to bump up Karl-Anthony Towns to the second team and push Durant, who played the fewest games of this quintet (52), to the third team.

That decision then streamlines our choices for the third team; Durant, obviously, and Rudy Gobert as the third center. DeMar DeRozan and Jimmy Butler are must-adds. The only lingering question is whether to go with Young or Chris Paul for the final spot, my 15th and 16th players. I went for Young here based on durability and that he is a one-man offense for a team whose role players mostly went south.

First Team
Jayson Tatum, Celtics
Luka Dončić, Mavericks
Giannis Antetokounmpo, Bucks
Nikola Jokić, Nuggets
Joel Embiid, 76ers

Second Team
Ja Morant, Grizzlies
Stephen Curry, Warriors
Devin Booker, Suns
LeBron James, Lakers
Karl-Anthony Towns, Timberwolves

Third Team
Trae Young, Hawks
Jimmy Butler, Heat
DeMar DeRozan, Bulls
Kevin Durant, Nets
Rudy Gobert, Jazz

Evan Mobley (David Richard / USA Today)
Rookie of the Year: Evan Mobley, Cleveland Cavaliers

As I noted yesterday, we have a pretty amazing rookie class this year. But only one of them can win the award.

So, before we go any further, this is the part where I have to remind you that it’s Rookie of the Year, not Rookie of the Last Six Weeks, or Rookie of Next Year, or Rookie Who Will Have the Best Career.

Thus, a body of work matters. Jalen Green’s last few weeks have been electric, but he was also a destructively bad player for two-thirds of the season. To a lesser extent, we can say the same thing about Cade Cunningham. His March stats are awesome, but Cunningham has a full-season line with a 13.0 PER, 50.5 True Shooting Percentage and an alarming turnover rate for a 23-win team.

When we evaluate the year, as a whole, it’s pretty clear that two players — Cleveland’s Evan Mobley and Toronto’s Scottie Barnes — stand head and shoulders above the rest. Barnes and Mobley played major, impactful roles on playoff teams, were the keys to the defensive strategy for each and were statistically superior to the rest of the rookie crop over the course of the season.

Impact stats tend to back up the idea that these were the top rookies, but they also make a further distinction in favor of Mobley. It’s just not normal for a rookie to factor into the Defensive Player of the Year discussion; I’ll refer you to my October piece salivating over Mobley basically being a one-man zone defense covering the entire court.

Cleveland was 25th in defense a year ago. This year, the Cavs are sixth. It remains to be seen who will have the best career among this stellar draft class, but Mobley was the most outstanding rookie.

Rookie of the Year
1. Evan Mobley, Cavaliers
2. Scottie Barnes, Raptors
3. Cade Cunningham, Pistons

All-Rookie Team

I’m not going to spend a lot of time litigating this; I put Josh Giddey on the second team because he missed a little too much time relative to the other guys. Also, nobody really talks about Franz Wagner because the Magic were such a dull watch this year, but he was really good and shouldn’t be forgotten here.

First Team
Cade Cunningham, Pistons
Scottie Barnes, Raptors
Evan Mobley, Cavaliers
Franz Wagner, Magic
Jalen Green, Rockets

Second Team
Josh Giddey, Thunder
Herb Jones, Pelicans
Chris Duarte, Pacers
Bones Hyland, Nuggets
Ayo Dosunmu, Bulls

Defensive Player of the Year: Jaren Jackson, Jr., Memphis Grizzlies

There was an obvious choice for NBA Defensive Player of the Year, until there wasn’t. Draymond Green was awesome for half the season, and seemingly a no-brainer selection for the award. Unfortunately, injuries intervened. Green has only played 43 games, and since returning in March from injury, he hasn’t quite been the snarling, all-encompassing force he was in the season’s first two months.

What made Green so valuable, however, was his ability to spearhead the defense from either the four or five position. While the league featured several prominent bigs who put together compelling defensive seasons, the positional versatility offered by Green gave the Warriors a major “go-big-or-go-small” advantage.

Fortunately, there is another Michigan State product we can nominate here who provided the same flexibility. You’re gonna call homer on me for picking Jackson but look at the data. Jackson is a major reason the Grizzlies are 20-3 in games Ja Morant missed, and also the biggest reason Memphis has the league’s fourth-ranked defense. As a defensive playmaker, he was rivaled by few this year. Consider, first, that Jackson led the NBA in block rate while not playing center (mostly), an amazing feat in this four-out era. Jackson also led the NBA in “stocks” by a wide margin. Additionally, opponents only shot 49.7 percent at the rim this year with Jackson lurking, the best percentage in the league.

Sheer playing time is a real differentiator here, too, which is an odd point to bring up in Jackson’s favor given how his first three seasons went. While foul trouble is still an obstacle for him at times, he’s played 2,081 minutes this season … 277 more than Robert Williams, and 289 more than Adebayo. He’d have even more minutes under his belt if it weren’t for the Grizzlies’ frequent blowouts that leave Jackson watching Yves Pons and Xavier Tillman mop-up fourth quarters. Jackson averages just 27.4 minutes per game but was available 74 times in the team’s first 75 contests before a couple of recent “rest” nights as Memphis prepares for the playoffs.

That minutes advantage is a real distinguishing feature of his candidacy vis-a-vis Williams or Adebayo, as is his positional flexibility. (Although Bam can play some four.)

Also, any discussion of this award must automatically reference Rudy Gobert, who was again awesome this year, even if he slipped a bit from his peak. Gobert rates as the top defender in a couple of alphabet-soup ratings, and Utah’s defense once again turned into sawdust any time he checked out. The difference is that Gobert has only played 63 games this year and that he’s a one-position player.

Finally, while we’re here: there’s been a lot of “Why can’t a guard win Defensive Player of The Year” chatter, but it turns out that the game of basketball tends to favor tall people. This is particularly true on the defensive side of the floor. That is why centers tend to win Defensive Player of the Year; the lack of guards to win this trophy is about as much a mystery as the lack of 6-foot-4 jockeys or 138-pound linebackers.

One could argue that a guard could have a strong case if he was so much better relative to other guards that he still conveyed a massive defensive advantage to his team. And while Marcus Smart has become a bit of a cause célèbre this year in regard to this discussion, I’m not sure he’s created such a gulf to warrant that kind of vote. Should Smart be a first-team All-Defense pick this year? Yes, clearly. Is the difference between him and, say, Jrue Holiday or Alex Caruso, a wide-enough gulf to rate him over the switching, multidimensional velociraptors discussed above? I don’t think so.

Defensive Player of the Year
1. Jaren Jackson, Jr., Grizzlies
2. Rudy Gobert, Jazz
3. Bam Adebayo, Heat

Photo of Jaren Jackson Jr. blocking Rudy Gobert: Chris Gardner/Getty Images
All-Defensive Team

Again, injuries are a massive story up and down this list. Alex Caruso and Lonzo Ball might have been the first-team backcourt if not for their injuries; they’ve only played 76 games combined. Paul George has been awesome, but only for 29 games. Myles Turner swatted everything in sight, but once again, he only played in 42 contests.

So let’s give a special shoutout to Phoenix’s Mikal Bridges, who proved himself as an elite wing stopper for the league’s best team while leading the league in minutes played.

Tough choices abound in the frontcourt, where I have to weigh a half-season of Draymond Green’s awesomeness against the totality of Evan Mobley’s campaign, and where Robert Williams has to be left off the list entirely to make way for two other elite centers.

First Team
G Marcus Smart, Celtics
G Jrue Holiday, Bucks
F Mikal Bridges, Suns
F Jaren Jackson, Jr., Grizzlies
C Rudy Gobert, Jazz

Second Team
G Chris Paul, Suns
G Kyle Lowry, Heat
F Matisse Thybulle, 76ers
F Evan Mobley, Cavaliers
C Bam Adebayo, Heat

Sixth Man of the Year: Kevin Love, Cleveland Cavaliers

The best way to handle this award would be to just drop the trophy in Memphis and let about six players split it. But if we must hand it over to a single person, it has to be Love.

There seems to be a chorus that is convinced that Tyler Herro is a shoo-in for this award and, based on previous years’ voting, I can see why. It would be yet another example of the weird emphasis on scoring averages (or “yay points” as our Seth Partnow puts it) that has infected any discussion of this award for about two decades now. Herro, as well as last year’s winner, Jordan Clarkson, are the league’s only two players with more than 1,000 points off the bench this year. So, what, they’re the only two people we can select?

Stop the madness, people. Being a sixth man isn’t just about coming out flinging. Herro’s 20.6 scoring average off the pine is impressive, but he’s basically operated as a high-volume, middling-at-best efficiency possession sponge, while his defense makes him a popular target for opposing offenses.

As for Love, he may trail Herro in points per game, but smokes the field on every available advanced metric. It’s been an important impact, too. His return to being a floor-spacing, rebounding, out-letting menace is one of the biggest reasons the Cavaliers are a winning team again.

Love has only played 1,629 minutes to Herro’s 2,118, and that’s a significant difference. But in terms of effectiveness, it’s not even close. Love is shooting 38.5 percent from 3 on career-high volume, rebounding like a center and diming people up when his shot isn’t there (4.8 assists per 100 is elite stuff from a big). Overall, his 19.1 PER and 4.1 BPM lap the field.

Another player I think needs a strong look here is Phoenix’s Cameron Johnson, who like Love trails Herro by more than 400 minutes, but has outperformed him pretty significantly in terms of two-way impact.

I don’t mean to dump on Herro – he’s having a good year! The Heat are really good! But this award isn’t reserved for the backup guard who jacks the most shots, despite what recent history may indicate. The voting mindset for this award has become increasingly weird over the past several years and it’s long past time to inject some rationality. Love should be a fairly obvious pick here, and I find it really odd that he doesn’t seem to be.

Sixth Man of the Year
1. Kevin Love, Cavaliers
2. Cameron Johnson, Suns
3. Tyler Herro, Heat

Dejounte Murray (Soobum Im / USA Today)
Most Improved Player: Dejounte Murray, San Antonio Spurs

I generally loathe this award, but if required to vote on it I’ll pull the lever for Murray. It is one thing for players in their second or third season to make a major jump, as Ja Morant, Desmond Bane and Darius Garland did. For a player to do it in year six? That’s a different animal.

Murray made more than half his 2s for the first time in his career, shot a respectable 33.0 percent from 3 on increased volume and massively spiked both his assist and scoring rates. In the Spurs’ post-DeRozan world, he took on a much-greater scoring responsibility but was also more efficient. Murray’s PER jumped from 16.5 to 22.4; his BPM from 0.8 to 5.5. He single-handedly dragged an otherwise tanky roster into the postseason, if only for a day, and none of the changes look fluky or unsustainable.

The other prominent player to mention here is Boston’s Robert Williams. The fourth-year center went from occasional starter to Defensive Player of the Year candidate and keyed the Celtics’ transformation into a defensive juggernaut.

Also, keep an eye on Herro here when the actual vote comes out. I don’t actually think he improved enough to get on the ballot, but he was my preseason pick to finish second in the MIP voting.

As we all know, picking the runner-up in an obscure category is the pinnacle of basketball nerdom, the NBA equivalent to picking the NIT runner-up before the season starts. This is my Super Bowl.

Most Improved Player
1. Dejounte Murray, Spurs
2. Robert Williams, Celtics
3. Ja Morant, Grizzlies

Coach of the Year: Monty Williams, Phoenix Suns

I’m trying to avoid having this be the “team that most exceeded expectations trophy.” With apologies to Chris Finch in Minnesota and J.B. Bickerstaff in Cleveland, who both did fine jobs this year, I can’t quite get you guys in my top three. Boston’s Ime Udoka is another name I wanted to get onto my ballot and couldn’t quite find room for; the Celtics’ transformation in the second half of the season under his leadership has been impressive, and the defensive system he implemented has a lot to do with it.

