TrueHoop: Kevin Arnovitz

NBA's new replay center will help game

October, 24, 2014
Oct 24
Arnovitz By Kevin Arnovitz
OfficialsAndrew D. Bernstein/NBAE/Getty ImagesThis season, NBA referees will be aided by a replay center in N.J. that will help them make calls faster.
SECAUCUS, N.J. -- “I love this,” said Joe Borgia, the NBA’s senior vice president of replay and referee operations.

Borgia and his team devised a true-false quiz on the NBA rulebook for a group of journalists and we were bricking question after question. A few minutes later, the video portion of the test wasn’t much easier. I denied Kendall Marshall continuation when he was fouled on a drive to the hole, and it wasn’t until Borgia’s aide replayed the reel frame by frame that I saw my error. On first watch, I swore Marshall gathered the ball, planted a foot, then took two additional steps before going up. But in slo-mo, Marshall took only the two permitted steps after cupping the ball against his torso -- totally kosher. I was dead wrong.

Even as Borgia dinged us, the exercise was all good times, but the underlying message was obvious: Officiating professional basketball is inordinately difficult for mortal beings. On Tuesday night when the 2014-15 season opens, those mortal beings will have a little more help from the shiny, new NBA Replay Center at NBA Entertainment’s headquarters in Secaucus, New Jersey.

That means when you see game officials at an NBA arena this season gather in front of the monitor at the scorer's table after a play triggers a video review (there are now 15 instances when that happens), those officials will be looking at clips, images and angles that are curated at the replay center by an individual who is not only well-versed in the arcana of the rulebook, but who has no other priority for three hours than to monitor the game in question from nine different camera angles. Standing behind that person, quite literally, will be a senior NBA honcho -- for example, Borgia, Rod Thorn (president of basketball operations) or Kiki VanDeWeghe (senior vice president of basketball operations).

“Here was the issue that we wanted to solve,” Steve Hellmuth, the executive vice president of operations and technology, said. “The referees would huddle, come over to courtside. By the time they got there, frequently the broadcasters and the production guys had already shown the answer maybe three or four times. Then [the officials] are looking at the video and our referees are looked upon as slowing things down. It’s, ‘Why don’t they know. I already know.’ Well, now during that time interval, we’re going to be working with the video.”

In past years, NBA officials relied on broadcast producers to provide video of a play. If a ref at the scorer’s table wanted a baseline angle or the precise moment a point guard gathers the ball during an off-ball foul call, he’d have to ask for it. The producer in the truck could have an Emmy to his name, but he might not know what a “gather” is and probably wouldn’t ace Borgia’s rulebook quiz either.

Borgia recalled the simulation the league performed during the five games of the NBA Finals. Game 1 in San Antonio had been rough, and before Game 2, he asked the producer for a few new angles, including the overhead camera. Borgia’s request was granted quite literally -- the replay team had the blimp shot for Game 2.

When basketball officiating lifers communicate with even the most talented live game producers on the planet, a lot can get lost in translation. But an officiating lifer like Borgia, his charges at the individual game consoles and the refs on the ground share a common vocabulary.

“We speak the same language,” Borgia said. “We don’t have that issue. When [game officials] come on, we sort of know what they want, whereas a producer, as great as they may be, ‘OK. Clear path? What the hell is a clear path?’ They don’t know the criteria. We’ve got it set up. We’ve had some [preseason situations] as short as seven seconds of video.”

The change in process and personnel will undoubtedly speed up the replay process, which is crucial for a league that sees flow as one of its greatest edges over sports such as football and baseball. The way Borgia, Thorn and Hellmuth explained it, the replay center -- decked out with nearly 100 monitors, 14 very cool individual game consoles each featuring nine camera angles, six more behind those, the presence of wise men with decades of collective NBA experience -- will tee up crystal-clear evidence that will make the call abundantly obvious. It’s almost as if the replay center is making the call ... except that it’s not, which the NBA is very intent to emphasize.

In the view of the league’s top basketball operations people, officiating is an experiential task that must be performed on the court of play. A guy sitting in Secaucus can’t hear a power forward tell his defender, “Do that again next time down and I’ll beat your ass,” and he can’t get a clear decibel reading of the intensity of the game. Technology is an aid, but it’s not a substitution.

“From our standpoint, we don’t want to take it away from a referee right now,” Thorn said from the replay room Thursday.

But if Secaucus has already watched the sequence one frame at a time from three optimal camera angles and is certain of a call before a game official has picked up the monitor, why not just furnish him with the call? If the goal is to (a) get the call right and (b) make that call as quickly as possible, isn’t the most efficient route to say into the game official’s ear, “Chicago ball”?

