When Will NBA Plan Its Return?

Did Dinwiddie Spill the Beans?

NBA Commissioner Adam Silver has not specified a return date for the league but a seemingly innocuous tweet by Nets’ point guard Spencer Dinwiddie could have let the cat out of the bag. Replying to a tweet by sneaker designer, John Geiger, that said, “June 21st NBA Back”, Dinwiddie replied, “That’s just practice... I heard those last 5 games at bubble site start July 15th.”
Although that July 15th date might not be precise, it certainly is in the vicinity of what the whispers have indicated surrounding a return to action. A total of 20 teams have opened their facilities to players this week for voluntary workouts with a maximum of four players allowed at one time.
One of the issues facing the NBA, as well as all other professional sports, is that there are different timelines for different states and even cities to reopen. Therefore, a ground zero of sorts is the most likely answer with Disney World in Orlando, Florida being the frontrunner to house the athletes and conduct the games without fans in attendance. Testing for the COVID-19 virus would be mandatory for all of the players and Silver has expressed his desire to hold a full postseason with each round consisting of the current best-of-seven format.
In a roundtable discussion with Donald Trump, Houston Rockets owner, Tilman Fertitta, commented, "I think what they're doing is waiting to see what happens in certain states and if we're going to be able to play. Making sure the virus continues to go in the right direction in the next few weeks. And I think that if things are going in the way that it's going, I think the NBA, the commissioner Adam Silver, who has done an unbelievable job through this, and the 30 owners will make the decision to try to start the season up again."

Who’s Better than LeBron?

At 35 years old and in his 17th season, LeBron was playing like a man on a mission prior to the shutdown of the league due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Last season King James had not assembled his court but now with Anthony Davis in a Lakers’ uniform, there is little slowing him down and, in fact, a case could be made that he is still the best player in the league. His Lakers are in first place in the Western Conference and LB has plenty to do with that.
Yet, some could point to the NBA scoring leader, James Harden of the Rockets and his 34.4 points per game average, or the Greek Freak, Giannis Antetokounmpo, scoring nearly 30 points per game and hauling down nearly 14 boards per game. But Lebron’s league-leading 10.6 assists per game to go along with his 25.7 PPG scoring average is a testament to his ability to sink the rock and keep his teammates involved.
But not everyone agrees, especially former NBA star Paul Pierce. “What has LeBron did to build up any organization from the ground? I’m talking about these players, Top 5 players,” Pierce said on ESPN. “Bill Russell built the organization of Boston, Kareem, Magic, Jordan, Tim Duncan, Kobe, Bird. These guys are all-time Top 10 players who helped build their organization or continued the tradition.”
Few would agree with Pierce’s assessment and most chalk it up to bad blood between the two. LeBron is a historical top-five player on anyone’s list but the debate that rages the longest and most virulent is the one which pits LeBron and the previously undisputed king, Michael Jordan.
The recent 10-part documentary, “The Last Dance”, has given younger NBA fans a chance to see how impactful and masterful Michael Jordan was during the Chicago Bulls reign of supremacy during the 1990s when he won six titles over a span of eight years. But one man who faced Jordan at the height of his powers was diplomatic when discussing who’s better than whom. Magic Johnson declared LeBron the best all-around player but Jordan was the greatest ever….ah, what?
Let’s let Magic speak for himself, "First of all, let's not take anything away from LeBron James," Johnson said, speaking on Stephen A. Smith's The Last Dance special. "Because LeBron James is a great basketball player, one of the all-time greatest that's ever played the game. LeBron James to me, when you think about all-around basketball players, he's probably the best of all time. But when you want to say 'who's the greatest ever?' — it's still Michael Jordan. Now, LeBron James' chapter is not closed yet, right, he still has some basketball to play. So maybe he has a chance to catch him later on if he can get some more championships under his belt."
LeBron or Michael – Michael or LeBron? You can’t go wrong with either choice but whatever you do – don’t listen to Paul Pierce.

Jordan vs. LeBron: The Intersection of American Culture & NBA Clutch Performance

The unparalleled love for NBA superstars that perform in the clutch is unlike anything else in sports. Kobe Bryant’s one-on-one style in the closing moments of games was heir to Michael Jordan’s legendary finishing blows. Their emphatic fist pumps and rousing chest pounds are etched into our collective sports consciousness. We never forget grand finishes capped by an athlete's unwillingness to lose. Fans eat it up—and understandably so. Our romanticization of such impressive individual achievements is deeply ingrained into American culture. There is something so perfectly American in this easily digestible action of a single player "winning a game." We love things that are impressive and simple. I believe this provides insight into our reverence of NBA players that singlehandedly perform well in the clutch. That is, until LeBron James came along.