Three coaches stand at the top of my ladder. Let’s start in Memphis; the Grizzlies are 20-3 without their best player, and while the depth of their roster is the biggest factor, also credit Taylor Jenkins’ willingness to use them. This year’s Grizzlies have a rare combination of joy and selflessness, especially for a group so young, and Jenkins has to get major credit for nurturing that, and for the player development that has led to big jumps from players like Bane and De’Anthony Melton.

And yet, I would argue two coaches might warrant ranking higher on the ballot. Miami has overcome a myriad of injuries to its best players and somehow has the best record in the East, despite frequently cobbling together lineups with two-ways and reclamation projects. This year, Erik Spoelstra and his staff have shown the full package of coaching mastery – developing players like Max Strus and Gabe Vincent, instilling a crazy mindset on defense that has players taking charges seemingly every other play, and having the stones to make rotation shifts (such as the recent benching of Duncan Robinson) even with key players involved.

Finally, at the top, it has to be Monty Williams. We screwed up not giving him the trophy last year. Not only has his team lapped the league in the standings, but also the Suns have done it with the league’s best late-game execution at both ends. Phoenix has had injuries too, believe it or not – it just doesn’t seem that way because the Suns have carved up the league so easily.

Coach of the Year
1. Monty Williams, Suns
2. Erik Spoelstra, Heat
3. Taylor Jenkins, Grizzlies

k3vin k., Friday, 8 April 2022 10:09 (two years ago) link

one month passes...

“Wrong guy!”

This was a favorite taunt of Warriors coaches and bored bench players a few seasons ago.

Here’s the scenario: Kevon Looney, finally past the two hip surgeries that stalled his early career, had nudged his way into the rotation. Opposing scorers viewed him as a target.

It made sense. Looney is a center without exceptional speed or rim-protection ability. He had no reputation. So guards would get him on a switch, clear the floor and begin their dribble attack, salivating at the matchup. That’s when you’d hear that familiar call bellowing from the Warriors’ bench area.

“Wrong guy!”

Spencer Dinwiddie is one of the three guards currently attacking Looney in these 2022 conference finals. Here is Dinwiddie, back in 2018 for the Nets, getting Looney on a switch, getting into his dribble package and failing to get past his right or left hip. The possession ends in a turnover.

The Warriors essentially gave up on Looney before his third season. They added Damian Jones and Jordan Bell in back-to-back drafts and already employed Zaza Pachulia, JaVale McGee and David West. Looney was the team’s sixth center without any clear future with the franchise. They declined his fourth-year option, the clearest sign that a front office has pulled the plug on a young prospect.

“Didn’t see it (the first two seasons) because he wasn’t out there,” Kerr said. “He had two hip surgeries and we didn’t know what we had. Then his third year he has a great year and it’s like, ‘Uh oh, we might lose this guy.'”

But before they expected to lose Looney in unrestricted free agency — where they weren’t permitted to offer him anything more than the price of that declined fourth-year option — they found him as an essential rotation player in the 2018 conference finals against a matchup, the 2018 Houston Rockets, that they’ve repeatedly compared to the 2022 Dallas Mavericks in recent days.

The Rockets surrounded James Harden and Chris Paul with versatile defenders who could shoot. When the Warriors deployed a switching attack, they targeted centers. By the middle of the series, McGee, Pachulia and West were deemed nearly unplayable. But the Warriors didn’t want to go with Draymond Green at center the entire game. So they needed Looney. He’d proven to be their most stable center in a switching environment.

“Wrong guy!”

Here is Harden — in his prime, much quicker on the drive — during a late-clock scenario in the first quarter of Game 1. Looney has already switched out onto him. Harden tries an array of dribble moves, but a patient Looney doesn’t bite on any of them. It’s part of his defensive effectiveness. He isn’t jumpy. He isn’t block- or steal-thirsty. He’ll stand there while you try to fake him out.

The possession leads to a late-clock pass out from Harden, a pass back to him and a stepback, well-contested 3.

Similar to the current Mavericks with Jalen Brunson, there was a second scorer who regularly went after Looney in that matchup. Here is a younger Chris Paul early in Game 5 only finding his way to a contested 19-foot baseline fadeaway over Looney’s long arm.

Looney, you’ll notice, is much skinnier then. He was considered a forward when he entered the draft. The league forced him to upsize into a center for survival. He’s bulked up in recent years to better handle the position. The Warriors drafted James Wiseman to take over the center spot, but Wiseman’s career has yet to take off.

So, ending his seventh season, entering another unrestricted free agency this summer, it’s still the stable Looney as the switchable backbone of the Warriors’ defense, still holding up against switches despite his bulked-up frame.

“I’m pretty much kind of the same,” Looney said. “I take kind of the same approach. I’m just a little bit more battle-tested. That was my first time playing on a big stage like this (in 2018). I don’t know if even my teammates had the most faith in me, but they put me out there and I handled it pretty well. Those experiences got me ready for things today and I feel a lot more confident being out there guarding guards.”

Looney is a film junkie. He studies tendencies and asks veterans like Andre Iguodala how best to guard each particular player.

“I’m just a little bit smarter and a little bit more physical now,” he said. “So I’m able to guard those guys a little bit better.”

Here is Looney against Dončić in Game 1. He gets him on a switch and shades him to go left. That’s part of the Warriors’ scouting report. Looney’s gameplan discipline, according to coaches, is probably the best on the team. He doesn’t mess up instructions.

Looney doesn’t go after a steal and leave himself vulnerable. Because of his wingspan — 7-foot-4 — he’s always in position to at least get a decent contest on a stepback 3. If a player drives, Looney pretty much always funnels him into help. On this possession, he shuts off Dončić’s stepback and Steph Curry is there for the strip.

Here is Looney against Brunson in Game 2. This is about as well as you’ll see a center track and contest a guard on a drive.

Stan Van Gundy, calling the game, spent much of the second half of Game 2 wondering aloud why the Mavericks kept going after Looney instead of Curry or Jordan Poole or others. Van Gundy probably should’ve just been screaming “Wrong guy!” from the sideline. But Looney doesn’t expect the Mavericks to adjust. Teams have always stayed on the attack against him. He expects it in Game 3.

“Luka, Brunson and Dinwiddie are all different type of players, different type of iso players,” Looney said. “Kind of tough having to guard those guys. I think (I’ve done) a good job. It’s going to be a long series, so I got to keep it up because those guys are going to keep coming.”

terence trent d'ilfer (m bison), Sunday, 22 May 2022 16:35 (two years ago) link

two weeks pass...

How Robert Williams grew to become a key piece in Celtics’ Finals run
Jay King

Robert Williams cannot move like he normally does. That much is obvious throughout Game 7 of the Eastern Conference finals.

Williams hobbles into closeouts twice over the first two minutes. When Kyle Lowry drives to the hoop later in the first quarter, Williams fails to recover in time. One of the NBA’s best at altering shots, he cannot summon the bounce necessary to challenge the layup. After Lowry misses anyway, Williams can do little but watch as Bam Adebayo follows up with a resounding slam dunk. Williams, dealing with the lingering impact of a recent knee surgery, has little to give.

Still, as his Celtics teammates notice, he gives whatever he has. They understand what he has been through after tearing his left meniscus late in the regular season. They have seen him go through two-a-day workouts to return to the court as early as possible after surgery. They have watched him bounce in and out of the lineup, his impact depending on what his body allows him to do on any given day.

Head coach Ime Udoka has also noticed. After the Celtics escape with a 100-96 win, setting up the franchise’s first finals berth since 2010, the coach singles out a few players for their impact on the game. He credits Al Horford for a big block and Jayson Tatum for key rebounds. Then, Udoka glances at the shirtless center in the back of the locker room.

“Rob,” Udoka says, “for playing through pain.”

The Celtics locker room applauds Williams with the most spirit. Maybe they aren’t cheering him just for his contributions on this night, but the journey he has traveled to put himself in this position.

After arriving in Boston four years ago surrounded by concerns about his maturity and work ethic, he has emerged as a cherished teammate and trusted worker. Raised in Oil City, La., a small town with a population of about 2,000, Williams has needed to learn how to navigate so much about the NBA world. He has needed to grow up. He has needed to round out his game, starting with the most basic aspects of it. He has needed to bat away the doubts inside his own head.

Still, as the Celtics have discovered, Williams is built to lift up the ones he loves. That includes his teammates, who love him back.

“Don’t be afraid to be great,” Jaylen Brown tells him.

Williams isn’t. Not anymore.

The burden of talent strapped itself to Williams’ back long before the Celtics drafted him with the 27th pick in 2018.

At a young age, he started hearing from coaches how great he could be. When he swatted away eight shots, people watching wondered why he didn’t block nine or 10. When he soared for a putback dunk, spectators questioned why he didn’t do it on every possession. As he progressed into a big-time college basketball prospect, coaches told him he needed to seek out better competition, but Williams didn’t always want to leave his situation. Used to Oil City, which has one traffic light and zero grocery stores, Williams liked to be around the people and places he knows best.

“Those people up that way, that’s where they’re comfortable,” said Ricky Evans, one of Williams’ youth coaches. “They know everybody. And it’s hard to get them to branch out and leave.”

Because of Williams’ unique production on a basketball court, many coaches tried to convince him to bolt anyway. They pushed Williams to leave for a different high school, but he never took anyone up on the offer.

Evans, who played at Centenary in the early 2000s, understood the value of better exposure. In hopes of putting Williams’ gifts in front of more eyeballs, Evans lined up a spot for him in the Houston Hoops AAU program. On that team, which also featured NBA talents De’Aaron Fox, Carsen Edwards and Jarred Vanderbilt, Evans knew plenty of college coaches would see Williams. One problem: Williams didn’t want to leave behind his own squad from Louisiana.

“Literally, to get him to go to different tournaments and stuff, I’d have to send my son (one of Williams’ good friends) with him just to get him to go,” said Evans. “It was always a bribe where, ‘If you go, I’ll do this.’”

Williams would inevitably flourish when he did step out of his corner of northwest Louisiana. Nothing could contain his ability on the court. He just didn’t like to leave what he called his “comfort zone.” In Oil City, he knew what to expect. His sister, Bri, said it’s the type of place where the whole town shows up to every neighborhood barbecue.

“It’s very family-oriented,” said Bri. “Southern, country.”

“Especially when you in the country and you got nothing to do,” Robert said, “your family is your friends basically.”

Each Saturday, Bri said she and Robert would wake up early in the morning, clean the house and visit one of their grandparents. They would help their grandmother or grandfather clean up, too, then go grocery shopping together and eventually head to the movies or do another family activity. The small town didn’t have much.

“We had one grocery store in Oil City, but it closed down,” said Bri. “We have one gas station. We don’t have a hospital. Just recently, maybe a couple years ago, they just built a health clinic. No grocery stores. You have a Family Dollar. You have a Dollar General. We had a school, but it closed down, it’s a historical landmark now.”

“I know everybody say they from a small place or whatever, but my hometown has to be the smallest city I ever been in,” said Robert. “Can’t even be considered a city, you know what I’m saying? Being away from everything else in the world, that’s all you really know.”

Robert’s mother, Tundra, would stress to her children that they should pursue happiness, not riches. Basketball coaches could see Robert had a chance to land both. One look at him could persuade talent evaluators to rearrange their plans.

Kyle Keller, who helped recruit Williams to Texas A&M, said he first spotted the center at an AAU tournament during Williams’ sophomore year. At the end of a long day, Keller said he was ready to leave the event when Williams walked into the gym. After spotting the young center, “this 6-7 or 6-8, 180-pound dude whose arms hang down to his ankles,” Keller decided he would stay just in case.

“And he blocked about 10 shots in the first half,” Keller said.