“Two years from now, that may be,” Thorn said. “Down the road, yes. Right now, we want to make sure we get this thing right and god knows what the glitches may be. So far everything has been fine but we’re not in the regular season and I’m sure some things will come up that we’re going to have to deal with. Our feeling was that we’ll leave the ultimate decision in the hands of the on-court crew chief with his guys for right now. But there may come a day when you have a chip in your ear, you’re running down the floor, you wave your hand about a 3-point shot and Joe Borgia says, ‘His foot was on the line. It was a 2,’ so you don’t even have to go over to the table.”

We have been on that incremental path for some time now. Though this is the first season of the command center, replay is now 12 years old. There will be a day in the future when thermodynamics might be the best way to determine contact on a foul call or motion sensors can detect traveling. The game will always look different -- and from the vantage point of a console in New Jersey, toggling between nine angles, frame by frame over Eric Bledsoe’s crossover from Wednesday night’s Phoenix-Clippers game, it looked mesmerizing. If the NBA’s investment in technology pays off, it also will look more fair than ever.

Can the Clippers own the future?

October, 16, 2014
Oct 16
Arnovitz By Kevin Arnovitz
ClippersNoah Graham/NBAE/Getty ImagesThe Clippers, once L.A.'s indie darlings, have gone mainstream. Is the future theirs for the taking?
The Ballmerization of the Clippers and the rejection of “eternal Clipper hell” doesn’t mean Los Angeles isn’t still a Lakers town. Clippers fans know that, and many of the lifers wouldn't want it any other way. The team has long been an expression of sports counterculture, a dive bar for NBA-crazed Angelenos who can't tolerate the velvet-rope club, Team Bukowski. Tribal identities are difficult to shake, no matter how much history evolves.

One of Los Angeles’ newer tribal identities is “eastsider.” Much of the cachet that used to belong to the city’s westside has moved that way, and these neighborhoods on the downtown side of Western Avenue have caught fire. Westsider Baron Davis could see it coming three years ago.

This year’s cult television comedies, “You’re the Worst” and “Transparent,” are set in Silver Lake and neighboring environs, and their thirtyish characters claim eastside citizenship as an element of their urban identity. Ryan Gosling and James Franco have planted stakes in the neighborhood. Are these real and fictional people Clippers fans? Unknown, but spiritually that’s where they live. If they’re not, their kids, unburdened by the past, will be.

There has long been a civic obsession in Los Angeles about the future, probably because there isn’t as much of a past. The city has been playing a game of catch-up with its eastern brethren and San Francisco for more than a century, and has never stopped building. That’s a nice ethic for a city to have, but it also encourages Angelenos to get lost in a fantasy of what the city will look like. The most alluring feature of Spike Jonze’s “Her” last year was his imagination of Los Angeles’ near future -- a dense urban paradise, greener, walkable; a warmer, more communal place that still gets more than 300 days of temperate sunshine.

Given current trends, would the Clippers be a better representative of that future Los Angeles than the Lakers? It’s hard to say, but the normalization of the Clippers under Steve Ballmer, Doc Rivers, Blake Griffin and Chris Paul means this is a legitimate question for the first time. According to an ESPN Sports poll, NBA fans are far more likely to switch allegiances -- OK, bandwagon hop -- than fans of other sports. Los Angeles is a young and diverse market that's obsession with the future only compounds the possibility a championship-caliber Clippers team could make up ground, especially if the Lakers swing and miss on the league’s marquee free agents and stop playing basketball in May and June. At least that’s the thought.

The Clippers as the city’s team of the future isn’t a bad piece of casting. When a glossy mag wants to showcase the next-wave American athlete on its cover, it brings Griffin in for a shoot. With Griffin, Paul and DeAndre Jordan in the leads, the product on the court is fast, physical ... modern. Meanwhile, the Lakers limp to the starting line with a couple of aging, brittle Hall of Famers seven seasons or so past their prime and a few adhesives.

Under an owner who, as a matter of principle, believed that capital investment is a gimmick, the Clippers lagged behind most of the league in areas of innovation. With Ballmer and Rivers presiding, the organization has expanded its analytics operation, pushed its way to the front of the line for snazzy tools that used to be the domain of the Texas triumvirate and are listening to cutting-edge health specialists. With no real guiding principle other than the preservation of tradition for its own sake, the Lakers were the lone holdouts at the 2014 Sloan Sports Analytics Conference and still regard the European market as a novelty.

[+] EnlargeBlake Griffin
AP Photo/John LocherCan Blake Griffin become the face of Los Angeles sports once Kobe Bryant cedes the throne?
Los Angeles’ core is more dynamic than most, but power and wealth are still concentrated in the 310. The Clippers are beginning to gentrify the basketball landscape in town, but it’s not as if Paul, Griffin and Rivers are moving next door to Jimmy and Gretchen from "You're The Worst" or hanging out on York Boulevard -- they live west. And no matter how unsightly the freak show gets, the Lakers will continue to rule, at least for a good while. Fifty-two percent of NBA fans in Los Angeles call the Lakers their favorite team. The Clippers draw only 12 percent. Kobe Bryant is the favorite of 55 percent of those fans, while Griffin checks in at 4 percent. Those numbers will move in the coming years -- and they already are. The Clippers clocked in at only 2 percent to 3 percent just three seasons ago, while the Lakers have tumbled considerably from 70 percent. But turning Los Angeles into a Clippers town still might not occur in Ballmer’s lifetime.

