March, 14, 2014
By Chris Paul
Special to ESPN.com
Special to ESPN.com
I am just one of 450 players fortunate enough to be a part of the NBA; all of us are playing the game we love, in front of the best fans in all of sports. As we move into the second half of the season, I can tell you that my teammates and competitors around the league have an intense and primary focus -- putting it all together in the stretch run to the playoffs. Win or lose, these are the moments we work for all year long.
And while what happens on the court is essential, I have another privilege off the court -- to lead my fellow players as President of the National Basketball Players Association. As a member of the L.A. Clippers, my job is to compete fiercely against the other guys in the league, but as the elected head of our union, my role, which I take with the utmost seriousness, is to protect the interests of every player, and to preserve the health and integrity of the game of professional basketball.
I serve with player representatives from every team and with an Executive Committee of players who spend countless hours worrying about everything from critical business operations and necessary benefits and assistance for our players to the overall image and reputation of the league. While more people follow the game of basketball than follow the business of basketball, without question the NBA is a serious business, and one that wouldn't exist without the commitment of our players. Alongside our partners in this endeavor -- NBA Commissioner Adam Silver and team owners -- my fellow players and I accept and welcome our responsibilities for growing the game and enhancing the fan experience now, and for long after we've retired.
Working with our Acting Executive Director Ron Klempner, we've spent the past year reviewing and reforming the core policy infrastructure of our union, creating an organization that is strong, strategic, transparent and absolutely accountable to our players. Most notably, over the past many months, the NBPA's Executive Committee has been engaged in an extensive process and exhaustive search for a new Executive Director to lead the day-to-day operations of the union. For your average fan, this may not sound so important, but for our players, it's a big deal. Our next NBPA Executive Director will help define and shape the decisions that will govern the direction of the NBA in the decades ahead.
As ball players, we know a lot about recruiting, so in an effort to conduct a thorough and professional search, we partnered with outside consultants to identify over 200 professionals from the worlds of sports, law, labor and business who might be qualified to lead our union. Our Executive Committee has devoted the time, resources and energy necessary to narrow down this quality pool of potential candidates. During our All-Star Weekend Winter Meeting, we devoted virtually all of our time together to discussing the process that we've engaged in, and the procedures for considering and voting on our next Executive Director. We also heard from our leading candidates for the position to date, and players attending were able to take their measure.
I've been encouraged by the passionate interest in the outcome of these deliberations -- player agents, corporate sponsors, team owners, sports journalists and NBA fans. And while some of these interests have been critical or skeptical of the very deliberate steps we've been taking in this process, it's a testament to the commitment and passion we all have to protect our players and ultimately the game we all love so much. But make no mistake, the decision about our next Executive Director will be made by NBA players, in a process that has been and will continue to be open, transparent, painstaking and professional.
One of our greatest challenges as an organized group of players is managing the logistics that require us to be constantly moving throughout the country. However, we're in the last stages of implementing a plan that will allow every player to consider the candidates, discuss their merits with teammates and fellow union members and very soon, vote on new leadership for the NBPA. The process has taken time, but we know it has been time well spent.
Speaking on behalf of our Executive Committee and player representatives, getting this right has been far more important than just getting it done. This decision will be important to every current player, to our players in the years to come and to the sport of basketball itself. I'm excited and confident about the outcome, as the result will produce the strongest and most-qualified NBPA Executive Director to lead us into a great future for the NBA and our fans.
March, 14, 2014
By Steve McPherson
Special to ESPN.com
Special to ESPN.com
ESPN IllustrationThe zone. That semimythical place that all athletes strive night in and night out to reach. When LeBron James went off for a career-high 61 points against the Charlotte Bobcats recently, he said, “It felt like I had a golf ball, throwing it into the ocean.”
The Minnesota Timberwolves’ Chase Budinger knows a thing or two about that feeling, and the pressure that comes along with it.
“When I was playing,” he says, “I was getting close to my other high and once I finally beat it by 10 or something, then I was able to relax a little bit and just keep going. Once you’re past it, the pressure goes away. The pressure is in getting close.”
Just how far did Budinger sail past his previous career high? He nearly doubled it, finishing with an unfathomable 327 points.
In Flappy Bird.
The mobile game sensation might have been taken down from the iTunes App Store and Google Play, but that hasn’t stopped it from consuming nearly the entire Timberwolves’ locker room. Budinger is at the top of the team leaderboard right now, and by a mile.