At halftime, Keller said he called his travel agent and told her he needed to change his flight. He needed to see the rest of the game so he could find out as much as possible about this bouncy teenager with incredible shot-block timing. The travel agent said all of the later flights out of Vegas were booked, but Keller stayed anyway. By the end of the game, he knew Texas A&M needed to land the prospect. Within about 12 months, Williams had joined Houston Hoops and become a high-major recruit, but Texas A&M stayed in front of all the other schools who tried to lure him.

When Williams first arrived on the college’s campus, the coaching staff considered him a “flight risk,” according to Darby Rich, a former Texas A&M strength coach who now works at Texas Tech. Back in Oil City, people also weren’t convinced Williams would stay at the school. Evans said some took bets on when Williams would return to his hometown.

“It was like, he’s so confined to being at home and being around people, that sometimes he can be scared of change a little bit,” said Bri. “But if you can get him out of a certain situation, or get him out of his comfort zone, just to try something new, he runs with it.”

The Celtics would discover that, but not before those at Texas A&M.

Darby Rich first met Williams during the recruitment process. He was tasked with detailing the strength and conditioning program for Williams and others.

Rich didn’t hold back, telling Williams how difficult the work would be. He said he would love Williams like his own child. Still, on the days Williams didn’t bring his best energy, Rich promised he would be “the guy you like the least in the world.”

He believed the talk intimated Williams. Williams swore it didn’t. He knew Rich had worked with Blake Griffin at Oklahoma before joining the Texas A&M staff.

“All I see is this big ass picture of Blake Griffin on the wall,” Williams said. “So I’m like, ‘Hell yeah.’”

Even so, Williams had plenty to learn. In high school, said Keller, the big man weighed about 180 pounds. Back in Louisiana, Williams didn’t have the benefit of a world-class weight room. He did at Texas A&M, but sometimes needed to be encouraged to work out hard. Amir Abdur-Rahim, an assistant coach at the time, said he would stress the importance of bringing the right energy every day.

“You’re doing too much, man,” Williams would respond.

But Abdur-Rahim knew what Williams could do for his team.

“It’s like, Rob, your energy and personality is so infectious that when you’re on, everybody’s on,” said Abdur-Rahim, now the head coach at Kennesaw State. “They don’t have a choice but to be on because they’re gonna look bad if they’re not.”

Williams needed to kick some other bad habits, including a questionable diet. He loved his sweets. Bri said he used to rummage through the pantry, eating his own snacks first and then cycling over to the rest of his family’s. He was especially fond of Little Debbie cakes, including his favorite kind, Zebra Cakes. Before long, the rest of his family stopped wondering who ate all of their food. Robert had a toy box, shaped like a football, where he would stash the empty wrappers. On the weekends, when his mother would make him clean up, Robert’s room would look spotless at first glance.

“But if you look under the bed, and if you look in that toy box,” Bri said, “you will see everything that you’ve been missing out of the pantry.”

Even at Texas A&M, Robert would drive nutritionist Blair Hitchcock crazy with some of his food choices.

“She’d be so mad, man,” said Abdur-Rahim. “Because Rob, all he was going to eat was chicken tenders and fries. She would say that’s not enough food, he needs to eat, he needs to have some vegetables on his plate. It’s like, ‘Hey, Blair, I know what you’re saying. But that dude right there, he could eat hamburgers every day of the week and he’s going to be better than everybody.’”

Williams made rapid progress on the court and with his body. The Texas A&M coaches quickly learned how well Williams could process information. During one of his first days at the school, he looked lost in drill work against the team’s two best returning big men, Tyler Davis and Tonny Trocha-Morelos. Williams didn’t have their awareness, wisdom or attention to detail. Abdur-Rahim told head coach Billy Kennedy they should remove Williams from the group work until he could compete at the level of his veteran teammates. That lasted maybe three days.

“He came back in the group and he was almost doing the stuff better than they were,” said Abdur-Rahim. “That’s why I was like, ‘That dude is a sponge.’ He might not know something the first time you mention something or the first time you introduce it. But from the second or third time and from there on, he’s going to be one of the best guys that you have (at that skill).”

Alex Lloyd, a Texas A&M video coordinator who is now the head coach at Bowdoin College, noticed early that Williams would ask questions about defensive rotations most other players wouldn’t think about. Wouldn’t it make sense if we pre-rotate on the backside, Williams asked once, so I can stay back and protect the rim?

The other coaches marveled at his combination of intelligence and unique athleticism. Williams’ teammates enjoyed his style, which was all about the team. He didn’t need the ball to make an impact. He focused instead on rebounding, defending and catching lobs. Though the Texas A&M staff initially wondered if Williams would leave during his first month at the school, he found a new family there instead. Whenever Robert was forced out of his comfort zone, Bri could trust her brother to make new friends. She compared him to his mother, a paraprofessional for young students. Near graduation time every year, Tundra puts together a bag of gifts for the children.

“If you look at that you’ll think that it’s Christmas,” said Bri. “From outfits, to pajamas, to candy, toys. She loves people, and loves seeing people happy. And he’s the same way.”

By the end of that first summer, Abdur-Rahim believed Williams, who arrived as ESPN’s 51st-ranked recruit in his class, would eventually leave early for the NBA Draft. Over time, Abdur-Rahim started to think Williams could even contend to be the first pick. One day, he called his brother, Shareef, who scored more than 15,000 points over a 12-year NBA career.

“This dude is Stromile Swift with feel,” said Abdur-Rahim, referring to the extremely athletic second pick in the 2000 draft.

Two hundred and thirty five miles away from Oil City, Williams thrived on campus. He emerged as a beloved teammate, the same way he later would in Boston. Keller called him a “pure spirit.”

Abdur-Rahim called Williams everybody’s favorite teammate. Brad Stevens would later say the same thing about Williams with the Celtics. After coming off the Aggies’ bench early in the season, Williams won the SEC Defensive Player of the Year award. He was viewed as a likely lottery pick, but didn’t consider himself ready for the NBA. He told Bri he did not consider himself mentally prepared for the jump.

“I was just nervous,” Robert said. “I think it was just everything in general. Am I going to fail? Am I not going to be as good as I think I am? Am I going to be a bust? Do I need another year of maturity?”

Brown would later urge Williams to ignore similar doubts in Boston. Like he tells himself, Brown told Williams not to be afraid of greatness.

“Me and Rob are similar in a lot of regards where sometimes we can overthink situations or allow what the outside world is saying to kind of seep into our minds,” Brown said. “Especially when I was younger in my career. Just come out and play basketball, man. Don’t let your anxiety take over. Don’t let those thoughts that you have inside of your head that’s doubting or having fear or saying that you’re not going to be able to do it, you’re going to fail. Don’t listen to that voice. Listen to the voice that’s going to tell you that you’re great. Listen to the voice that’s telling you you’re going to get the job done. And sometimes you need somebody to remind you of that.”

Those around Williams at the time told him how much he could accomplish and how much he already had. Even so, he didn’t trust it yet.

“Coming from a place like Oil City, such a small town, there were times I thought the success – scared him is not the right word – but it created expectations, right?” said Abdur-Rahim. “And the one thing about Robert, which makes him so great, is that once somebody has an expectation of him, he doesn’t want to let anybody down. He’s a pleaser. So he felt like if he let you down, that was the worst thing ever to him.”

Shortly after Williams decided to return to school in 2017, he showed up for an April morning workout with glitter in his hair. He had gone to a sorority party the night before.

“It was lime green paint,” said Rich. “I remember it clearly in his left ear. And I’m thinking, this kid’s coming back to A&M for another year because of that paint party.”

More seriously, Rich believed Williams returned to school because he “didn’t want to be a 19-year-old in New York City all alone.”

“He just literally was not ready to live that lifestyle,” Rich said.

The decision did not pay immediate dividends. Williams was suspended for the first two games of his sophomore season for a violation of team policy. He still went on to win the SEC Defensive Player of the Year award for the second straight season, but saw his NBA stock slide between the end of the season and the draft.

People who saw him work out then reported he was clearly out of shape, which Williams acknowledged during a recent conversation. He said he only did 1-on-0 workouts, which highlighted his lack of conditioning while failing to show off his passing and defensive instincts. Williams’ initial agents, Mike Silverman and Brandon Grier, held him out of the NBA combine, which Rich saw as a huge mistake.

“They made some poor decisions,” Rich said. “They didn’t let Robert Williams go to the combine. Let’s talk about that. Maybe the best athlete in the draft doesn’t go to the combine. Even if you don’t want to do all the drills, you let Robert Williams go be measured, you let Robert Williams run and jump, and more than anything, he’s such an engaging kid that if you put him in front of GMs and coaches and the people that are conducting interviews, they would sit there — even if there are red flags — and think, golly, he’s a good kid, we need him in our organization. And they didn’t give him a chance to do that.”

Grier said he didn’t think they could put Williams in front of any teams at that time.

“I would never put my client in front of NBA teams or decision-makers in the shape he was in and the level of preparedness he had,” Grier said. “So, until he was ready, we were going to keep him locked up from anybody seeing him.”

The agency set up Williams to prepare for the draft at a training facility in Dallas, but he left in a matter of days to split time between Texas A&M and back home in Louisiana. Rich said Williams didn’t do the type of conditioning and basketball training necessary to be ready for that critical time. He believed the agents should have done more to hold Williams to the right type of daily regimen.

“I don’t care if I’m rolling them under the bus because they screwed the kid,” Rich said. “They were so afraid that he would sign with somebody else that they kind of let him make his own schedule. And Rob making his own schedule at 19 or 20 years old is not what he needed.”

Grier said the agency tried its best to help Williams, sending trainers to Louisiana, but had problems getting him to show up for workouts. Williams, who eventually parted ways with Silverman and Grier, later said he jumped into the business relationship too quickly. Whoever was to blame for the pre-draft process gone wrong, Williams’ stock fell with certain teams.

The Clippers showed serious interest, but passed on him with two picks late in the lottery, setting him up for a long slide. Contributing to the fall, many teams outside of Williams’ expected range, including the Celtics, did not have access to his medical information.

After hearing Williams could slip down the draft board, the Celtics organized to hunt down why. According to Danny Ainge, the team spent about two hours in a “frantic” search for additional details on his health. The Celtics called anyone who could potentially help them out, including teams that had passed on Williams. Word had spread throughout the NBA that he was dealing with some sort of vascular issue. The Celtics hoped to uncover whether he was a draftable prospect. Because of his talent, they badly wanted him to be.

As the first round crept on, the Celtics contacted Rich. He said he impressed upon Ainge that Williams’ popliteal artery entrapment syndrome would not threaten his career or his life. Even if the condition did worsen, Rich said, it could be taken care of with a procedure that would allow Williams to keep playing.

In College Station, those close to Williams were rooting for him to land on a team with solid veteran influences. Rich said he told people he wanted Williams to play with somebody like Al Horford, who could show him the right way to approach the job. Abdur-Rahim said he did not want Williams to land on an inexperienced team with little leadership because “then you may look up in five years and he’s not in the league because he didn’t have anybody to show him, hey, this is what it takes.”

When the Celtics did pick Williams, Rich said he saw the bright side of the center’s draft-night fall.

“Golly,” Rich thought. “He lost a lot of money today, but he may make it up on the back side because he may be in the league eight more years because he’s with an organization that’s going to be good for him.”

Over the next four years, Williams would grow to believe he needed the Celtics just like they needed him.

Shortly after one of his first workouts with Jerome Allen, then a Celtics assistant coach, Williams looked down to check a text message on his phone.

“You bullshitting,” read the note.

Allen was following through on a promise he made to Williams. After Brad Stevens paired the two together, Allen had vowed to let Williams know whenever he brought an unacceptable effort level to the gym. That morning, Williams had let his coach down.

The two came to an agreement.

“I’m going to tell when you bullshit,” Allen said. “You just got to listen to me.”