The Loy Vaught-Michael Cage contingent in Clippers Nation might not care if the team closes the gap, but the silent majority would love to see counterculture turn mainstream in Los Angeles -- and so would the organization. Pioneering new territory is all well and good, but you still need somewhere to eat in the neighborhood, a reliable grocery, some decent coffee and a dry cleaner that’s worth a damn. Ballmer didn’t spend $2 billion for a boutique storefront; he wants to own the block.

What will that take? Aside from hanging some fabric alongside the sleek new LED fixtures at Staples Center, Griffin evolving into an iconic star. As the old trope goes, the NBA is a superstar league and the Lakers’ dominance is as much an expression of Magic and Kobe as it is the rings. Bryant will soon retire, and when he does that 55 percent will come off the board and it’s Griffin’s for the taking if he can parlay his crossover appeal into broad approval.

Demography and rivalry aside, maybe the better question is whether it matters at all. Does a team need to win the popular vote in its market to affirm itself or its fans? The revenue from a more robust local cable deal would be nice, especially since Ballmer figures to be spendy, but Clippers fans might just prefer to keep the chains out of the nabe, and Griffin as their indie hero.

Is one trip to the free-throw line enough?

October, 1, 2014
Oct 1
Arnovitz By Kevin Arnovitz
WestbrookAndrew D. Bernstein/NBAE/Getty ImagesThe action stalls out when it's free-throw time. Would the NBA be better off granting just one shot?
I went looking for a photo of a free throw to accompany this story. Finding an appropriate image is tougher than you’d think.

A search for “Free Throws NBA” on Getty Images yields about 25,000 results, the majority of which are close-ups of the individual shooter, usually a name player. In a good number of those pictures you see a guy looking at middle distance wearing more than a blank look but less than a game face. A foul shot is one of the few moments during a game when a photographer can snap an unobstructed shot of a star. Absolutely nothing of substance or style is going on -- no acrobatics, broken ankles or rare feats. It’s a scene that could be re-enacted by any 10 fans in the crowd.

About 26 times per game last season, the action screeched to a halt and players shuffled to their spots to watch a 15-foot set shot. An NBA game featured 47 of these moments on average. It creates a world, as HoopIdea described more than a year ago, in which exhilaration quickly gives way to deflation.

Intelligent people can debate the virtues of the free throw, whether it’s an appropriate deterrent, a necessary evil, etc. But it’s hard to argue that the 15 to 20 minutes it takes to administer several dozen free throws in an NBA game aren’t the most forgettable moments of the night. Any editor charged with trimming the fat from the story would inevitably tag these blocks as the place where the narrative drags. There’s a reason rebroadcasts often skip over free throws, and why at games thousands of fans almost reflexively check their smartphones the instant a foul is whistled.

Around last season’s All-Star break, preliminary chatter began among the league’s basketball operations folks and rule geeks about the prospect of reducing all trips to the free-throw line to a single foul shot. D-League president Dan Reed and Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey were the closest thing to co-sponsors of a bill. Nobody was proposing anything to be fast-tracked, but an imperative to figure out ways to shorten pro basketball games gave the idea some life as something to consider implementing in the D-League.

The concept was this: A player fouled in the act of shooting or in a penalty situation would attempt only a single free throw. If that player was shooting a 2-point shot or in a penalty situation at the time of the foul, the free throw attempt would be worth two points. If that player was fouled in the act of launching a 3-point shot, he’d go to the line for a single shot worth three points.

By doing so, those 47 attempts per game would be whittled down to about 26. There’s no hard data on the average length of time it takes to shoot a pair of free throws, but my stopwatch clocks it at approximately 45 seconds from the sound of the whistle to the second shot reaching the rim. A trip to the line for a single technical or an and-1 situation, though, takes about 30 seconds. These numbers vary wildly. (Walking from one end of the floor to the other after a loose-ball foul takes an eternity, whereas a shooting foul in the paint is a short commute. You also have a fair share of Dwight Howards who can be timed with a calendar.) But we can fairly approximate a second or third free throw as a 15-second exercise. Using that estimate, scrapping 21 free throws from a game would shave more than five minutes of stoppage from the average NBA or D-League game.

“We’re an entertainment product, and the more free flow in basketball, the better,” Morey said. “All the surveying supports that. Basketball is better when basketball players are playing basketball. Stoppages mean less basketball, which is boring. It also means an over-instrumenting of the game. It’s a beautiful game and the closer you can get to two well-prepared teams playing back and forth without interruption or over-management, the better.”