"Ricky [Rubio] is second," explains Ronny Turiaf, who brought the game to the team and seems to be the makeshift commissioner of the Wolves’ Flappy Bird league. "He has 187, and I’m third. I got 113."
Though Turiaf’s quest for second recently turned tragic. "Two days ago I was at 112 and one of my friends texted me and he made me lose,” he says. “So I told him that right now I’m not very happy with my friendship with him."
Budinger will be difficult to top; he has a deep yet nuanced understanding of the game and what it takes to win. "All you do is tap the screen," he says. "The bird flaps and you gotta go through tunnels. The way to do best at that game is you need to be somewhere alone and quiet. I think on the plane is a good time to play. Or on the bus, even though you’re moving a little bit."
"Right now," says Turiaf, "Chase is claiming that when you play without the sound, it helps you get better."
Apparently, there’s one player who needs to put it on vibrate. Asked who on the team is the worst, Turiaf replies, "By far, and I mean by far: Corey Brewer."
"I think his high is six," Budinger says.
Brewer, trotting through the locker room behind Budinger, growls, "Get off me, man. I got seven. Seven's my high."
"I kinda gave up when the scores starting getting to over a hundred," Robbie Hummel says. "Because I’m never going to get that. I was, like, 48. And at the start, that was in the mix. I stopped playing because I got so far out of the competition."
But even those who are out of contention keep tabs on the contest, which everyone says has been a source of excitement during a largely disappointing season for Minnesota. "It's fun when everybody's on the same page and playing and competing against each other," Rubio says.
As in any competition, though, accusations of impropriety are bound to surface from time to time. Photoshopped high scores were rampant on the Internet at Flappy Bird’s height, but Budinger insists everything's on the level within the Wolves organization.
“I tried to cheat and take a picture from the Internet, but they wouldn't believe it,” Rubio confirms. “I just have to practice,” he says.
Turiaf is more concerned that Budinger has been juicing, so to speak. “He plays on a different phone. He plays on a Samsung, I play on an iPhone,” he says. That gives him an advantage? “Ricky and I feel like it does, because his phone is bigger. Bigger resolution, so we feel like he has an advantage.”
Although creator Dong Nguyen recently told Rolling Stone that he’d consider bringing the game back, right now there’s no way for Turiaf and Rubio to upgrade to a Flappy Bird-equipped Samsung.
“Unless Samsung wants to call me right now,” Turiaf says. “This is me just trying to let them know that I'm looking for a Samsung, so if they want [me] to do any kind of appearance, all they have to do is just call me up and I'd be more than happy to do something with them. Hello, Samsung! Hello! Hi! I'm available, and I’m not expensive.”
Just don’t call him while he’s playing Flappy Bird.
March, 13, 2014
By Henry Abbott
Victory in hand, the dominant equation for both became: Big mouth + bigger ego = the verbal victory lap. Any quote book is loaded with Churchill’s high-testosterone patter. Jackson’s latest book, ostensibly about teamwork, has a title that has only to do with Jackson. Michael Jordan didn't win "Eleven Rings." Neither did Kobe Bryant or Shaquille O’Neal or Scottie Pippen. Only Phil did.
Jackson is expected to return to the NBA, as a New York Knicks executive, packing not just a lot of the NBA’s gravitas, but the majority of it. Add up all your other coaches, players and experts. If Phil says they’re full of it ... his voice is even money to carry the day.
That has to be a big part of why Jackson could mean so much to a team like the Knicks. The common denominator of their dominant commonness has been bad front-office decision-making, specifically one high-profile overspend after another. There's no arguing James Dolan is an owner without a clue, determined to bludgeon the competition not with his insight, but with his wallet -- a method that, for a bundle of league-wide cap reasons, always makes teams difficult to improve and almost never ends in titles.
Jim McIsaac/Getty ImagesPhil Jackson's resume alone isn't going to erase the Knicks' woes
The Knicks might already be the world’s most over-loved team. New York hoops fans, those hopeless romantics, have been dashing their hearts on the rocks of false optimism since the days of Patrick Ewing. Remember when Zach Randolph was the revolution? Amar’e Stoudemire? Carmelo Anthony?
Time and again, Dolan has gotten his man. Time and again, like Charlie Brown, the fans have believed. Time and again, the only thing needed to prove Dolan got the wrong man has been time.