Williams bought in. Some days, the workouts with Allen would seem remedial. Allen would guard Williams 1-on-1 full-court, pressuring him to work on his ballhandling. The two would practice different types of pivots. Allen would show Williams where to point his toe during certain moves. Though Williams had plenty to work on, he also had obvious gifts, including a rare ability to see the court. Allen would help Williams read the help defense to set up the passes he loved to throw.

As the two grew closer, Allen started to consider Williams misunderstood. He had a reputation for immaturity because he missed a conference call the day after the Celtics drafted him then failed to show up in Boston in time for his first summer league practice. Even before those moments, several NBA teams had doubts about Williams’ makeup thanks partially to the rough pre-draft circuit.

From the start, Allen saw Williams as a selfless person, all about the team.

“Rob doesn’t like a lot of attention,” Allen said. “And I’m not saying that he constantly carried this anxiety that came along with it, but he just wanted to be like a kid. He just wanted to be Rob. And everybody’s like, ‘Overnight, you got to become a professional.’ And that just wasn’t fair to him.”

Some people need more time to develop. Williams worked at it. With the Celtics, he could look around and see good examples everywhere. By the time he would show up to the gym, Al Horford and Aron Baynes, both fathers of young children, would be finishing their workouts. Williams could see what NBA success required.

He didn’t always believe he could even reach the league in the first place. Evans used to tell Williams regularly that he had a chance to play in the NBA one day, but he never bought it.

While Williams fought for minutes early in his NBA career, Allen needed to help build the young man’s confidence.

“He helped me believe that I can get all I want in this game,” Williams said. “He just reassured me daily, man. He helped me work on it.”

On certain days, Allen and Williams would stop talking to each other after getting into a heated argument. Always, they would move past their disagreement. In quieter moments, they would talk about family, kids and responsibilities. Williams started to realize Allen cared about him on a far deeper level than basketball. When Williams got sick, Allen would stop by the house to check on him. When Williams needed help, he found himself turning to Allen.

On the court, Williams began to find ways to impact the Celtics. Brown saw him evolve.

“Rob has made huge jumps,” Brown said. “Not just in his game, but just the mental game. Just being able to be consistent, being able to be solid, being able to be available. And a lot of that comes from confidence. A lot of that comes from self belief, inner belief.”

Off the court, Williams developed close bonds with his teammates. Jayson Tatum, who has called Williams his favorite teammate to play with, had conversations with Stevens about the big man’s importance to the team. Stevens needed no convincing. He believed last season that Williams’ growth would determine the Celtics’ ceiling. Stevens said that this season, which saw Williams make the second team all-defense during his first year as a full-time starter, has only reaffirmed that belief.

Williams regularly delivers highlights, but cares more about lifting up the players around him.

“He is a genuinely thankful person,” Stevens said. “He’s one of the great teammates around for sure. First of all, when you play with him, everything screams, ‘That’s a guy I’d love to play with.’ Does a lot of little things, defends, passes, rolls, sometimes doesn’t get the ball but opens it up for the weak side. And then when you are around him every day, he just raises the energy level. He does a good job of that. He’s gone from that kind of shy young guy, looking around, to one of the adults in the room who is ready to infuse the room with energy.”

This January, Williams named his new son Hendrix Rome Williams, with the middle name to honor Allen. Earlier this season, after Allen left for the Pistons, Williams sent him a message about how God puts people in your life at certain times, and how it was no accident they ended up working together.

“I feel like people are put in your life for a reason,” Williams said. “Even if it’s for a month. Even if it’s for a year.”

The Celtics all believe Williams has another level to reach. His sister believes he could win the Defensive Player of the Year award next season. She said he defends the basket in the same way he supports those he loves.

“If he’s protecting what’s his, he’s fine with it,” Bri said.

The Celtics are his now. And he’s theirs.

i cannot help if you made yourself not funny (forksclovetofu), Wednesday, 8 June 2022 15:25 (two years ago) link

two weeks pass...

DURING THE LATE winter of 2013, an 18-year-old curio named Giannis Antetokounmpo was turning heads in Greece's second-tier professional league. Though he was averaging fewer than 10 points per game, Antetokounmpo's physical profile, body control and vision screamed "modern-day NBA."

Only a handful of front-office executives from the NBA had witnessed Antetokounmpo in person, and only the Atlanta Hawks had brought him into their facility. Most of the league had relied on video, as well as intelligence from scouts and various contacts in the world of European basketball, for their information. What multiple front offices heard gave them great pause about the prospect.

An executive from one team that passed on Antetokounmpo in the June draft did so because the word was that the teenager was soft. For all the raw talent and upside, Antetokounmpo, who spoke no English and had limited exposure to the world outside of Greek basketball, couldn't survive in the NBA. The intel also warned that Antetokounmpo's family could be an impediment: The immigration status of his parents and brothers was thorny, and the task of getting them into the United States could present complications for a team that drafts him. Being alone in a strange city without his family, the thinking went, Antetokounmpo would struggle personally.

The Milwaukee Bucks selected Antetokounmpo in the 2013 draft with the 15th pick, one slot ahead of the Hawks, who were devastated. After a steady development period during his first few years in the league, Antetokounmpo has blossomed into a five-time All-Star, two-time MVP and NBA champion before his 27th birthday.

So far as Antetokounmpo's potentially problematic family, his filial piety and brotherly love have been defining characteristics of his success. Far from being a distraction, Antetokounmpo's devotion to his kin has been a main driver of his renowned work ethic. To the extent it informed the ultimate decision of any of the 14 teams that drafted ahead of the Bucks, the intel was a germ.

Intelligence is merely one ingredient that goes into the talent evaluation of NBA draft prospects. Yet despite extraordinary advancements in so many areas and exponential front-office growth to match, the NBA collectively is no better at projecting an elite draft prospect than it was 40 years ago.

In a landscape where the NBA's brightest minds have pushed the boundaries of the frontier, the NBA draft remains the most stubborn line of resistance. But there's one team that believes it might know something the rest of the league doesn't.
The Warriors' dynasty was formed by the considerable power of the NBA draft. The team drafted Stephen Curry No. 7 in 2009, Klay Thompson No. 11 in 2011 and, famously, Draymond Green No. 35 in 2012. Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images

THIS SPRING'S FINALS offer an object lesson in the power of the annual draft. The Boston Celtics' starting five featured four first-round picks between 2014 and 2018. The Golden State Warriors transformed from a backwater to glam franchise by drafting Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green. Younger draftees Jordan Poole and Kevon Looney also proved indispensable in the Warriors' title run.

In contrast, the failure of the Sacramento Kings and Orlando Magic to find franchise players despite drafting repeatedly near the top of the lottery have consigned them to chronic mediocrity.

One team that's had mixed results in recent years -- like most NBA teams -- is the Phoenix Suns. Unlike most NBA teams, the Suns have determined that the best way to value the NBA draft might be to not value it at all.

In a league where teams spend millions of dollars and employ an ever-growing number of scouts in a year-round pursuit to nail the June draft, the Suns, under the current leadership of general manager James Jones, are taking the inverse approach.

Phoenix's tack is as unconventional as it is anti-establishment: Not only are the Suns bucking a pronounced league trend by divesting from the Draft Industrial Complex, they're also espousing a view in the information age that less of it is better.

Michael Lopez, now the director of football data and analytics for the National Football League, examined the historic performance of the NBA at drafting in a 2017 study. Then an assistant professor at Skidmore College who had earned his Ph.D. in biostatistics from Brown University, he found that the NBA didn't improve at all between 1980 and 2017.

The flatline isn't monocausal -- there are a host of factors that range from youth to various intangibles. The most common response offered speaks to the youth of most draftees.

Both successful and unsuccessful teams rely on scouting, workouts, interviews, physical measurements, medical reports and analytics. Over the past few decades, these processes have advanced considerably. Video platforms enable a scout to watch the most granular elements of a prospect's game with the touch of a button. More sophisticated technology allows team physicians and performance specialists to spot red flags that might compromise a player's health. Psychologists assess a teenager's competitive makeup. Sophisticated statistical modeling projects how the production of a collegian or international player might translate to the NBA.

Multiple other front-office executives charged with the unenviable task of projection say confirmation bias is the most derailing factor. A scout may fall in love with a prospect in November after watching him at a college tournament and author a report to that effect. Then, as the basketball operations person now vested in that prospect's continued maturation, he continues to champion the player, even as countervailing evidence emerges that exposes the player's vulnerabilities. Like a Texas Hold 'em player who is pot-committed, the scout continues to ride hope, even with the probabilities turned.

Beyond the on-court factors, execs and scouts say it's harder than ever to project the human dynamics. Will a teenager asked to move thousands of miles from home have the life skills to manage the demands of an inordinately demanding job? How will millions of dollars affect that process? Do they have the mental and emotional capacity to buy-in to a new brand of basketball after years of dominating at every level?

Then there's the smallest of sample-size theater. James Wiseman played all of 69 minutes at Memphis, while Darius Garland played five games at Vanderbilt. Famously, Kyrie Irving played only 11 games at Duke. Top 2022 prospect Shaedon Sharpe didn't play a single game this season for Kentucky.

One executive said he's been burned by an overly cautious medical staff who raised red flags that dissuaded him from selecting a first-round prospect. Many feel that workouts, more controlled by agents than ever, are overvalued, as is performance in the NCAA tournament (see Williams, Derrick and Flynn, Jonny). Combine results can be tantalizing, though scouts and execs feel as if the league has made a proper correction on a traditional fetish -- "athleticism." Yet at the same time, some say the swing toward "basketball IQ" has moved so dramatically in the past few years, that teams might look up to find that they don't have the necessary shot creation to contend.

In 1992, 53 of the 54 selections chosen in the NBA draft were college players. In 2020, 12 of the 60 picks didn't play Division I basketball. In 2021, that number was 10. Today, teams must measure college freshmen against 19-year-olds who opted for the G-League or pro ball in Australia, to say nothing of international prospects from Africa, South America and the lower professional leagues of Europe.

All these factors fit neatly under a single rubric: No matter how many tools and how much expertise, it's damn near impossible to predict the future.

N'FALY DANTE HAS the paint on lockdown. The 7-foot center for the University of Oregon has claimed as a personal imperative this afternoon to deny any eager Oregon State opponent proximity to the basket. In this Pac-12 tournament game, he'll block five shots in 28 minutes and affect a half dozen more, the Beavers all but giving up trying to penetrate, lest they encounter Dante in his circle of hell in the key.

Out of high school, Dante was a five-star recruit, one of the best young centers in the world who was recruited by a number of big-name programs, including Kentucky. Had he not suffered knee and ACL injuries in 2020, Dante might be a projected first-round prospect.

To the naked eye -- and even an informed basketball fan -- Dante appears dominant. But Danny Gomez, 34, and Drew Mastin, then 24, who are here scouting the Pac-12 and several other conference tournaments in Las Vegas this week for the Phoenix Suns, aren't impressed. It's early on a Wednesday afternoon at T-Mobile Arena, and scouts outnumber the fans in this section behind the Oregon State basket for this not-so-anticipated matchup between the No. 5 and No. 12 seeds.

"Oregon State doesn't really have any pull-up jump shooters," Gomez says. "It's easy for Dante to be deep defensively. Very little we'll see today will tell us how well he'd defend the NBA pick-and-roll game."

Much of Gomez and Mastin's week will be spent observing imperfect college players such as Dante in an effort to find a Nikola Jokic, Draymond Green, Khris Middleton, Fred VanVleet or Jalen Brunson. Though the Suns don't currently own a pick in Thursday's draft, it's fairly easy for a team to buy into the second round if they stumble upon a prospect who intrigues them. That's why Gomez and Mastin are here -- to determine whether Dante has recovered enough of the uncommon agility he displayed prior to the injury to qualify as one of those unvarnished gems.

