From an outsider’s perspective.
I have been meaning to write about the NBA for awhile now, and with free agency upon us and everybody and their brother drooling over the thought of a Terry Rozier + Cody Zeller pick and roll, I figured this was as good time to talk basketball while everybody is in the mindset. Instead of grading free-agent signings, or power-ranking teams for 2020, I want to touch on the marco-elements of the league and larger discussion topics that will be used to drive upcoming decision making of General Managers, the news cycle surrounding the NBA, and just how people are/ will approach their NBA “takes” and mindsets for the next couple of months. This is sort of like the State of the Union address with less tariff talk. But until Luminary shells out the cash for a podcast it will be another underfunded production full of typos. I will eventually post a free-agency recap (or just Tweet about it), but I need a couple of weeks to plagiarize from other people first.
There is this period between the end of the finals and the start of ACTUAL free-agency where teams, agents, and players are in constant contact regarding possible player destinations, deals, trades, etc. This isn’t anything new even though it seems to have increased in relevance, and tampering doesn’t exist anymore (lets stop this joke for good), but it creates this terrible period of fake news and speculation with the quest for truth as seemingly the last priority. This period was tailor-made for social media speculation, because any news agency, no matter how small or legitimate, can float a story and it will get ten hours of Twitter time before the real reporters with actual sources shoot it down. The real news outlets aren’t exempt to this either, the cream of the crop in the industry realize the value in creating conversations even if a story hasn’t been audited through all of the correct channels. So does this matter? In a society where people can’t agree on the legitimacy of news for real issues, it seems like the fact that the NBA has a month and a half of rampant speculation with little fact should be no big deal. But it is creating this culture where people no longer evaluate player signings and front office performance based on what actually happens, but as a comparison from an aggregate of all these speculative news stories people have heard for the last month leading up to free agency. While the trade and free-agent signing rumors are entertaining, and the NBA loves how it is a discussion feature year round, it is becoming detrimental to how people critique front office executives and their ability to do the job. The Knicks for example, are going to get crushed in the media for the foreseeable future. There is already this consensus forming that Jim Dolan (I know he is the Owner and not the GM but the logic still applies), flaws aside, should be forced to sell the team. I am not going to defend any of Dolan’s actions, and he is a clown for hyping up the Knicks big plans for free-agency on the radio, but why should the guy have to sell the team for not signing the top free agent in the class and a top 5 free agent. If all owners were held to that standard, than half of them would be selling every year. It was not the Knicks inability to sign Kyrie and Durant in a vacuum that matters, it was their inability to sign them after Knicks fans heard it was a done deal for the past five months. We are trending toward a slippery slope for GM’s where even if there is no chance of pulling off a move, but the world believes there is because of a couple of false reports, then the shifts in perception will ultimately affect the livelihood of a lot of people inside the organization. And once the ball starts to roll nobody can stop it. Nobody cares about the person or persons who ignited the initial fire, people will get fired, the team will still exist, and life goes on. This dynamic is creating an alternate reality where fans and the media have the ability to drive decision making of team because of the power of the mob. So it is time to start thinking about this seriously, is this what we really want? And who is going to start holding people accountable for their reporting?
As excited as I am to write about all of this stuff, this is the one thing I didn’t want to touch, so lets get it over with. And not because the conversation doesn’t need to be had, but because it is clouded in assumption and unknown information surrounding a dude’s livelihood. The dumbest school of thought out there, and one I refuse to believe, is that the Warriors pressured or rushed Durant to play in Game 5 because they didn’t care about the long-term consequences to his well-being, due to the assumption he was going to leave in Free Agency (it is assumed in NBA circles that Durant was going to leave in the off-season for New York or Brooklyn). That is saying the Warriors organization, which by all accounts is the gold-standard of the NBA, is so caught up in the pursuit of a fourth banner in five years that they would put the reputation of their medical staff, their morals as human beings, and an organizational standard, that takes years to mold, on the line for the ultra-slim possibility of a 3–1 comeback behind a hobbled Durant? Yes they wanted him back out there, but not because he is leaving. I don’t buy it.