Will this time be different?
I’m convinced the answer is no, and not because Jackson’s the wrong guy, but because this is the wrong time.
It’s too late. The league is changing too fast, learning too much, and Jackson, for all the open-mindedness that once led him to the novel and wonderful triangle offense, has been telegraphing his incuriousness for more than a decade.
This is not just basketball’s boom time for analytics, it’s also, as Nate Silver wrote recently in ESPN The Magazine, when analytics become basketball necessities, as opposed to niceties. From the stew of SportVu, Catapult and Vantage comes things that really matter: which pick-and-roll defenses stops which ball handlers, which offenses generate the best-quality looks, who plays good defense, the right number of hours to sleep before a big game and, increasingly, which players need to come out of the game right now before their fatigue-induced injury risk skyrockets.
It’s not that any one person knows ALL the right answers. It’s that no ONE person knows all the right answers. Much of this new stuff will prove to science bunk, but the best of it is exponentially better by the day. The only right answer is to be curious.
And at that, the league has passed Jackson by. All his books, all those interviews, all that insight into his thinking, and has he ever even once told of finding value in insight from a younger generation? Or, indeed, from anyone beyond his chosen short list of apostles?
Jackson spoke at this year’s MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference. As he did, I took notes, but I soon stopped. There was no point. Other than a rude joke about needing a “grain elevator” to weigh Shaq, these were all things told previously. The oft-recited Gospel According to St. Phil. His conversation was a museum piece, the recurring soup of the words “Michael Jordan,” “Kobe Bryant” and “Scottie Pippen” that Jackson has been ladling out forever.
More importantly, Jackson was not at Sloan to learn. Never has been. Tuning people out, and discrediting them even, is also a mainstay of Jackson’s game -- just ask Jerry West, or Jerry Krause.
Jackson’s Lakers never bothered to attend the stat-geek confab, and the Lakers were famously the only NBA team not to have a representative there last year. Jackson’s generic public take on basketball innovation has long been, essentially, that Red Holzman and Tex Winter knew all that stuff.
At Sloan, Jackson bragged of once playing O’Neal 48 minutes per game -- on the same day sport scientist Michael Regan, of Catapult Sports, explained how resting after stints of just eight minutes dramatically improved performance in Australian Rules Football, a league that’s enjoying massive injury reductions league-wide thanks to science-based things we've learned only in the past decade.
It’s not that Jackson can’t make the Knicks winners. He might. Indeed, as the argument goes, at least he has won, unlike everyone else in the building. But he’s sending all the wrong signals if the task is to outclass 29 other teams in a race starting in 2014. That prize will, almost certainly, go to whoever best masters new ideas, about which Phil says, basically: Who needs ‘em?
The cautionary tale here of course is in Charlotte. Michael Jordan also filled the staff with like-minded friends. But, of course, a great executive is far more than a great player who lost his spring or a great coach who tired of travel. Without piling one good decision on top of another, the team is lost. The Bobcats did everything Jordan’s way for a while, until the competitive forces humbled even Jordan, who now listens not just to his gut and his friends, but also to people such as new executive Rich Cho, who is effectively the team’s ambassador from the post-Jordan, Sloan-infused world of hoops insight.
Jackson and the Knicks aren't playing the exact same tune as MJ and the Bobcats -- they have deeper pockets and more intricate team-building experience -- but they’re sounding a lot of the same notes.
March, 13, 2014
By Jeff Schwartz
Special to ESPN.com
Special to ESPN.com
As a longtime and ardent supporter of the National Basketball Players Association, I am deeply troubled by the clandestine process to date in the search for the union's next executive director.
This is a critical hire for the players, who have been impacted so negatively by the most recent collective bargaining agreement. Salaries are down leaguewide, contracts are shorter and include less guaranteed money than they once did, and free-agent movement has been curtailed significantly at a time that NBA franchises are reaching record valuations. Leadership from the union's next executive director is essential to the ability of current and future generations of NBA players to restore many of the critical benefits that were lost in the last round of negotiations. But here we are again witnessing a search marked by the sort of troubling secrecy that has been synonymous with the NBPA for years.
One of the most frequent complaints voiced by players and agents against the previous regime was the union's obsession with secretive practices and compartmentalization. The expectation moving forward was that the NBPA would start to insist on transparency in everyday business operations and in the search for its next leader. The NBPA, however, has unbelievably yielded again to opaque methods in choosing the next union leader. This approach can no longer be tolerated.