Four rules last season ranging from reducing the number of timeouts to demanding that teams facilitate quicker substitutions trimmed a total of two minutes from D-League games. That’s not insignificant, but it’s a fraction of the five minutes that would be saved if the D-League went to a single free throw. And those five minutes come entirely during a stoppage of live play, unlike, for instance, a measure to shorten a quarter from 12 to 10 minutes, which would snip eight minutes of game action.

Reed kept the conversation about free throws alive on calls and informal conversations through the spring, and the D-League’s Basketball Rules Committee took up the issue at their August meeting. By that point Reed had departed for a position at Facebook and, without a vocal advocate, the committee decided not to pursue the idea any further.

“It’s an interesting concept,” said Chris Alpert, the D-League’s vice president of basketball operations. “But as we discussed it further with the basketball guys, we just felt it would be compromising the integrity of the game and players’ statistics. We didn’t want to skew a player’s free-throw shooting percentage and we didn’t want to compromise the purity of the game.”

In support of the skewed stats argument, the D-League brandished stats that showed that players convert the second of a pair of free throws at a better rate than the first (for D-Leaguers, 71.1 percent vs. 76.3 percent; for NBA players, 73.2 percent vs. 77.7 percent). The trend holds for three-shot trips, as well, as players get progressively more proficient from the first to third attempts. On single attempts -- which would be every trip to the line under the proposed reform -- the D-League shot 71.8 percent, while the NBA shot 72.8 percent.

Would eliminating second and third free-throw attempts drop the league’s overall free-throw percentage? If you believe the data would translate to a single-attempt system, then yes, slightly. But a reform would have absolutely no bearing on the competitive dynamics of the game. The foul line isn’t being moved out or in, and scrapping a second and third free-throw attempt would affect both teams equally. Free-throw percentages have been variable throughout time (they were added after the advent of basketball, and even then, their current point value and the location of the shot weren’t settled until 1895), floating from the low to high 70s for the last 50 years or so. Meanwhile, the D-League instituted international goaltending rules in 2010, which has resulted in additional field-goal and blocked-shot opportunities at the rim, particularly for big men. Individual stats have undoubtedly been affected.

A degree of randomness that didn’t previously exist would be introduced into individual games. For instance, a 75 percent shooting clip at the stripe wouldn’t necessarily yield 75 percent of the available points on a given night. Let’s say a guy makes four trips to the line -- three of those attempts for two points each, but one for only a single point (an and-1 situation). Hitting three of four (75 percent) might only yield 71 percent of the available points (if the miss comes on one of the two-point attempts). Or it might yield 86 percent of the available points (if the miss happens to come on the and-1 attempt).

But over the course of the season, this stuff evens out and the overall mathematical effect is close to nothing.

The more likely reasons the proposal didn’t gain more traction are more cultural than empirical. Apart from being at least marginally profitable for those who invest, the D-League has two central mandates as an enterprise:

  • Provide an environment in which talent can develop the skills to succeed in the NBA
  • Serve as the NBA’s research and development lab

These two missions are in no way mutually exclusive, but they coexist with an occasional degree of tension. Certain voices in the game place a higher degree of import on one objective over the other. A basketball lifer who experiences the game as a former player and is rooted in certain fixed truths might place a higher premium on continuity than a blue-sky thinker whose appreciation for pro basketball are driven by a passion for innovation and imagination for what basketball should look like two decades down the road. We’ve tackled many of these ideas over the last few years at HoopIdea.

[+] EnlargeDan Reed
Gregory Shamus/NBAE/Getty ImagesDan Reed is officially out of the NBA innovation game. Will another big thinker take his place as D-League commissioner?
Reed was squarely in the innovation camp and his departure has been met with some sadness among the league’s futurists. Morey and others have characterized Reed as a guy who understood how to fashion new ideas and how to temper the anxieties of those who might be nervous about their implementation.

That’s a difficult balance to strike and one reason why identifying Reed’s replacement is a very big hire for the NBA and the D-League. The hope in midtown Manhattan is to have a new president of the D-League in place before its season begins in mid-November. A bias toward innovation is essential, because the gravitational pull among much of the league still veers toward institutional tradition, even if new commissioner Adam Silver is a change agent at heart.

The dead-ball free throw conversation is instructive of these conflicts between tradition and innovation, development and research. It’s far easier to believe that this particular idea got shot down because a radical proposal that feels alien to the game we know and love requires some time to marinate before cautious people upset our perception of what a pro basketball game is supposed to look like. An idea often needs to work its way through the cycle of discussion and consideration a few times before a level of comfort can be achieved. Once decision-makers turn the concept over in their heads a few times, they can form a fact-based argument for or against.

For instance, those 15 or 20 minutes of dead time during free throw attempts could be vital to in-game recovery for players. That may or may not be true, but it makes more sense as a suggestion than the idea that eliminating dead-ball free throw would ruin the statistical integrity of the game.