After Gomez and Mastin finish their work at the Pac-12 tournament, they ride 2 miles east on Tropicana Avenue to UNLV's Thomas & Mack Center for the Mountain West Conference tournament. One of the MWC players they're watching most closely is David Roddy, a projected second-rounder. A thick, 6-foot-5 fireplug with solid ball skills and a 64.5 true shooting percentage, the conference player of the year is catnip for any evaluator who is determined to find the next undervalued and positionless unicorn.

Yet as they watch Colorado State face Utah State the next afternoon, the confounding task of talent evaluation is a persistent theme. Just as measuring Dante against one of college basketball's worst teams provides little reliable insight, gleaning much from Roddy on Thursday proves similarly impossible. He's less impactful than his reputed basketball IQ implies he should be despite an efficient 6-for-9 performance from the field. He seems passive against matchups that appear favorable, and though he's clearly a strong individual defender, he seems a half-second slow to react in help situations.

The limitations of watching the Dantes and Roddys of the world play some live basketball, then projecting a 15-year career, is just one reason the scouting operation Gomez and Mastin are part of in Phoenix operates with more skepticism about the draft than those of most NBA teams. While it's still marginally useful to perceive a player's body language in a live game and immerse oneself in the temperature and tone of a game, Gomez and Mastin will leave the arena with a few notes, but no inclination to write up an elaborate report as scouts from many NBA teams would.

The Suns don't have a formal reporting system for Gomez or Mastin to feed after each game they see, or conversation they have with a college coach. Jones prefers that his scouts stay as close to the team in Phoenix as possible. Consequently, Gomez -- the Suns' lead international scout -- will spend far more time over the course of the basketball season in Phoenix than his counterparts in Europe will at their mother ships, if they return at all. Whereas most NBA teams do exhaustive work to draw up their "draft board" ranking dozens of prospects, the Suns have sworn off the practice the past three years.

"Our draft board would be a mockery to other teams," says Zach Amundson, the Suns' senior analyst of personnel and team evaluation. "By the time we were done, we had only five to seven guys on our draft board."

The Suns look with a jaundiced eye on one-and-done prospects. Jones believes that there's precious little to glean from watching an 18-year-old player in his sixth career game during a Thanksgiving tournament in person. He feels that, most days during the regular season, a Suns scout is probably better off observing Monty Williams run practice than watching a college prospect with "raw talent" play against NCAA competition. Jones regards the draft as much as a promotional pageant for the league as a pool of ready-made NBA players who can affect winning right away.

"The draft is one of many channels where we can acquire talent," Jones says. "It's the one we glorify. It's the one that comes with the excitement. And it comes with an advantage -- the ability to get productive players on low salaries, and under contractual control for multiple years. But it's just one vehicle for acquisition. You can only devote so many resources to it, and there's a different value proposition here."

That different value proposition -- less time, expense, brainpower and grunt work -- might pay dividends by simplifying the cumbersome task of appraising hundreds of amateur and international basketball players. But it could also prove to be a quixotic, reductive scheme that leaves the Suns woefully behind the organizations who scour the ends of the earth to mine for draft talent.
Suns GM James Jones, who won executive of the year in 2021, believes that a scout is better off observing coach Monty Williams run practice than watching a college prospect with "raw talent" play against NCAA competition. Barry Gossage/NBAE via Getty Images

AMUNDSON ESTIMATES HE cranked out 200 to 300 reports on NBA prospects after arriving for his first full-time season in Phoenix in 2019. For a 24-year-old eager to make an impression, it made sense to mimic the veterans in the business who pounded away on their laptops at college arenas. In the spring of 2020, Jones approached Amundson and informed him he wouldn't be reading his young scout's exhaustive reports.

Jones told Amundson that he would welcome macro-level conversations about the kinds of prospects the Suns should be monitoring, or even a holistic discussion about a specific college player's career. When Amundson determined a draft-eligible player cleared a threshold to warrant the most serious consideration of the organization, he would then assemble a thorough evaluation making his case.

The presentation, Jones told him, would include an extensive video edit, an evaluation that includes data analysis and an intelligence report. Jones would sit at the head of the conference table during the presentation and make the case against the player, thereby pressing Amundson -- or whichever member of the front office is advocating for the player -- to defend his position. Others in the room would ask questions too.

Jones played four seasons at the University of Miami before the Indiana Pacers selected him with the No. 49 pick of the 2003 draft. During his 14 seasons with the Pacers, Phoenix, Miami and Cleveland, Jones won three NBA championships, all as a teammate of LeBron James, who referred to him as "my favorite player of all time." Jones is one of 31 players in league history to make more than 700 3-pointers at a rate of better than 40%, a skill he got to showcase as a member of the Suns' revolutionary "Seven Seconds or Less" teams.

In many ways, Jones the 22-year-old player is the personification of the prospect Jones the 41-year-old GM values most -- an older player with a refined skill and a mature temperament. In Phoenix, the word "potential" is strictly verboten.

"We're not allowed to talk about 'potential,'" says Ryan Resch, the Suns' vice president of basketball strategy and evaluation. "We say 'capacity' instead of 'potential,' because capacity forces you to recognize what the player can actually do today and what he is capable of doing tomorrow."

Jones, who never played on an NBA team with a losing record, harbors an ideological opposition to the notion of a rebuild, which he finds corrosive to an organization and a disservice to fans.

"You're either trying to win, or you're not trying to win," Jones says. "If you're not trying to win, you can say what you want, but you're trying to lose. You can say, 'Well, let's go slow and win later,' but there are too many things between now and later. I'm trying to win now and win later. Players know every day in the league brings them one day closer to the end of their careers, and I can't waste their days."

"The draft is one of many channels where we can acquire talent. It's the one we glorify. It's the one that comes with the excitement. And it comes with an advantage -- the ability to get productive players on low salaries, and under contractual control for multiple years. But it's just one vehicle for acquisition."
Suns GM James Jones

Jones and his staff insist they're interested in "players, not prospects." The Suns say they apply the same criteria used to determine the value of a prospective free agent to the draft. If the player can contribute immediately, and if his skill set can fill an explicit role in Williams' system for the upcoming season, he's worth considering. If neither of those measures can be met, he's not for Phoenix.

Over the past decade, NBA front offices have undergone a movement of professionalization. The Oklahoma City Thunder epitomize this pivot away from old-world scouting and toward technocracy. The Thunder are renowned for their massive database that includes terabytes of information on virtually every basketball prospect in the past two decades that has a remote chance of sniffing an NBA career. In recent seasons, the Thunder have stripped down their team to the studs and are patiently constructing the roster piece by piece with little attention on their win-loss record, all the while stockpiling draft assets. In the parlance of the NBA, this is a tank job, and even those who find the practice distasteful concede it's a sensible strategy for a team in one of the league's smallest, least glamorous markets.

"I respect what OKC does," Jones says when asked if he has an appreciation for the Oklahoma City Thunder's more deliberate strategy. "That's what they've chosen to be, I guess. Everything's a choice. I don't judge. I respect it. It's just not for me."
If the player can contribute immediately, and his skill set fills an explicit role in Williams' system, he's worth considering for the Suns. Cameron Johnson, taken No. 11 in 2019 to much criticism, could do both. Kate Frese/NBAE via Getty Images

"PICKS ARE JUST players," Jones says.

Officially, the Suns traded away their 2021 first-round pick (No. 29) last July when they packaged it with Jevon Carter for Landry Shamet. In their judgment, they essentially acquired a 24-year-old sharpshooter in Shamet and his Bird rights. Internally, they regard 27-year-old Danish guard Gabriel "Iffe" Lundberg, whom they signed in March, as this year's draft pick, tantamount to what they could have obtained with the 30th selection, which went to Oklahoma City in the Chris Paul trade.

Jones' time in Miami playing alongside James and in an organization with Pat Riley's handprint on it has informed much of his thinking about building a sustainable roster long on veterans and short on projects. Riley told the media in 2018 in his postseason news conference, "To be really honest with you, I'm not a draft pick guy," and Jones has, in large part, adopted Riley's limited appetite for both the draft and rookies.

Jones' first draft as the Suns' lead basketball executive was 2019, when the Suns held the No. 6 pick and were coming off their worst season since their inaugural expansion year in 1968-69. The Suns' sparse draft board included Cameron Johnson, a 6-foot-9 forward out of North Carolina with range. A five-year college player, Johnson was projected by most prognosticators to go late in the first round.

"'Don't take an older guy, because there's less upside or potential,'" Jones says. "That's the narrative. 'He doesn't have as much potential to grow as everyone else. There's not enough raw physical talent and skill. Is he that much better than the freshman who is playing on the team who flashes star potential?'"

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When the Suns examined players of comparable size and positionality in the field, they determined Johnson had a greater capacity to contribute right away than Sekou Doumbouya or Cam Reddish did. They preferred his temperament as a more mature rookie on a team that needed to grow up quickly. Recognizing they likely valued Johnson appreciably more than any other team, they traded the No. 6 pick to Minnesota in exchange for No. 11 and forward Dario Saric.

The pick was roundly panned, with some detractors noting that even at No. 11, the Suns still wildly overcommitted to a 23-year-old who was the oldest lottery pick in a decade.

Johnson, who averaged 12.5 points per game on a true shooting percentage of 62.5 in 26.2 minutes per game this past season, embodies the Suns' heterodox posture on the draft. The Suns examined the player as a de facto free agent rather than a potential NBA player. They evaluated his skill set solely in the context of what it could provide Williams' preferred style on both sides of the ball. They thought about how Johnson's presence on the floor would influence the three players of greatest priority in their youth movement -- Devin Booker, DeAndre Ayton and Mikal Bridges.

With a career 3-point shooting percentage of 41.4 in 34 playoff games with Phoenix, Johnson has solidified himself as part of the Suns' prime core moving forward. For Phoenix, it further emboldened them to forgo the tedious draft boards, and zero in on the handful of players who fit their narrow criteria.

Says Resch: "We were prepared to take him sixth if we had to."

THE SUNS' BASKETBALL operations team gathers for a strategy meeting in the second week of April just before the playoffs, for which they secured the No. 1 seed weeks ago. The staff is noticeably small. Everyone fits more than comfortably in the main conference room that overlooks the practice courts of the Suns' new training facility.

When he's assessing the trade-offs of devoting less attention or a smaller budget toward draft scouting and preparation, Jones makes repeated mention of resource theory. The implication is that the Suns have a finite amount of resources and, in his words, "can't do everything."

"The constraints are not financial," he says. "We will continue to intentionally build a group that can excel at identifying the modern player as the NBA continues to evolve."

The Suns have a total 14 people employed in basketball operations, including Jones. For comparison, the LA Clippers have 14 people alone in their scouting department. Jones says he maintains a smaller staff by design.

"How big can your staff be before it becomes too much for the system to bear?" he says. "When you have 25 or 30 front-office people and scouts, now you have to tell people they can't be in our strategy meeting. I don't want certain people sitting and certain people standing. I don't want anyone here to feel like they're on the fringe, or that their voice isn't heard."

The strategy meeting in Phoenix lasts less than two hours, with everyone having a chance to speak and present.

"The people who have to connect those dots must be proximal to the actual team to know what truly is an area of need for us," Jones says. "They need to be constantly engaged with our coaching staff. A regional scout scouting games on the East Coast who is never watching our team practice has no context. This is an intimate business, and I find it really hard for people to truly understand what matters and what's of significance if they're not close to it."

The year following the selection of Johnson, the Suns drafted big man Jalen Smith with the No. 10 pick. Smith played infrequently and ineffectively, and was the first top-10 pick to have his third-year option declined. He was traded last February to Indiana.

"Jalen wasn't better than [Suns backup center] JaVale [McGee] on a competitive team trying to win a championship," Jones says. "You could say, 'If we give him opportunities he can be productive,' but what's the trade-off?"