LeBron did not fit the mold. Here is a 6’8” 250-pound beast who can do virtually anything he wants on a basketball court. Unlike anyone else, he scores and plays defense while orchestrating and executing like a coach. His physical stature and play mirror everything that we traditionally admire. And yet, many find his game unsatisfying. He looks and feels like he should be a Jordan- or Kobe-type and yet he self-identifies and plays more like Magic Johnson. He “passes too much.” Somehow the future Hall-of-Famer, who has mastered the game on a level never seen before, is criticized for how he plays the game. The tension is palpable in how we idealize success through traditional masculinity and how many players (and coaches) in the newer generations approach a game's final moments. The undying love for the Jordan/Kobe-style singular determination is battling it out against a team-first LeBron-style strategy. Old school vs. new school.

Here's how I articulated my feelings in another one of those Kobe/Jordan/LeBron conversations recently with a couple friends: We need to identify and answer a few simple questions regarding the desired outcome of end-game situations. 1) What’s the goal at the end of the game? (Hit shots.) 2) What’s the best way to do that? (Get a high percentage shot.) 3 How do you get a high percentage shot? (Create one for yourself or someone else.)

A great closer wins games. The false equivalence of winning games as an individual to winning games as a team is mistaken. “Putting the ball in the hoop” is the goal—it doesn’t matter who does it. In fact, the goal of a leader in any field should be to achieve a desired outcome no matter who receives credit. A leader recognizes the strengths (and weaknesses) of all team members and puts the team in the best position to succeed. The pass that leads to the shot doesn’t lead to the same glory, chest pounding, or snarling face of victory that does a one-on-one buzzer beater. Kids don’t grow up on the driveways of America pretending to pass to teammates in the best position to hit a shot or layup. We chant “3…2…1…” and launch a fade-away shot as time expires to the invisible crowd going wild. It’s the American Dream in a moment.

The irony, which I am more than happy to acknowledge, is the imperfection in equating last second shots to team success. There are 48 minutes in a regulation basketball game, so for me to examine the final 24 seconds as the only important ones would be to oversimplify the complexity of the path to success. Nonetheless, I think there is something to be said for LeBron’s success in the recent decade and a half where specialization and NBA talent has made it harder for repeat champions to occur. In the past few years, the Golden State Warriors are another excellent example of optimizing the new-school approach to success (read: wins and championships). Despite relying strictly on one of two of the best shooters of all time, Curry and Klay, or two of the best scorers, Durant and Curry, the Steve Kerr offense always looks for the best shot. The team with the best individual talent somehow also leads the league in assists. Even in the Mark Jackson era, one of the shots that has stuck with me was a Jarrett Jack to Draymond Green layup to win the game vs. the LeBron Miami Heat. That shot featured Steph Curry and Klay Thompson on the floor.

Yes, Kyrie’s shot in Game 7 of the 2016 NBA Finals will immortalize him in a moment. Yes, Michael and Kobe fans praise their end-game tenacity. But more recently, the evolution of basketball has trended toward a LeBron/Warriors-style approach to win. The slow turn towards using five players to win a game instead of one is gaining acceptance. Superstars know that they can win one-on-one battles, but when it becomes one-on-three or more… It’s time to acknowledge the goal is to win as a team not always as an individual. Appreciating grit and determination should be praised and yet not synonymous with the strategic pursuit of success.

Kevin Durant to the Warriors: A Case in Loyalty, Hypocrisy, Failure & Success

What would your reaction be if an NBA MVP and scoring champion elected to join your team via free agency? As any Warriors’ fan, my first reaction was pure ecstasy on July 4 when I received my barrage of texts about the signing. The oft-cited Bill Simmons expose dissects thoroughly how Warriors fans have been tumultuously thrown around over the course of recent decades. We've all been witness to that roller coaster veering sharply upward in recent years. Now that team represents the league’s Goliath. The 2016-17 Golden State Warriors will be one of the league’s most intimidating super-teams. Kevin Durant, Stephen Curry, Draymond Green, Klay Thompson…it is undoubtedly a powerhouse team unlike any in NBA history.

It feels ironic that the team from Silicon Valley rose just as meteorically as its tech industry. Apple, Google, Facebook, and Snapchat…and now the local Warriors. The David Lee pick-up set the stage for the Andre Iguodala acquisition which eventually led to this??!!

After reading 100s (probably thousands) of tweets, watching too many rants by “experts,” and reading all the hate on reddit and my own Facebook feed, some guilt started to creep in. We earned our championship and our regular season record through the draft, and small but smart moves started to naturally add up. Is Kevin Durant crossing the line of too much? How did Golden State end up ripping the thunder out of Oklahoma City? And where does loyalty fit into the greater picture of the NBA?