But the question still needs to be asked, what exactly did the Warriors medical staff tell Durant and how accountable should they be held. I am a firm believer that at the end of the day Durant is a grown-up, a competitor, and the decision to play was his and should be his. There is a lot of truth to the assertion that nobody, even medical professionals, understands the uniqueness of the human body as much as the individual. Durant was most likely gaining confidence in his ability to move on the injured calf (usually happens over time with an injury), he proved he could shoot on it, and he turned on some David Goggins and told himself he was tough enough to play through it. After all, this is a guy who just wants to be respected for his basketball abilities, and the situation couldn’t have broken any more perfectly for him to become the savior. It makes sense he wanted to play. But did he know the risks?
- Scenario One: the Warrior’s medical staff told him the calf was obviously messed up, but there was no possibility to further injure it. That if he could play through the pain than he was good to go. If this is the case I am all for the outrage, yes people make mistakes, but at the same time just because the medical staff are behind the scenes doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be held accountable for a misdiagnosis. If this is the case, Durant’s team knows it and there is no chance he re-signs with Golden State. Also, the team needs to be proactive in determining who is accountable and what that means for their future. It should also serve as an example that when somebody’s life’s work is on the line you better be 100% certain.
- Scenario Two: the Warrior’s medical staff told him that if he tried to play through the calf injury there was a 1%, 2%, or whatever percent chance he could further injure it, or increase the likelihood of injuring something else (Achilles). If this was the case, it was likely (hopefully) a really low percentage chance of further injury or they would have just scratched him completely. Every time anybody steps on a basketball court there is an injury risk, its just whether or not they really knew the extent of the increased risk due to the already sustained calf injury. To be clear I am not even sure this is something they could have known. But if they did, the question is to what level was it properly communicated to Durant. In my opinion, if this possibility was communicated, than the medical team did their due diligence and at the end of the day the most they could do was advise and give an expert opinion. The decision to play was up to the Durant. This one really makes me feel for Durant, everybody who has ever been to a doctor hears them out and respects the expertise, but only to a point. We convince ourselves of how implausible a re-injury is. Of course you are going to try to play its human nature… and there is nobody to blame but yourself.
What does this ultimately mean? In the short term it completely reshapes the entire power structure of the league. Not that Durant was staying, but the Durant injury along with the Klay injury is probably the nail in the coffin for the Warriors as title contenders for the 2019–2020 season. Which is really weird to say considering an argument against the NBA for the last of couple of years was that why bother watching when the outcome is already set in stone (the Warriors will win). It also opens the door for Durant to stay in Golden State, but since that is almost all speculation and I have zero inside information, I wont bother. The interesting question is how this injury will be used as an example long term with regards to minutes restrictions, playing injured, and the weird personal-doctor vs team-doctor dynamic. Kawhi got absolutely destroyed in the media last year for not playing because of his lack of trust in the Spur’s doctors. They thought he was healthy enough to play, and he did not. The story of Durant’s injury is so high-profile and tragic, it is my assumption people are going to be more pro-player in situations like Kawhi’s. I have a bad feeling though, that Durant’s story is going to be used as the end-all be-all argument for every health related situation for the next couple of years. And since most of the information is not known or public knowledge, it is going to be a disservice to medical professionals AND players every time the argument is used.
Superstar Rental Service
The Dirk Nowitzki plant-your-flag with an organization and stay there your entire career seems to be becoming more and more abnormal in the “player-empowerment” era of today’s NBA. Because of this General Managers that typically don’t do well in free-agency are stockpiling assets and waiting for the next malcontent superstar to come available. We can go around in circles forever arguing what is it about young people that makes them always fantasize about greener pastures, but whatever the reason it is the NBA’s current reality. Players just aren’t attached to teams and cities like they used to be.