The league could certainly get away with a safe hire and opt for a “weak executive” model in which decisions are made by the collective opinion of the most powerful voices. There are no shortage of people in the NBA world who feel they have the expertise to run a satellite league that exists almost entirely to accommodate the NBA.

But the NBA and D-League’s current momentum is all the more reason to double down on the success. New York should find a forward-looking influencer who will continue to see the D-League as an incubator for experimentation, not because incubating ideas is more important than incubating basketball talent, but because the NBA and its affiliate already have plenty of smart people who develop players. Developing the consensus for change is far more challenging.

Free agency winners and losers

July, 16, 2014
Jul 16
Arnovitz By Kevin Arnovitz

Kevin Arnovitz and Zach Lowe run through some of the winners and losers of the free agency period, and discuss why so many people are gleeful about Houston's misfortunes.

Checking in with Jabari Parker

July, 16, 2014
Jul 16
Arnovitz By Kevin Arnovitz
Jabari Parker drops by TrueHoop TV to chat about the city of Milwaukee, his Mount Rushmore of role players and why his alma mater of Duke is the team everyone loves to hate.

All you can eat with The Greek Freak

July, 16, 2014
Jul 16
Arnovitz By Kevin Arnovitz

Milwaukee Bucks' prodigy Giannis Antetokounmpo hits an all-you-can-eat buffet in Las Vegas and chats about being trash-talked by Carmelo, acing his driving test and how poverty has impacted his life.

Kyle Anderson, a Spur all the way

July, 15, 2014
Jul 15
Arnovitz By Kevin Arnovitz
The San Antonio Spurs' Kyle Anderson on being Spursy, going from New York to Los Angeles and his love for the Colombian national team.


LeBron's power play

July, 15, 2014
Jul 15
Arnovitz By Kevin Arnovitz

Kevin Arnovitz asks David Thorpe and Ethan Sherwood Strauss whether LeBron James' return to Cleveland was an act of altruism or a power play.

Summer League standouts

July, 14, 2014
Jul 14
Arnovitz By Kevin Arnovitz

Kevin Arnovitz chats with David Thorpe and Ethan Sherwood Strauss about the standouts so far at 2014 Las Vegas Summer League.

Future of Jazz sounds good

July, 14, 2014
Jul 14
Arnovitz By Kevin Arnovitz
Utah Jazz rookies Dante Exum and Rodney Hood dish on their new roles, throwing out first pitches, frying catfish and what's weird about America.


The work speaks for itself

June, 15, 2014
Jun 15
Arnovitz By Kevin Arnovitz
Gregg Popovich says you don’t deserve anything -- you just go play. That’s honorable, but it seems fundamentally just that the San Antonio Spurs won a fifth NBA championship Sunday night.

Another title for the Spurs confirms a bunch of optimistic beliefs about the the way the world should work: process matters more than politics; people should be valued for what they can do rather than what they can’t; a meritocracy can thrive if it emphasizes the right things.

Devotion to the process doesn’t always yield the desired results. In basketball, this is called heartbreak, and for the Spurs, Game 6 of June 2013 was a case study. Yes, there were a couple of self-inflicted miscues -- Tim Duncan comes up short in the paint, Kawhi Leonard misses a free throw, Manu Ginobili can’t snare a rebound -- but the Spurs didn’t deserve that.

Then again, you don’t deserve anything. You just go play. And the Spurs lead the world in just going and playing.

[+] EnlargeDuncan
Mike Ehrmann/Getty ImagesAfter a nightmare end to the past season, Tim Duncan didn't need a Game 6 to win championship No. 5.
Praise such as this for the Spurs always sounds a little quaint. The ideas themselves feel precious or even stuffy, almost too obedient to authority. “Commitment to process” sounds like homework. Basketball and fame are supposed to be raucous and disorderly. What’s the point of being a rock star if you can’t act like one?

But very, very few institutions actually function like the Spurs because it’s insanely hard to get dozens of people to buy into the same vision. Those that do, such as the Spurs, are the true, honest-to-goodness nonconformists. All that well-timed stuff they run and the fundamentals and pounding the rock and never getting too high or too low and coming back unfazed after losing a lead 5.2 seconds from a banner and reclamation projects such as Boris Diaw and rodeo road trips that build character and Pop’s wizardry and knowing which mid-first-round pick would grow into the Wing-You-Need-In-Today’s-NBA and last-possession plays that actually resemble real basketball sets and almost never making bonehead personnel decisions and generally treating everyone in the office like an adult and having incredible command of the NBA’s bargain bin -- none of that is normal.

In exchange for their buying in, players earn trust, whether they arrived in San Antonio as a first overall draft pick or on a bus from the D-League. With the game on the line, Popovich will design an opportunity to get that former D-Leaguer an open shot, even when most coaches would just ride their Hall of Famer against a double-team. R.C. Buford appraises talent not by the standards of current trends or conventional wisdom but by a steadfast belief in process and innovation. Duncan might not speak to a young teammate for a calendar year, but don’t mistake aloofness for indifference; he’s just sizing you up before he dives in.