Jones readily admits that if another unformed Antetokounmpo is toiling in obscurity in southeastern Europe, the Suns wouldn't give him much of a look. He concedes that rarely does a franchise superstar enter the draft as a plug-and-play talent -- think Dwyane Wade or Stephen Curry -- ready to contribute immediately. He appreciates that it's easier for a team in the Win-Now stage of its life cycle to roll its eyes at the faith other franchises place in the draft. But in Jones' worldview, a franchise should exist in a perpetual state of Win-Now with a combination of ready-made players, be they drafted or undrafted, and the right veterans who can support them. In short, he sees a Miami in the desert.

He even confesses that, had he been at the helm in 2015, he probably would have passed on Booker.

"It all depends on what your goal is," Jones says. "Devin is great, but there are 50 skeletons tied to that swing for the star. It wasn't until winning was imported -- Chris, Jae Crowder, drafting a three-year guy who could help right away like Mikal -- that it translated to success. And if you don't import winning around him, there are even more skeletons. So if you want to find the guy with the highest potential to be the future star, then it makes sense to draft him -- if you're willing to navigate the land mines."

call all destroyer, Monday, 27 June 2022 02:36 (two years ago) link

anyone got access to pelton's trade grades on the murray deal?

Grades for the Dejounte Murray trade: https://t.co/uVJGuWXspX (ESPN+)

— Kevin Pelton (@kpelton) June 30, 2022

J0rdan S., Thursday, 30 June 2022 17:17 (two years ago) link

How will Dejounte Murray fit alongside Trae Young with the Atlanta Hawks?

The Hawks made the biggest addition of the NBA offseason to date on Wednesday, sending three first-round picks -- two of them unprotected, per ESPN's Zach Lowe -- and a pick swap to the San Antonio Spurs in exchange for Murray, chosen as an NBA All-Star for the first time last season at age 25.

Having played point guard in San Antonio, Murray will be an interesting fit next to Young in the Atlanta backcourt. An All-Defensive second-team pick in 2017-18, Murray will undoubtedly be an upgrade at that end of the court for a Hawks team that ranked 26th in defensive rating last season -- worst of anyone to make the playoffs.

On the other side, the Spurs are dealing Murray at the peak of his value with two years remaining on his inexpensive contract. San Antonio's roster is now built around six first-round picks from the past three drafts, including three this year, with more on the way.

Let's break down what this trade means for both teams.
The deal

Hawks get:
Dejounte Murray

Spurs get:
Danilo Gallinari
2023 first-round pick (via Charlotte Hornets)
2025 first-round pick
2027 first-round pick
Future pick swap with Atlanta

Atlanta Hawks: C

Adding Murray will surely revive the age-old question of how the Hawks can utilize Young's shooting without constantly having the ball in his hands. Young's 8.7 minutes per game time of possession ranked third highest in the NBA, per Second Spectrum tracking on NBA Advanced Stats; and the 3,730 pick-and-rolls he ran, according to Second Spectrum, were 11% more than the next-highest player (Luka Doncic).

Building a heliocentric offense around Young has produced great regular-season results for Atlanta, which ranked second behind the Utah Jazz in offensive rating in 2021-22. Come playoff time, however, Young struggled as the primary option against the aggressive defense of the Miami Heat, averaging just 15.4 points per game on 32% shooting with more turnovers (31) than assists (30).

Given Young powered the Hawks' surprising run to the Eastern Conference finals in 2020-21, the question isn't whether he can succeed in the playoffs. It's whether putting so much offensive responsibility in his hands maximizes his value to Atlanta against the best defenses. Enter Murray, another high-volume ball handler who ranked sixth overall in pick-and-rolls (2,608) and seventh in time of possession (7.4 MPG).

When pairings like this have succeeded, it's typically because both players are also off-ball threats. Think Chris Paul with either James Harden in Houston (at least the first season) or Devin Booker in Phoenix. That doesn't describe Murray, a 33% career 3-point shooter who is better in catch-and-shoot situations (36% last season, per Second Spectrum) but still below average.

It also hasn't described Young, who has the shooting chops to succeed in that role (he hit a sizzling 45% of his catch-and-shoot 3s in 2021-22, 11th among players with at least 50 such attempts) but rarely plays it. He took just 86 catch-and-shoot 3s all season. The 83% of Young's field goals that were unassisted last season was fourth highest among players who made at least 250, per NBA Advanced Stats. Murray again wasn't far behind at 73% (11th in that group).

The obvious comparison when we talk about Young being more of an off-ball threat is Stephen Curry, the deep-shooting, undersized guard who has always been a reference point for Young. As Golden State Warriors coach Steve Kerr recently pointed out on the Lowe Post, that's possible partly because Curry played shooting guard his first two years at Davidson, requiring him to work on the movement necessary to get open without the ball. Unlike Curry, Young has always had the ball in his hands as he developed.

Ultimately, the comparison is unfair because Curry's combination of ballhandling and ability to wreck a defense with off-ball movement is unparalleled throughout NBA history. The Hawks don't need Young to be Curry. They just need Young to be active enough to keep defenses engaged and allow Murray room to operate with the ball in his hands.

There are two clear wins from this deal for Atlanta.

The first is defensively. Although Murray hasn't quite reached his All-Defensive peak since returning from an ACL tear in the 2018 preseason, he generates steals at a high rate and is an excellent defensive rebounder for a guard. Murray is capable of taking on the tougher defensive assignment in the backcourt, allowing Young to hide on less threatening opponents.

Additionally, the Hawks should have more hope of surviving the minutes Young spends on the bench, allowing him to get more rest. After finding a successful formula for the second unit built around Bogdan Bogdanovic in the second half of the 2020-21 season, Atlanta again struggled to score without Young last season. The team's offensive rating dropped by 10 points per 100 possessions with Young on the bench.

To some extent, I think those issues are inevitable with an offense built so much around a single player, but the Hawks will have an All-Star point guard on the court at all times now and (hopefully) won't be as reliant on Young.

Despite Murray having one of the league's better contracts -- paying him like a midtier starting point guard ($16.6 million this season and $17.7 million in 2023-24) -- adding him will still be costly because Atlanta used Danilo Gallinari's partially guaranteed salary to match it rather than that of one of the team's core players, such as forward John Collins.

By waiving Gallinari today, the Hawks could have ducked the luxury tax this season. Instead, they'll start free agency over the projected tax line before filling out their roster. Atlanta will be hard-pressed to get out by the deadline because there's so little fat to trim. All eight players making more than $3.5 million this season will be part of the Hawks' rotation.

Although adding Murray is an upgrade for Atlanta, I'm not sure it puts the Hawks in the projected top half of the East playoff standings. I'd still have them behind the Boston Celtics, Heat, Milwaukee Bucks and Philadelphia 76ers, pending additional moves this offseason. And that's where you start to wonder about the price.

As Lowe argued, giving up three first-round picks for a player on a value contract makes sense if that player gets a team to a crucial new level. The Bucks surely don't regret shelling out even more swaps and picks for Jrue Holiday after Holiday immediately helped them win a championship. But there's more room here for the Hawks to second-guess this deal.

Giving up two unprotected picks has the benefit of providing Atlanta a little flexibility to trade additional first-rounders. The Hawks can, at the moment, trade their own picks in 2023 and 2029. The downside is there's no parachute if the Hawks' future goes worse than planned. (Say, by Murray leaving as an unrestricted free agent in 2024 because his low salary makes an extension unrealistic.) Even the pick swap in 2026 in between the two first-rounders is unprotected, per ESPN's Tim Bontemps.

Atlanta is betting big on Murray fitting with Young. For the team's future, that bet better be correct.

San Antonio Spurs: A

I understand if Spurs fans are disappointed about trading an All-Star who won't turn 26 until September and has two years left on his contract. However, the value San Antonio got in return would have been difficult to turn down. As Murray moved toward unrestricted free agency and either bumping up his salary near the max or heading elsewhere, his trade value would have diminished rapidly.

By pushing the two picks from the Hawks three years into the future, the Spurs both increased the chances of those having lottery upside and timed them to land just as San Antonio's remaining young core should start paying dividends. In addition, the Spurs will get an extra first-round pick as early as next year from the Hornets that Atlanta got in the Cam Reddish deal.

For now, San Antonio's best pick is probably the team's own in 2023. It's worth remembering that the Spurs' decades of success started when a gap season due to injuries (primarily star center David Robinson) was rewarded by winning the Tim Duncan sweepstakes. I don't think it's fair to say at this point that French center Victor Wembanyama or G League Ignite guard Scoot Henderson (the projected top two picks in the recent 2023 mock draft from ESPN's Jonathan Givony) are at that level, but San Antonio can hope for a similar outcome.

There is still young talent on hand, led by the duo of Keldon Johnson and Devin Vassell. Those young players will likely struggle with the increased offensive responsibility created by Murray's departure, but those growing pains could pay off in the long term. The Spurs also should be able to find minutes for all three of this year's first-round picks: guards Malaki Branham and Blake Wesley and forward Jeremy Sochan.

Pending a possible buyout for Gallinari, San Antonio could still create more than $25 million in cap space. That wouldn't be enough at the moment to make a max offer sheet to Suns center Deandre Ayton, but the Spurs could surely get there if they want to envision Ayton as the centerpiece of their rebuild. Alternatively, San Antonio could continue the slow build by using the room to take unwanted contracts from other teams.

terence trent d'ilfer (m bison), Thursday, 30 June 2022 17:23 (two years ago) link

three months pass...

in case anyone wants to read zach lowe's thoughts on the "five most interesting players of the 2022-2023 season"

article start

It's time for our last preseason tradition -- my five most intriguing players for the coming season. We don't pick superstars or rookies. The goal is to find young-ish X factors.


Haliburton understands the franchise-defining wager Indiana placed trading Domantas Sabonis to the Sacramento Kings for him: that Haliburton could be more than a second banana whose passing genius and gregarious personality draw in everyone. The Pacers were betting Haliburton could be an All-Star -- a foundational offensive fulcrum.

"Sacramento was great," Haliburton says. "I wasn't ready to be a full-time point guard when I got there. Playing with [De'Aaron] Fox helped. But now, this is everything I ever wanted. I get to be the full-time guy. I love this."

The transition requires a recalibration of Haliburton's game, maybe of his basketball soul. He is wired to be unselfish. He reads defenses from two steps ahead and gets rid of the ball early.

"In the modern game, where guys love to hold the ball, he's an outlier," says Rick Carlisle, Indiana's coach.

Whipping the ball early empowers teammates, catches defenses midrotation and triggers ping-ping-ping passing sequences.

"There are a lot of guys who only pass if it equals an assist," Haliburton says. "That's not who I am."

Those sequences often end with the ball returning to Haliburton, and he's productive in that position as a knockdown shooter -- 43.5% on catch-and-shoot 3s -- and as a catch-and-go driver.

But the Pacers need him to score -- to sometimes hold the ball longer, take an extra dribble. Haliburton rarely gets to the rim or the line.

"This whole summer has been about challenging my mind and become more of an a--hole in a sense, offensively," Haliburton says.


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It's a tricky balance -- hunting points and free throws without sacrificing what makes Haliburton who he is. "I want to score more," Haliburton says, "but I also think I'm one of the best passers -- if not the best."

He entered camp 18 pounds heavier after working with Indiana's strength coaches, Carlisle says. (The Pacers hope the added muscle will help Haliburton navigate screens on defense and hold up better one-on-one.)

He spent the summer working with Drew Hanlen, the renowned skills trainer, on going left and absorbing contact.

Hanlen had interns smash Haliburton after one lefty dribble and pushed Haliburton to plow through the punishment. "There were entire days where literally all I did was take hesitation dribbles left and get hit," Haliburton says.

"I have plenty of videos of him throwing the ball against the wall," Hanlen adds.

Haliburton has a habit of picking up his dribble early, around the elbow, when he has a runway ahead. His intentions are good. Sometimes, he spots a pass. If the defense snuffs that, Haliburton toggles to his floater -- one of the league's best; he hit an incredible 59% on floater-range shots last season.