The only way to repair the damage that has already been done, in my view, is to bring an immediate stop to the current process and then start the executive-director search over from scratch with a much broader approach.
Transparency in NBPA matters is essential for the healthy functioning of the union and for restoring the confidence and trust of players, agents and the public. Aside from a short meeting at All-Star Weekend in New Orleans -- which only a small percentage of players attended -- information on the search process has been withheld from anyone beyond the union's nine-player executive committee and a handful of NBPA staffers. No one else has been provided information about who was considered for the position, what qualifications were sought from the candidates, and how those qualifications were valued. Aside from the executive committee, furthermore, no one else has been afforded the opportunity to meet with and/or screen any of the purported candidates.
Despite the fact that it was widely reported in the media during All-Star Weekend that there are two finalists for the position, their identities have yet to be publicly disclosed. I've also spoken personally with a number of qualified candidates who either dropped out of the search due to the cumbersome process or say they were ruled out of the search without explanation. This is far too important a decision to be made via such an uneven process.
The next executive director should not be selected by a small group operating in a cone of silence. Players and agents alike should be involved in the process. They should be asked to identify possible candidates, provide their input regarding candidates and, most importantly, contribute to the composition of a list of finalists that is openly distributed to players and agents for consideration and vetting before any candidate is put forward for a vote. The union's announcement at All-Star Weekend that the process will proceed with players receiving video presentations from the two reported finalists is a rushed process at best and a manipulation of the process at worst. Players and agents have the right and responsibility to meet and question candidates face-to-face.
As strange as this sounds to me, I recognize that the prospect of involving player agents in this process is seen as a thorny issue by some in the union. I would counter by saying that the interests of agents and the players they represent, both individually and collectively, are indivisibly intertwined. Agents stand with their clients on the front lines of CBA negotiations with the NBA and represent players' interests during the draft and in contract negotiations with NBA teams. As such, we are stakeholders in this sport on a parallel plane with our clients and should have a voice in determining the NBPA's next leader. And from a strictly economic standpoint, no one is better versed in understanding what it will take for a new executive director to be successful in negotiating with the NBA than the agents.
All the proof you need can be found in the limitations of the current CBA. If the union and executive committee members had listened to some of us during labor negotiations in 2011, perhaps today our players would be rightfully sharing a larger piece of the NBA economic pie. Instead, our players will lose billions in revenue over the life of the current CBA thanks to the 7 percent decrease in their share of basketball-related income from the previous CBA, as well as the knock-on effects of shortened contracts and an increasingly punitive luxury-tax system on NBA teams that acts as a de facto hard cap.
At a time when some are projecting that NBA franchise values will cross the $1 billion threshold in the near future, only 58 players in the league are earning in excess of $10 million annually. Only six players are earning more than $20 million -- and five of those six players signed their original contracts under the guidelines of the previous labor deal. In Major League Baseball, by contrast, 22 players will make $20 million or more this upcoming season.
The union's interim executive director stated recently that there is a "healthy middle class” in today's NBA, with an average salary this season of $5.6 million and more than half of the league's nearly 450 players earning more than $2.6 million. But that “healthy middle class” is greatly exaggerated, with 72 percent of NBA players earning at or below the league average salary and 47 percent making less than $2.6 million.
Many of the fundamental benefits that players struggled for decades to achieve have been wiped out by the deal that ended the 2011 lockout. What is the union's strategy to reverse these trends? As the NBA moves forward into what we all hope will be a period of sustained growth and prosperity, it is incumbent upon the union to give its players every opportunity to share fairly in that growth and prosperity. The selection of the executive director who will lead the NBPA in this critical time in its history is crucial to making that happen.
The process leading to that selection, accordingly, must involve all of us who are concerned with the well-being of NBA players. The players have earned the right to find the most astute union head to protect and expand their interests in the 21st century. The next 10 years in the NBA are poised to be enormously profitable thanks to the fast-rising valuations of media rights and the global demand for the sport of basketball. The players have to make sure they are not left behind. The best way to do this is to bring the current process to an immediate halt and relaunch the executive director search again with the involvement of a larger group that includes the agents.
Jeff Schwartz is the president of Excel Sports Management. Excel's NBA clients include Kevin Love, Blake Griffin, Deron Williams, Paul Pierce, Tyson Chandler and Kemba Walker.