The most gifted players have every right to leverage their talents into power and have a voice in where and with whom they want to work. Duncan claimed that authority and chose to spend his capital on establishing a culture. He wants pro basketball to be about the work and to sell itself on the strength of the game’s actual appeal rather than the atmospherics or drama. That’s Duncan believing in the craft of basketball.

Tony Parker quickly signed up when he arrived in the NBA. He spent the first phase of his career working to earn trust and has rewarded his investors ever since. So did Ginobili, a charismatic stylist as a player but completely uninterested in personal branding. Leonard, often miscast as a creation of the Spurs culture who might have wallowed elsewhere, wasn’t sculpted by the team in its image so much as he found a suitable place to work his magic.

What the Spurs create on the floor is a testimony to all this. Both the offense and defense operate on a collective trust and the principle that if you inspire people to use their instincts, they’re capable of being both smart and creative. That's what gets the junkies so giddy. So when Ginobili slings a pass to a cutter off a ball fake, or Green fools a defender with misdirection, or Duncan slips a screen on a whim, or Diaw drops a no-look interior pass to Splitter that fools everyone, or Parker improvises, or Leonard cuts into open space, or Pop draws up a gutsy play call for a last possession, it’s the product of a happy marriage between order and self-expression.

Almost every owner likes the idea of being a “servant leader” -- in the parlance of business speak, someone who shares power for the sake of the cause -- but Peter Holt has pledged his trust to the people who work for him. How many owners willingly sit in the background and cede total authority to their coaches and lead execs for the better part of two decades?

Most coaches and basketball operations people work to keep their jobs, and their decision-making suffers because of it. They fall into the trap of convention, afraid to assume risk because the consequences are too steep. Popovich, Duncan, Parker, Ginobili, Buford, Spurs players and staff resolve problems differently.

That combination the Spurs have achieved is what most of us want out of professional life. We want to do something we love. We want the freedom to experiment and to know that if we’re true to the process, we won’t be deemed a failure, regardless of the result. We want to work alongside people who root for us to be really good. We want to know that if we have to wind the clock 12 full months after being so very, very close, everyone will exhale, regroup and stay with it.

Like Duncan, we want it to be about the work.

Why Phil Lord loves the Clippers

June, 3, 2014
Jun 3
Arnovitz By Kevin Arnovitz
Kevin Arnovitz chats with "22 Jump Street" director Philip Lord about his Clippers fandom, the madness of the past month and whether the team should change its name and look.


Crunch time, the Spurs way

May, 30, 2014
May 30
Arnovitz By Kevin Arnovitz
Why are the Spurs so good in crunch time? They get everyone in on the act.


Get rid of the NBA draft

May, 21, 2014
May 21
Arnovitz By Kevin Arnovitz
Kevin Arnovitz and Amin Elhassan want to do away with the NBA draft.

The next wave of head-coaching prospects

April, 24, 2014
Apr 24
Arnovitz By Kevin Arnovitz
Job security is a touchy subject in a league where coaches and executives are hired to be fired and the average player’s career is less than five years. But the dismissal of nearly half the NBA's head coaches last season was enough to send a shock wave through the league. A luminary like George Karl or a 56-game winner like Lionel Hollins could be cut loose in exchange for a younger, less expensive option. If guys like Karl and Hollins weren't safe, what did it mean for the future of the profession?

Denver and Memphis were just two of nine teams that started the 2013-14 season with first-time NBA head coaches. The composition of the Class of 2013 was diverse. There was a lifer assistant, a player who had been in uniform just weeks prior, another former player who had spent a couple of seasons as an assistant, the first big-name college coach to take an NBA gig in years, a winner of five minor league championships as a head coach, a couple of Spurs U. alums, a fiery defensive specialist and a Phil Jackson acolyte.

This season, the coaching search has already officially begun for three teams -- the New York Knicks, Minnesota Timberwolves and Utah Jazz. That list probably includes the Detroit Pistons and will likely grow longer as we move closer to the summer.

Several themes surfaced in conversations with team execs, coaches and league insiders about how teams size up a candidate who has never previously served as an NBA head coach:

Fewer obvious names
Those asked to reel off names who excited them struggled to come up with more than a couple. The same question last spring found no such hesitation. “The pond is a little bit fished out,” says one NBA general manager. “There aren't as many logical hires like there have been. Everybody’s more of a reach.”

Tell me who my owner is
League execs insist there is no consideration more important in hiring a head coach than whether he conforms to the sensibility of ownership -- not personal background, whiteboard skills, media relations, city or even pedigree. “If you’re asking me to put together a list [of head-coach candidates], first you have to tell me what the owner’s business philosophy is," a longtime NBA executive says. General managers have come to realize that the only thing worse than not getting their preferred choice installed as head coach is spending the season apologizing to their owner for that choice.