That accuracy will be almost impossible to sustain. Free throws and dump-off dunks are more efficient.

"We'd watch film, and [Hanlen] would say, 'You came off that screen thinking pass, and I'm tired of that,'" Haliburton says. "'Go score.'"

That mindset will help in one-on-one situations -- something Haliburton focused on this summer for the first time. "Naturally, I am not an iso guy," Haliburton says.

He will have to bail out possessions late in the clock. He also expects to face more switching defenses, and his ability to counter that is perhaps the most important big-picture question about Haliburton adapting to a first-option burden.

"Everybody wants to be the [Toronto] Raptors now, and I'm prepared for that," Haliburton says.

Haliburton can slice apart any defense that puts two defenders on the ball. He does not have the blow-away burst to consistently roast speedy bigs on switches:

But Haliburton compensates with craft. He was 41-of-98 on step-back 3s last season, and he leverages the threat of that shot with hesitation dribbles that get bigs lurching. He studied how former Pacers guard Victor Oladipo would give the ball up against switches, retreat near midcourt and get the ball back with space to rev up.

Haliburton will put in the work, and set the tone for the organization. He gets to know every staff member -- asks them questions about their families and jobs. Chad Buchanan, the Pacers' GM, first heard of Haliburton when his nephew was a manager at Iowa State University -- and told Buchanan of the star who treated everyone with respect. Buchanan began watching Haliburton. "His game grows on you," Buchanan says.

After the Utah Jazz walloped Sacramento by 49 points his rookie season, Haliburton put off his postgame lifting and asked two staffers to accompany him to the practice court. Haliburton stayed until he made 49 3s -- one for each point in the scoring margin -- from seven different spots, for a total of 343 triples. He got home around 1 a.m.

He brings the same commitment to his new team.

"I want to bring the Pacers back where they belong," Haliburton says.

Edwards strutted into his first postseason as if the NBA's biggest stage had been waiting for him all along. He seized Minnesota's offense as Karl-Anthony Towns battled foul trouble, and he averaged 25 points -- including 40% shooting on 9.5 3s per game.

He hypnotized defenders with crossovers and hesitation moves before rising above them -- or zooming through them. He hunted Ja Morant and tracked Morant on defense. He looked fearless and unfazed in a way only stars do.

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"I was having even more fun than it looked like," Edwards says. "It was the best basketball experience of my life."

With few exceptions, even teams that invest big in frontcourt stars -- as the Wolves have done pairing Towns and Rudy Gobert -- need star-level perimeter creation to chase titles. Trading everything for Gobert at age 30 was a massive bet on Minnesota's barely 21-year-old phenom becoming that star ahead of the typical pace. (Last month, Edwards apologized for anti-gay comments he made in an Instagram video.)

Those nights where Edwards looks unstoppable obscure how much work remains. He has been a below-average shooter from almost every spot. Like any young scorer, Edwards has struggled at times as a distributor -- missing passing windows, holding the ball too long. (The Wolves' offense too often ground to a halt in Minnesota's first-round loss last season.) Edwards ranked in the bottom-half in efficiency among high-volume ball-handlers in pick-and-rolls and isolations, per Second Spectrum.

But the foundation is so strong, and Edwards seems to know the path forward -- including as a passer. "I gotta start seeing the help before it's in my face," he says. "And getting off the ball early, making advance passes."

Good things happen when Edwards makes the simple play. It jolts Minnesota's offense into gear, and gets Edwards the ball back with an advantage:

When he sees them, he can make all the pick-and-roll passes -- including cross-court lefty slingshots. A D'Angelo Russell-Gobert action on one side could shift into a full-speed Edwards-Towns pick-and-roll on the other -- perhaps an easier set of reads for Edwards. Gobert instantly becomes Minnesota's best screener by miles. He's an easy lob target for Edwards, who has had issues finding bigs on the pick-and-roll.

Edwards hit 36% on 177 step-back 3s -- the sixth-most attempts in the league; he'll drill triples over drop-back schemes. Mid-rangers will always be core to Edwards' game, but he wants to turn more ultra-long 2s -- those dreaded 21-footers -- into 3s, and burrow to the rim more. (Edwards has averaged four free throws per 36 minutes; that number should get much higher.)

Edwards had only 19 post touches last season; bully-ball would be a game-changing weapon as Edwards continues targeting small guards on switches.

"My post-ups will be a lot better," he promises. "I'm working on it now. That's all I can say."

Alongside Russell and Towns, the Wolves need Edwards to be an off-ball threat too. He hit 41% on catch-and-shoot 3s last season. Duplicate that, and defenses will stick more closely to him. Edwards can exploit that attention with backdoor cuts, and needs to be a more active off-ball mover. You see glimpses -- including an encouraging habit of running into catches:

Edwards has talked about being a stopper on defense, and has the tools to do it. He's fast and well-balanced, able to slide in sync with ball-handlers. He stays under control closing out on shooters, and can wall off almost anyone chest-to-chest. He is the rare wing who offers fearsome rim protection. "I love blocking shots," Edward says. "I might get dunked on, but I'm still coming for you."

(Speaking of dunks: I asked Edwards if he was sad he no longer has the chance to dunk on Gobert. "I'm happy he's on my team -- for his sake," Edwards quips.)

His focus and fundamentals can wane; he can ball-watch and lose his assignment. "My only problem off the ball is seeing my man," he says. "I just kind of forget I'm guarding somebody." He's so confident in his speed and leaping, he sometimes strays too far from shooters -- assuming he can recover.

Edwards is also, frankly, a bad rebounder who doesn't box out. That was a team-wide issue for Minnesota; they cannot count on Gobert to solve it alone.

But Edwards sees the game on defense. He calls out coverages. He has all the ingredients of the player Minnesota needs him to be. It's just a matter of harnessing them in time.

Hunter -- fresh off signing a four-year, $95 million extension -- is a textbook case of how hard it can be for young players to find their rhythm. Injuries short-circuited every stretch of momentum -- including Hunter's scorching start to the 2020-21 season.

He entered the league as an NCAA champion and No. 4 pick, with ambitions of Carmelo Anthony-style mid-range scoring. That role didn't exist in Trae Young's offense; the Hawks needed Hunter to become a spot-up threat. Meanwhile, Hunter jostled with other young guys eager to prove their scoring chops.

"It's really difficult to establish your game when you come in with a group of talented players," says Nate McMillan, Atlanta's coach.

Hunter has bounced between roles -- spot-up guy with sprinkles of one-on-one -- but never looked comfortable in either. He has been a stilted isolation player -- unable to power through defenders his size, not quick or deft enough with the ball to get by wings. The Hawks scored a ghastly 0.823 points last season when Hunter shot out of an isolation or dished to a teammate who fired -- 159th among 198 players who recorded at least 50 isos, per Second Spectrum. He hit just 39% on mid-rangers after nailing 54% in 23 games in 2020-21.

Hunter spent the offseason training with Chris Brickley, and worked on cleaning up his handle, says Ty Jerome, Hunter's college roommate who joined him in Brickley's gym. Hunter's dribble can get high and loose. "The best wing scorers, their handle is tight," Jerome says. "Dre focused on that."

He has done well posting up mismatches -- often after screening for Young and forcing switches. Atlanta scored almost 1.12 points per possession directly out of Young-Hunter pick-and-rolls -- 52nd among 457 pairings that ran at least 100 such actions, per Second Spectrum. Atlanta milked that play against the Miami Heat in the first round of last season's playoffs:

Hunter averaged 21 points in the series, and shot 61% on 2s. McMillan vows to feature Hunter's one-on-one game -- including to punish opponents who stash their weakest defenders on him.

"You can give Dre the ball and ask him to make plays," McMillan says. It injects stylistic variety, and nudges Young to move more off the ball.

It's easier for Atlanta to get to the Young-Hunter two-man game when Hunter slides to power forward. McMillan plans to use that alignment; Atlanta's backup power forward options are unproven. That setup also gives Hunter a speed advantage against bigger defenders.

But Hunter's main job is spotting up, and he hasn't been good enough. He drained 37.5% from deep last season, but attempted a career-low 3.7 per game. Hunter passed up too many open looks to drive into nothingness. Teams don't treat him as a dangerous shooter.

"He's gotta be a spread shooter," McMillan says.

The bigger problem is shaky decision-making. It's not enough to be a 3-and-D guy anymore. You have to catch, drive and make the right read with the floor in flux.

Hunter has 224 career assists and 201 turnovers. He misses open players, and makes passes too late:

(He has the same issue on pick-and-rolls. Hunter recorded assists on only 3.4% of his ball screens -- lowest among 227 players who ran at least 100 pick-and-rolls, per Second Spectrum. Hunter shot on 66% of those plays -- second-highest, behind only Dillon Brooks of the Memphis Grizzlies.)

He sometimes overthinks after catching a kickout pass -- pass-faking and jab-stepping at ghosts, gifting the defense time to reset.

"It has to be catch and go, or catch and shoot -- not catch and hold," McMillan says.

Decisive Hunter gets places:

He is a solid defender. He's best on bigger wings and stretch fours, and Dejounte Murray's arrival should push him there. Hunter often defended waterbug point guards so the Hawks could hide Young elsewhere; Murray will do that now.

One knock: Hunter's poor rebounding; the Hawks defense has been scattershot with Hunter as a small-ball power forward.

"We need him to improve his rebounding," McMillan says. "This is a big year for him in terms of maturing and establishing his identity."

If everything clicks, Hunter could be the superstar role player every contender needs. Jerome compares Hunter's NBA journey to his time at the University of Virginia -- where Hunter rose from redshirt freshmen to top-five pick.

"I've seen this movie," Jerome says. "When he puts it together, Dre could be one of the best players in the league."

Good things happen when Toppin plays, and the Knicks should be in the business of discovering why -- and whether that effect carries over against opposing starters. That success has come despite New York playing Toppin almost exclusively alongside rim-running centers -- marginalizing Toppin's skill as an explosive screen-and-dive guy. When Toppin bolts inside for lobs, he might bump into a center calling for a lob at the same time:

New York could solve this issue by playing Toppin at center or pairing him with Julius Randle, but they likely worry about torpedoing their defense and rebounding -- weak points in Toppin's game. Toppin somehow logged more minutes alongside Jericho Sims than Randle last season, and Tom Thibodeau, New York's head coach, has not seemed interested in exploring the Randle-Toppin duo much more. (I'd do it.)

Toppin has spent too much time chilling in the corners. You spot him bouncing on his toes, begging for some reason to get moving -- to get involved. But when the ball swung to him, he mostly refused open 3s.

"We all saw it -- he wasn't confident in his shot," Thibodeau says.

Defenders ignored him to muck up the paint:

The low-hanging fruit is Toppin becoming a better shooter, and he let it fly in New York's final 10 games when Randle was mostly out injured -- drilling 26-of-58 from deep. He honed that shot over the summer, and swears he's ready to fire.

"I'm super confident, and that's the only thing I needed," Toppin says. "I felt like I had a good shot. It was just about confidence. If I shoot and miss, just shoot the next one. I know that now."

"He got better and he didn't stop," Thibodeau says. "He's always in the gym."

Improved shooting would coax defenders closer to him -- unlocking what could be an explosive pump-and-drive game. Toppin is much more effective roasting defenders in rotation than beating them in static situations.

Even in tight half-court confines, Toppin's game can sing. He is a quick-twitch playmaker on dribble hand-offs and pindowns -- secondary actions that flow out of an initial pick-and-roll involving New York's centers. If Toppin's man lunges to help on the ball-handler, Toppin slips out of screens at turbo speed. He's fast enough to get to the rim before the opposing center crosses the lane to stop him.

"He's one of the quickest I've ever seen getting out of screens," says Anthony Grant, who coached Toppin at the University of Dayton.