Assessing "The Decision"

Three questions here that are repeated again and again: should the Warriors feel guilty for hoarding a disproportionate amount of the league’s elite talent? Do we blame the Thunder ownership for failing to make re-signing Durant’s best option? Do we blame Durant himself for a) leaving OKC and/or b) joining the team that beat him in the Western Conference Finals? I think this all fits into a more complex picture that casual NBA fans prefer to neglect for the simplified one. As Daniel Kahneman wrote in Thinking Fast and Slow, we often elect to substitute our answer to an important target question (how should the movement of elite NBA talent be regulated by the league?) with the heuristic question (should Durant have left OKC to join the Warriors?). And the result of this substitution, as I will discuss later, is a tremendous amount of hypocrisy. Resentment from other teams and fan bases would be quite different if they were a part of the Warriors fans or organization. As Jim Rome said, “[the Warriors are] playing the same game as everyone else. They’re just playing it a helluva lot better.”

The Warriors should be praised rather than vilified for acquiring Durant. Golden State drafted the vast majority of its core. Stephen Curry (drafted 2009), Klay Thompson (2011), Draymond Green (2012), Harrison Barnes (2012), Festus Ezeli (2012) were all homegrown products. Not unlike Oklahoma City, who drafted three MVP candidates (Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, James Harden) in three consecutive years, 2007-2009, both teams relied on strong drafts to make themselves competitive. Isn’t this exactly what teams like the Boston Celtics do? Stack assets, become competitive, and hope to acquire a superstar?

The glaring difference between the two teams (GSW and OKC) was their respective desires to retain talent. OKC couldn’t make up a $4 million difference to keep James Harden. They instead opted to take Kevin Martin, Jeremy Lamb, and three draft picks. Harden wanted a $60 million contract; the Thunder stayed firm at $55.5 million (per ESPN). Perhaps it was fitting that, as reported by Royce Young, OKC majority owner Clay Bennett (net worth around $400 million) spent his final weekend courting Durant from a Holiday Inn Express. Warriors majority owner Joe Lacob, by contrast, doled out in 2012 what was at the time a risky $44 million contract to Steph Curry. He took the heat (and boos) for trading away fan favorite Monta Ellis that same year. He paid Klay Thompson and Draymond Green when the time came to do so. The front office hired a general manager with no GM experience (Bob Myers) and paid a coach who had zero coaching experience (Steve Kerr). Both have gone on to win NBA awards at their respective positions.

OKC general manager Sam Presti failed to do (among other things) what I recognized and have said since this site’s inception over four years ago: trade Westbrook. Now, in the twisted irony, Westbrook will, in all likelihood, be the last piece of their core to be traded. Presti could never quite get the right surrounding pieces to calm KD and Westbrook in their love-hate relationship. As we have already seen, the hate in that relationship will be highlighted in weeks to come. 

Despite all of OKC’s success, a cloud of unease always lingered over Chesapeake Arena. Coaching and managerial decisions in OKC's isolation offense made shots a competitive asset. In Golden State's fluid, assist-heavy offense they aren't. One more win in their 2016 season may have relieved that tension enough to sign the pair of superstars to contract extensions, but that win didn’t happen. Where OKC failed, Golden State succeeded. And Durant, after struggling for nine years, wanted a taste of true success. Wouldn’t you?

I think it can be universally agreed upon that Kevin Durant had every right to leave Oklahoma City. Even Stephen A. Smith agreed to that. (More on Screamin’ A. later.) The corollary to OKC’s front office failures is that KD had every right to leave.

Losing hurts a player’s image, and if one’s image is hurt, so is their brand. The Jordan brand still looms large over the NBA, and there is no doubt that the tech-centric Bay Area would have appeal for Durant, a Nike-sponsored and brand-conscious athlete. I wrote in 2013 that, in part because of the area, Golden State would soon be better than OKC. Who would’ve known that on July 4, 2016, the Bay Area would poach OKC’s once-in-a-generation superstar? This brings us to good old random chance.

Injuries happen. Suspensions happen. OKC has had more than their fair share of injury history with Durant and Westbrook over recent years. Golden State never knew if Curry’s ankles would last. The Warriors dealt with both injuries and suspensions in 2016 and didn’t use either as an excuse for losing the NBA Finals. Whether it was Curry going down against the Blazer, Draymond being suspended for Game 5, or Bogut exiting with injury in the Finals, injuries and the unexpected happened. To what degree did it impact the outcome? Who cares. All the theoretical simulations in the world may have ended in a Warriors repeat instead of a Cavs upset, but none of that occurred in the actual 2016 NBA playoffs. There are enough “what ifs?” in NBA history to prove that random chance is ubiquitous.

Loyalty and Hypocrisy

Cleveland Cavaliers fans were just as quick to jump on the excuse train when they lost the 2015 NBA Finals as they were to burn LeBron James’ jersey in 2010. Yet somehow LeBron forgave the city. The city loved LeBron once again. Most impressively, LeBron forgave Cavs owner Dan Gilbert who bashed LeBron as narcissistic, selfish, disloyal, cowardly along with the empty and ultimately false claim that he would bring Cleveland a championship before LeBron earned his first. How many people can say that they willing went back in to work for a boss who publicly shamed them? And the team bounced back in 2016.