Will salaries bounce back?
There's a fair amount of debate about whether the trend toward smaller paychecks for head coaches has real staying power. Some believe that, with a few notable exceptions, the $5 million per season deal is an endangered species. “If you’re not close to a title, why pay?" says one general manager. Others feel that the new breed of NBA owner is easily lured by celebrity. The thinking goes that nobody buys an NBA team to hang out and share a bottle of wine with a low-cost alternative. The owner wants to be regaled with tales of the NBA by a name-brand legend -- and that costs money.

Spurs University
A call from Gregg Popovich to a team in the market for a head coach can be a decisive factor in a search. "Pop will reach out at the drop of a hat,” a league insider says. “But it’s not the call that does it. He speaks in a voice that a lot of people don’t always hear. He doesn't just praise them for their work, but who they are as people." The Spurs have always had credibility as an incubator of executive and sideline talent, but people around the league say the influence has grown even greater in the past year. “It’s gotten cult-like. ... Not that they don’t deserve it,” says a team executive.

So who’s ready to be a first-time coach?

We performed the exercise about a year ago, when Miami assistant David Fizdale and Memphis assistant Dave Joerger topped the list. Joerger is now coaching the Grizzlies in the first round of the 2014 postseason, while Fizdale continues to be mentioned as among the sharpest assistants in the league, one who will interview again this summer if he chooses to. TNT analyst Steve Kerr has been cited as a head coach in the making, possibly in New York. Though he was effectively ruled out by Flip Saunders on Wednesday for the Minnesota job, Iowa State coach and former Timberwolves player and executive Fred Hoiberg has become a popular name.

In addition to Fizdale, Hoiberg and Kerr -- each named frequently again this spring -- here are seven candidates who are viewed as capable successful NBA head coaches. These aren't necessarily those most likely to get an opportunity, just the guys who have the capacity to make it work if they do:

Ed Pinckney, Chicago Bulls assistant coach

Though they’d deign to admit it, some former players feel head coaches can farm out much of the grind that accompanies the position in the NBA. That wouldn't be the case for Pinckney, who has quickly established a reputation as an inexhaustible worker bee.

As an assistant for Tom Thibodeau, Pinckney has flourished under a serious coach who fetishizes preparation. At the same time, Pinckney has friends all over the game from a lifetime of building up goodwill in basketball as a pro's pro and a teacher.

“Guys would love to play for him,” an assistant NBA coach says. “Anyone who has been around him knows how hard he works and how much he cares. His players would go through walls for him and have a good time doing it.”

The Grizzlies brass was deeply impressed by Pinckney when it invited him in twice last summer during a search that ended with longtime assistant Joerger being elevated to the first chair. With his fluency in Thibodeau's defense, pleasant disposition and intuitive understanding of what it means to be a big man in the NBA, Pinckney is a smart bet to see the inside of a conference room again this summer.

Quin Snyder, Atlanta Hawks assistant coach

It seems like eons ago, but there was a time when Snyder was basketball’s boy king. After appearing in two back-to-back Final Fours as Duke’s starting point guard, Snyder earned a JD/MBA from Duke, served as an NBA assistant to Larry Brown and was named associate head coach for the Blue Devils by Mike Krzyzewski -- all by the age of 31.

Snyder fell from grace after nearly seven tumultuous seasons at Missouri, marred by rumors, allegations and investigations. The experience humbled Snyder, who went from being the most impressive basketball mind of his generation to a cautionary tale. One year after Mizzou, Snyder landed with the Austin Toros before the D-League (then still the NBDL) had any cachet.

“He was basketball royalty on the fast track,” says a front-office executive. “The next thing you know, he’s in the bus leagues.”

Snyder’s supporters and critics both speak of a man with an incomparable general and basketball intellect. By all accounts, Snyder has applied his intelligence to rebuild himself as a coach over the past eight years. He stayed in Austin for three seasons, gaining exposure to the Spurs’ organizational culture. He accepted a role as a player development director in Philadelphia and found a mentor in Ettore Messina, who opened up new windows to the game in Europe. Alongside Mike Budenholzer in Atlanta, Snyder continues to expand his knowledge base with a coach who’s particularly good at conveying ideas to players.

The sense around the league is that if handed a roster of seasoned, cerebral ballplayers who could relate to his analytical instincts, Snyder could thrive as an NBA coach.

Adrian Griffin, Chicago Bulls assistant coach

Odd as it seems to pair a couple of Thibodeau bench assistants on a diverse list of seven prospective head coaches, Pinckney and Griffin both attracted heavy mention, usually independent of each other.

Griffin is not yet 40 -- 39 until July, he's more than 11 years younger than Pinckney -- which means there are a bunch of people in the game who have watched him grow up from youth camps to his stint now as a lead assistant to Thibodeau. Those who have say that, since high school, Griffin has displayed a polished maturity that screams NBA head coach.