March, 12, 2014
By Daniel Nowell
Special to ESPN.com
Special to ESPN.com
About a month ago, the Portland Trail Blazers were in a bit of a shooting slump heading into a matchup with the Oklahoma City Thunder. During Terry Stotts’ pregame media availability, a reporter asked the coach why the shots weren’t falling.
"Well all you guys in the media have been saying it was coming since November," Stotts responded. "So I guess now you can finally write it.”
It was a relatively banal remark, a coach’s show of exasperation with ginned-up media narratives, but it struck me for two reasons:
First, that the tone was uncharacteristically defensive for Stotts, and second, that it seemed to suggest that the team was bracing for impact on its way back down to Earth. A typical Stotts response, in a good mood, would be something like, "We’re happy with the shots we’re getting, and we’ll keep taking them." Instead, what he said was closer to acknowledging that the Blazers know they’re going to be judged by their early-season success, and they’re resigned to riding it out.
If that’s reading a lot into a single quote, it’s inarguable that the mood around the Blazers’ season has shifted, and the standard they set in November and December is a large reason why. ESPN’s own Kevin Pelton has written that the Blazers are likely "doomed" to the West’s No. 5 seed in the playoffs, a fate most fans would have called a best-case scenario in October.
Elsewhere, fans are clamoring for better play in close games, even as the Blazers recently enjoyed a two-year run as one of the more charmed crunch-time teams in the league. While the length of the NBA season has many side effects, few are more jarring than the collective amnesia it seems to induce.
But the current unease among Blazers observers gets to an interesting question: To what extent are players fixed entities, and when, if ever, can fans expect them to change? A useful reference here is Jason Quick’s recent Oregonian column. Quick argues, and I largely agree, that the Blazers have grown stagnant in close games as they revert to familiar tendencies -- post-ups for LaMarcus Aldridge, long jumpers from Damian Lillard, and a sometimes limiting determination from Nic Batum to hunt shots for his teammates.
Early this season, all these tendencies were a recipe for magic: Aldridge can get a shot on the left block against any defender, Batum has uncanny vision from the wing, and for a long while, Lillard’s hero-ball proficiency was unparalleled. But now that the bounces are going the other way, the Blazers can look unable, or unwilling, to change their formula.
All of which may just be fine. I've written in the past that the Blazers’ success stems in large part from the fact that every player is allowed to play not just to his strengths, but also to his preferences, and that allowance provides an unusually stable foundation. The Blazers are allowed to be themselves and learned early that it produces winning basketball. But when it stops working, is that, too, a referendum on the players themselves?
The Blazers are either free of, or lacking, a superstar player or coach who might offer them some structure in this regard. There are teams whose successes and failures -- LeBron’s Heat, Thibodeau’s Bulls -- revolve around the focal points of those stars, providing an easy cover when things turn south. Jimmy Butler’s shot is off? Thibs is running him ragged. Chris Bosh struggling? He’s just getting used to the spacing with LeBron in the post.
Without those high-wattage focal points, the Blazers are also without easy scapegoats. By most considerations -- and certainly by the players’ consideration -- Aldridge is the Blazers’ cornerstone, but he isn't the sort of star who exercises a gravitational pull over a whole organization. The same goes for Lillard, the only other real candidate for this designation. The Blazers’ collective approach to success is refreshing in the era of alpha dogs and hot takes, but it all denies a certain emotional satisfaction to fans craving context for the ups and downs of a season.
I can’t help but wonder sometimes whether a team’s quality is fixed, and the season is a six-month-long exercise in introducing complicated story structures. If you were to tell Portland fans that the Blazers were a .667 team that neatly lost the third of every three games, I’d imagine they could sit back and more or less contentedly await the playoffs. But the coin, even a weighted one, rarely flips so consistently, and so fans get streaks and lulls onto which they can graft their hopes and insecurities.
So depending on how you look at it, this team is either complacent or comfortable with itself, and depending on how you look at it, that's either a strength or a weakness. The Blazers have mostly sustained the relatively minor injuries they've faced, they aren't really integrating anything new, and they’re ahead of where most analysts projected them to be. They seem to be what they are, which is an uncomfortable position for fans, who would like to believe that all of the margins can be tightened and every weakness addressed.
But the Blazers believe they’re the same team now that they were in November, and it seems unlikely they’ll change their minds 64 games into the season.