In my opinion, due to the recent success of the Paul George and Kawhi Leonard deals, there is going to be a shift in the accepted best practice of General Managers, which is going to lead to a flurry of truly terrible trades for players with one year left on their contracts. If barbell hip thrust Instagram videos have been any indication, people tend to copy other people, and NBA GM’s are no different. A little background, the unofficial timeline of players, especially stars, becoming disenfranchised with their current situation and demanding a trade keeps increasing. Players are using the media, or their agents to make public they are unhappy with current situation X and want new situation Y, even though they have a year or more left on their contract. Situation Y is sometimes a specific team or city, a list of teams or cities, or just a generic I am unhappy and want to leave. One of two things usually comes of this. The current team keeps the player and they play out the remaining year or years of their contract (or they sit out a year to preserve the asset… Anthony Davis). Option two is the current team takes this information as the player is leaving regardless, and tries to determine what assets can they get in return, in the form of a trade, before the player leaves? This behavior and logic is opening up the floodgates for players to come available that are still under contract. If a team trades for a player with one year left on their contract there is a good chance the player will serve as a “rental” and has the opportunity to leave after one year when they hit unrestricted free-agency. The problem, I think, for GM’s is that there have been two really successful “rental” trades of this variety, and it is going to influence an abundance of bad decisions.
- Paul George to the Thunder: PG knew he wanted out of Indiana. He told the Pacers as much the summer before his contract was set to expire. The whole world KNEW he wanted to go to Los Angeles and play for his hometown Lakers. It was as accepted as the the theory of relativity. The Pacer’s hand was forced. If they wanted anything back in return for their multi-year All Star, they had to trade him. The Lakers figured since he is coming there in a year, why bother give up any of their young talent or draft picks to get him now. Which makes sense, they weren’t in any kind of rush to make the playoffs, so sit back and let one of the best 15 players in the league fall into their lap. That left an interesting test case for the rest of the league, what is it worth or is it worth anything for a superstar on a one year “rental”. Looking at the trade in a vacuum, it doesn’t look like the home run it initially did, because Victor Oladipo morphed into an All-Star and Damontas Sabonis is insanely skilled. Which in this case is the incorrect scale to grade it on because the version of Oladipo they traded was severely different from the current version. The Thunder traded a couple of role players for a top 15 player on a one-year deal, and proceeded to convince him to stay. It was an A+ outcome for a team that, post-Durant, was regressing quickly and needed to put somebody next to Russell Westbrook. George to LA was viewed as such a certainty that him staying in OKC, for less money than he could’ve gotten in Indiana even, gave Brian Windhorst a slight seizure on national television and simultaneously opened a whole new jar of possibilities for Superstars who are unhappy.
- Kawhi Leonard to the Raptors: I will be quick on the background with this one because it happened so recently. When it is all said and done and Bill Simmon’s kid wants to take over the family business by trying to look back and rank every trade in NBA history, there is a good chance this one will be near the top. Kawhi lost faith in the Spur’s organization, medical staff, or both, and decided he wasn’t going to play for them. Much like Paul George it was generally accepted lore that Kawhi was destined for LA (Clippers), has one-year left on his contract, and the Spur’s hand was forced because they didn’t want to lose the asset for nothing. The Raptors traded DeMar DeRozan, Jakob Poeltl, and a first round draft pick for a Kawhi Leonard, and Danny Green, who might still leave in free-agency next week. The caveat, they won their first NBA championship in franchise history on the back of Kawhi. He could leave July 1st, not say goodbye, shit talk poutine, and the trade would still be a home run.
So two trades that served as rentals worked out, one guy re-signed against all odds and common knowledge, and one guy won a championship, why wouldn’t the rental strategy keep working? Short answer it could. But my argument against it is that both of the teams who traded for the star were in unique situations where they had to change something up. Oklahoma City had recently lost Kevin Durant to Golden State, there only incumbent star Russell Westbrook had not signed a contract extension after an insane season averaging a triple double with one of the highest usage rates of all time, and a first round playoff exit after making the conference finals the year before. OKC needed a piece to put next to Westbrook to convince him to stay long term, and prove to him that they would do whatever is necessary to try and create a winner around him. The Toronto Raptors were an Eastern conference heavyweight during the regular season for the better park of four years, but they would continually get humiliated come playoff time to the point that people would discount all of their regular season wins. After getting swept by Lebron and the Cavs in the playoffs two straight seasons, Toronto had to make a change (well one besides firing their coach after winning coach of the year). These circumstances made it a lot easier for the two organizations to defend the need for a one-year superstar rental. But over time people are going to forget the details and logic behind these deals, and use “The Kawhi trade worked” or the “Paul George trade worked” as an argument to trade for guys for with year left on the contract. In a couple of years the Suns will give up a first for Ben Simmons, and he’ll Airbnb for a year until he signs with LA.