He had barely filed his retirement papers in 2008 when Scott Skiles and the Milwaukee Bucks offered him a job as an assistant. After two seasons with the Bucks, Griffin joined Thibodeau, with whom he’s developed a close relationship. After coaching the Bulls’ summer-league squad, Griffin stuck around Las Vegas to pitch in at Team USA’s minicamp.

“You combine that kind of professionalism with that kind of mentorship and you’re going to have a good chance to succeed,” a general manager says.

The result is a coaching prospect who was characterized by one league insider as “a player-friendly Tom Thibodeau.”

Kevin Ollie, University of Connecticut head coach

With a few waivers granted for region or diploma, much of the NBA was rooting for UConn the night of the 2014 NCAA title game.

Ollie was one of the league’s citizen leaders during his 13 seasons as a player, a remarkable length of time for someone with such marginal talent. He was the guy a team keeps around as a graduate assistant and a calming force in the locker room. Now Ollie is a head basketball coach with an NCAA championship to his credit and is a legitimate candidate for openings this spring and summer.

In a league populated by some real sourpusses, there's surprisingly little debate over Ollie's readiness. To the extent there is skepticism of Ollie, it resides in a predisposition against college basketball as good terroir for NBA head coaches.

“He’s gotten along with guys at every level -- college, pro, players, coaches,” says an NBA general manager. “He has high character, knows his stuff, and he’s actually won. Does that mean he’ll succeed in the league? Maybe, maybe not. But what more do you need to see?”

A page at Basketball-Reference may not have as much currency as it used to for head-coaching candidates, but a playing career and a proven track record as a coach is a pretty potent combination.

Tony Bennett, University of Virginia head coach

Brad Stevens maintains a high approval rating around the NBA, but the league wants to see a few more case studies before it designates college basketball as safe for fishing. Wherever one may fall on the question of how translatable college coaching is to the pro game, there’s near unanimity that part of the problem has been the NBA’s attraction to NCAA cults of personality.

“We’re not going to see the sociopathic, I’m-in-charge control freaks,” a team executive says of the next wave of NCAA coaches in the NBA. “It’s going to be the guy who doesn't make it about him, understands basketball philosophy and understands how to build a basketball culture.”

A profile of Bennett fits this general description. At Virginia, Bennett has built a defense-oriented program that wins with less superstar talent than its counterparts in the ACC. He’s a composed sideline presence who looks the part and during the '90s had a sufficient-sized cup of coffee in the NBA. Though some worry that Bennett's half-court style defies current trends in the NBA, there's little doubt he has the acumen to pull it off.

“He loves the craft of coaching as a discipline,” the exec says. “And like Brad, he knows it’s about the players.”

Many around the league like Billy Donovan and Hoiberg as the next two NCAA coaches off the board. If the next college hire goes well and Stevens maintains a positive culture in Boston, then expect to start hearing more about Bennett.

David Vanterpool, Portland Trail Blazers assistant coach

It’s rare in the NBA for someone on the fast track toward management to get off and join a much longer line to become an NBA coach. Yet that’s what Vanterpool did when he left the Thunder front office to join Terry Stotts’ staff in Portland.

Vanterpool was a quick study and likely a future executive in the league, but it tormented him to know there was high-grade basketball development going on in his midst, only it wasn't happening in his department.

“He has a way with players,” a front-office executive says. “He was a tough overseas player who worked at his game.”

Vanterpool both played and coached for Messina in Moscow, an affiliation that means something in an increasingly international league. The two-year stint in the Oklahoma City front office is also the kind of interdisciplinary experience valued by shops like San Antonio. Add to all that a penchant for independent thought, a willingness to admit what you don’t know and a reputation as a solid, agreeable person and a young team could have a head coach to grow up with.

Jim Boylen, San Antonio Spurs assistant coach

Thanks to the success of Steve Clifford in Charlotte, the nomadic, 50-ish, affable, well-respected grinder has come into fashion. And if you’re looking for a prototype, Boylen might be it.

Boylen, not to be confused with former Bulls and Bucks head coach Jim Boylan, sat alongside Rudy Tomjanovich for over a decade and was a lead assistant to Tom Izzo. After four rough seasons at the University of Utah -- “The guy hates recruiting, what can you say?” says a Boylen sympathizer -- he landed with Frank Vogel in Indiana, where he restored his rep as a guy who truly loves to get on the floor and work with players and isn't afraid to get his hands dirty with game preparation.

“He’s been the best guy on almost every staff he’s ever been on,” an NBA general manager says last week prior to Ty Corbin’s departure from Utah. “And the fact that Pop hired him gives him the ultimate stamp of approval.”

An owner looking for sex appeal won’t want to see a glossy image of Boylen on the cover of a season-ticket appeal packet. But there’s a strong consensus that Boylen is an extremely capable lifer who rarely has trouble connecting with players or peers.