Once Durant announced he was leaving, the jersey burning insanity reappeared. No loyalty, some fans cried. Nine years apparently means nothing. All of the community work means nothing. The MVP and Finals appearances mean nothing.

Loyalty in sports is rare and it is a two-way street. And let’s take a minute to remember a few moments just in the past decade that put loyalty to the side:
  • Kobe Bryant asked to be traded from the Los Angeles Lakers more than a handful of times. In the end, Phil Jackson and Shaquille O’Neal were ousted. Kobe is still praised for loyalty to LA.
  • Derrick Rose was born and raised in Chicago. This off-season, Chicago dealt him away to the New York Knicks.
  • Dwyane Wade is the Heat. He is Miami. Few athletes are the face of their city more than Wade is to Miami. Pat Riley and the Miami mafia were supposed to take care of him. He is now a Chicago Bull on a near-$50 million contract.
  •  LeBron James famously departed Cleveland for South Beach. We all know what happened from there.
As a San Francisco Giants fan, I also watched All-Star second baseman Jeff Kent leave SF and eventually play for the rival Los Angeles Dodgers. Closer Brian Wilson signed with the Los Angeles Dodgers after being an instrumental part of our 2010 World Series run, the first championship San Francisco baseball had ever seen. What about guys who like Johnny Damon, Roger Clemens, and even Babe Ruth who jumped from one side to the other side of arguably sports most historic rivalry?

Let’s revisit the (lack of) loyalty that Oklahoma City showed its own guys. James Harden. Serge Ibaka. Scott Brooks. What about the “original sin” when ownership decided to rip the franchise from Seattle? If a team can’t show loyalty to a city…is there even such a thing as loyalty in sports?

Now for the most ridiculous hypocrisy that I’ve seen. Stephen A. Smith had a tantrum over Durant’s decision to bolt David to join Goliath. Yet, like Sporting News wrote, didn’t Smith himself leave a small newspaper to join the “biggest name in sports news”? Charles Barkley also chimed in. (After all, his favorite pastime is ripping anything to do with the Warriors.) Did amnesia kick in when he said Durant is “cheating” to win a title? He demanded a trade from the Suns and ended up with two future Hall of Famers in his own career. Smith and Barkley, in particular, are prone to oversimplification and negligence of facts. They give nice soundbites, yes, but a ten-year-old with a keyboard could write 140-character tweets with the same superficial opinions.

Carmelo Anthony gets criticized for taking too much money and not prioritizing winning. Miami will likely be criticized for failing to give a past-his-prime Dwyane Wade his money. LeBron has gone from loved to hated somehow back to loved again by most NBA fans. And unlike Durant, LeBron had a televised decision and a party where he proclaimed “not one, not two, not three…” Somehow, opinion re: the Warriors have gone from “73-9 means nothing because they didn’t win a championship!” to “how is a 73-9 team getting Kevin Durant???” Maybe in light of the lack of consistency in response to stars moving around the NBA, none of this is all that surprising.

One of the 2011 NBA Collective Bargaining Agreement's goal was to help small market teams. It backfired when the new TV deal ballooned the salary cap for all 30 teams. If anyone deserves criticism, it’s Adam Silver, NBA owners, and the NBA Players Association for all agreeing to a system that tries to spread talent across the league. Losing the player max contracts could be one way to fix "a broken system." This would force teams to either spend a huge amount on one superstar player or spread the wealth among lower-tier stars.

People are going to find something wrong when they are on the losing side of a trade or acquisition. Did OKC fail to put themselves in position to keep Durant? Yes. Period. Did the Warriors put themselves in the best position to acquire him? No doubt about it. Was there luck involved? There always is. But to blame Durant and the Warriors for using the system to their advantage is to blame Sam Hinkie for tanking in Philadelphia. It is misplaced blame. Look to those who set the rules of the game to question the “fairness” of the rules; you might be surprised to find that those who agreed to the rules are the same ones complaining about them. Don’t blame the Golden State Warriors who played by the rules and successfully optimized their ultimate goal of winning. Especially when it is a group of guys with character and class.

Former NBA commissioner David Stern made a highly scrutinized decision when he vetoed the Chris Paul to the Lakers trade (a trade that I thought should’ve gone through despite having a vested fan-interest in it being vetoed). Conveniently, a Laker fan recently wrote to me that the Kevin Durant to the Warriors trade should have been vetoed just like that Chris Paul trade.

I’d be willing to bet he would’ve been just fine if the Lakers had acquired the future Hall of Fame point guard.