He's a nifty passer too, with a knack for the always fun quarterback keeper:

Toppin should set more flare screens, and even run off pindowns -- anything to keep him active. He thrives in a fast-paced ecosystem with lots of ball movement, but New York's starters -- the guys Toppin should play alongside more -- didn't fit that ethos last season. Randle was a ball-stopper. The point guard spot was a sinkhole once the Kemba Walker experiment failed and Derrick Rose got injured. Perhaps Jalen Brunson, some creative coaching and a renewed commitment to passing could remedy that -- and benefit Toppin.

He'll get the offense moving anyway. Toppin is one of the league's most ferocious end-to-end runners, and should be even more dangerous trailing fast breaks this season -- jacking 3s and pivoting into his hand-off game. He can sprint into mismatches, and seal smaller guards under the rim.

"He can run all day," Thibodeau says. "His energy is a gift. It allows us to play at a different pace, and everybody likes that."

Toppin might leak out more than Thibodeau likes -- leaving New York vulnerable on the defensive glass. "We can't run if we don't rebound," Thibodeau says. The general rule, according to Thibodeau: If Toppin challenges a shot up high, run. If he's in the paint, try to secure the rebound and then sprint.

Toppin is a minus defender at both front-court positions, but he tries and talks. His biggest obstacle is a stubborn upright stance that makes it hard for him to slide.

"He's got some flexibility issues," Grant says.

Toppin tried to crouch lower this summer in defending guards -- including Brunson and Chicago Bulls guard Coby White in workouts. "Even if I can't get low, I have to find a way to stay in front of them and contest shots," Toppin says.

Right now, Toppin is a good backup big. If he stagnates or improves only a bit, that's what he'll be. But the actualized version of Toppin is an average defender and major plus on offense -- a true-blue starter. That's what the Knicks need him to be.

Williams may be the most important young X factor in the league, and the one who feels most like a blank slate. Williams has played only 88 games in two seasons after missing most of last season with a wrist injury. He's barely 21 -- younger than Edwards and eight first-round picks from the last draft.

He returned for last season's playoffs, and embraced the assignment of guarding Giannis Antetokounmpo (and sometimes Jrue Holiday). He looked a hair more aggressive on offense, averaging 12 points, doubling his 3-point volume and nailing 58% on 2s.

Opening Week on ESPN, the ESPN App
Knicks-Grizzlies, 7:30 p.m.
Mavs-Suns, 10 p.m.

Celtics-Heat, 7:30 p.m.
Nuggets-Warriors, 10 p.m.

*All times Eastern

A major short-term leap from Williams is Chicago's best and maybe only avenue of contending in the DeMar DeRozan/Zach LaVine/Nikola Vucevic era. Williams holds the keys to their next era given the Bulls dealt three first-round picks and Wendell Carter Jr. for DeRozan and Vucevic.

He hasn't lived up to expectations on defense, but chalk that up to youth and injury. Williams should grow into a very good, ultra-switchable alpha defender. He's huge and strong, and tries hard. In his one season at Florida State University, coaches often spotted Williams lingering after practice and early in mornings with an older teammate -- Wyatt Wilkes -- peppering Wilkes with questions and having Wilkes walk him through actions, says Leonard Hamilton, the Seminoles coach.

"Unlike most kids -- 'What are my stats? What are my minutes?' -- Pat only cared about getting better," Hamilton says. "He didn't worry about the NBA. He just wanted to learn."

He asks staffers for film on elite scorers, looking for clues on guarding them. He has worked on slithering around picks, and uses his giant hands and arms to disrupt passing lanes.

Offense is the wild card. So far, Williams has been a bit player -- a reluctant corner shooter and tentative dribbler. He defaults to his one-dribble pull-up -- an important shot, but not one to overdo.

Williams has good feel and vision with the chess pieces in motion. The Bulls have dabbled in using him as a screen-setter -- with Vucevic spotting up -- and Williams comes to life in that role, flipping rapid-fire between actions and slinging smart passes in space:

Williams tripled his screen-setting volume last season, per Second Spectrum, and early indications are we will see more of that. Zipping closer to the rim should generate more offensive rebounding chances for him. The Bulls may even experiment with Williams at center.

In his best screen-setting moments, Williams is a good playmaking power forward -- think peak Aaron Gordon in that role, but well short of the apex version in Draymond Green. He has hit 41% from deep; as a spot up stretch four, he brings to mind someone like Harrison Barnes. The blend of all those role players -- the ability to shift between those identities -- is a really, really good player.

That's fine now, with Williams so young and surrounded by three recent All-Stars. But the Bulls did not draft Williams No. 4 in 2020 for him to be a Barnes-Gordon hybrid. At some point, they will want more on the ball.

Even now, Chicago's coaches and stars encourage Williams to be less deferential -- to take the reins when action dictates it. (Williams joined DeRozan in Los Angeles this summer for DeRozan's "Hell Week" of early morning workouts and lifting. He also played pick-up in L.A. with several stars.)

Those around the Bulls whisper that Williams hasn't discovered how good he is. That tracks with Hamilton. When Hamilton sat with Williams to discuss declaring for the draft, Hamilton said that Williams asked, "What if I don't get drafted?"

Williams has run a piddling five pick-and-rolls per 100 possessions over two seasons, per Second Spectrum. His efficiency on isolations has been dreadful. He has nine career post touches, and that's a tool he needs as a screen-setter -- a way to exploit smaller defenders on switches. (Teams already hide their weakest defenders on him.)

When Williams kicks the skittishness and gets aggressive, he almost looks like a different player. It's jarring. If the Bulls want that more, all they have to do is ask, Hamilton says.

"If you tell him what you want," Hamilton says, "he's gonna give it to you."

comedy khadafi (voodoo chili), Wednesday, 19 October 2022 15:59 (one year ago) link

one year passes...

so much more of this nytimes sport section type shit on there now


lag∞n, Wednesday, 25 October 2023 14:26 (eight months ago) link

I hope Pat Will makes it, just for Zach’s stock performance.

Jeff, Wednesday, 25 October 2023 16:50 (eight months ago) link

two weeks pass...

Anyone post the Lowe article on espn+ on Maxey?

il lavoro mi rovina la giornata (PBKR), Friday, 10 November 2023 15:03 (eight months ago) link

1. Tyrese Maxey and the Sixers are ... fine?

Every few weeks, one security guard at the Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia reminds Maxey of the unlikely series of events that led Maxey to the 76ers -- a rare stroke of strange luck for a franchise that has suffered some of the weirdest NBA melodramas: "Shout out Mike Muscala!" the guard chants, according to Maxey.

It is an inside joke, Sixers lore -- code that identifies a hardcore fan. The Sixers selected Maxey with the 21st pick in the 2020 NBA draft -- a pick that belonged to the Oklahoma City Thunder. The Sixers acquired it in 2016, traded it away, and then got it back in the deal that sent Markelle Fultz to the Orlando Magic. It contained a twist: Philadelphia would receive it only if it fell 21st or later; otherwise, the Thunder would send two second-rounders.

It came down to the wire in the Orlando, Florida, bubble. Muscala hit two 3s in the final 35 seconds of the Thunder's second-to-last game to help their deep reserves complete a comeback that meant nothing to that specific Thunder team and everything to these current Sixers. With that win, the Thunder pick was capped at No. 21.

Four years later, Maxey's ascension toward his first All-Star nod has the Sixers well positioned to pivot away from a spasm of deals that saw Ben Simmons and then James Harden come and go as would-be co-stars for Joel Embiid. Maxey is that guy now, averaging 25 points and 7 assists on nearly 50/40/90 shooting splits -- taking care of the ball and developing deeper pick-and-roll chemistry with Embiid every game. Maxey being this good is the most important positive thing to happen to the Sixers since drafting Embiid. If the rumblings around Embiid quiet -- if he chooses to ride out his career with the franchise that drafted him -- Maxey will be a big reason.

Philly is 6-1 after edging the Boston Celtics on Wednesday, with the league's second-best net rating. The Sixers' passing numbers are almost identical to last season's. Harden's assists and touches have been redistributed across the roster in a faster and more democratic offense under new coach Nick Nurse.

The Sixers appear much closer to title contention without Harden than perhaps even they projected during the Harden stalemate. If that sustains -- if their championship-level No. 2 option is already in-house -- the pool of players the Sixers can target with the draft picks they received for Harden becomes much wider. Their play may also afford patience: Do they have to burn assets now if they are confident the same player -- or someone better -- might be available later, or even sign into their cap space in July?

Two players the Sixers nabbed in the Harden deal -- Nicolas Batum and "Process" favorite Robert Covington -- are contributing already. The Sixers can slot three switchable wing shooters between Maxey and Embiid in combinations involving Batum, Covington, Tobias Harris, Kelly Oubre Jr. and De'Anthony Melton. Patrick Beverley and Paul Reed round out the core rotation.

The formula is working, but the Sixers need one more ball handler to fortify them. They will spend the months before the trade deadline looking, with one eye on the maximum cap space they can carve out this summer.

They have extricated themselves from the Harden morass as cleanly as possible, if not with quite the asset haul they craved. This outcome is better than either losing Harden for nothing or re-signing him to a massive multiyear contract. They have optionality and hope.

"I was prepared for one role if James came back, and if he didn't, I was prepared to be a lead guard," Maxey told ESPN.

He worked and watched film in the offseason with Embiid and Drew Hanlen, Embiid's longtime trainer. When Hanlen visits Embiid in Philadelphia for what are intended to be individual workouts, Maxey volunteers to help as the passer feeding Embiid -- leading to jokes that Maxey is an "intern."

"Joel is the most important player on our team, and I need to know how he likes to catch the ball," Maxey said. "That means post entries, when he's the trail man, everything." (Maxey is a very good entry passer, and he and Embiid love a little pitch-back action when Embiid trails Maxey in transition.)

It means lots of pick-and-roll, and Maxey is a much different sort of partner there than Harden. He has worked on slowing down, giving Embiid time to find pockets in the lane. In the opening two games of this season, Maxey was passing early -- with Embiid catching 20-plus feet from the rim. With every game, Maxey hits Embiid more in his sweet spots near the foul line.

The two are honing a mean empty-side pick-and-roll game on the left wing. Maxey loves to reject picks -- zooming away from them -- and does so much more often than Harden. It is a way for him to occupy Embiid's defender, maybe force a switch, and give Embiid daylight for pick-and-pop actions. Maxey is learning to stay in touch with Embiid on those actions -- to not outrun him. Embiid is learning how to make himself available -- when to cut, when to fade for 3s.

Maxey can punish switches with step-back 3s, but he has made a concerted effort to roast bigs off the dribble -- to reorient Philly's offense toward the rim and open up drive-and-kick chances:

Maxey is happy to make the first simple play -- the easy kickout or swing pass that keeps the machine moving. (The Sixers could stand to shoot more 3s.)

He is shooting 54% from floater range on a dizzying variety of runners -- bank shots, high-arching moon balls, hot-potato floaters Maxey flicks even before jumping. That is an important weapon against defenses that sell out to take away any pass to Embiid -- something Boston did in last season's conference semifinals.

"They say the midrange game is a lost art, but it's big for small guards -- especially in fourth quarters," Maxey said.

He has helped stabilize the Sixers when Embiid rests; Philly has outscored opponents by nine points per 100 possessions when Maxey plays without Embiid, per Cleaning The Glass.

Challenges await -- blitzes, complex help schemes, offenses that hunt Maxey. But Maxey seems up to it. He has given the Sixers a chance at stability -- something this franchise has not known for far too long.

"I work so hard every summer to get 1% better," Maxey said. "I'm ready."

call all destroyer, Friday, 10 November 2023 15:22 (eight months ago) link


il lavoro mi rovina la giornata (PBKR), Friday, 10 November 2023 15:36 (eight months ago) link

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