TrueHoop: League-Wide Issues
When I first heard it, I wondered, “What does that mean?” I am an African from Nigeria. Luol is an African from South Sudan. We’ve worked together across our home continent, holding our own basketball camps, as well as in those organized by the NBA.
I remember an instance, in Kigali, Rwanda, when Luol honoured a commitment to show up despite being seriously ill. He didn’t want to disappoint any of the children who were expecting him.
Is that “a little bit of African”?
His fellow NBA players have named him the NBA’s top sportsman. Last year, his work for charity earned him the league’s J. Walter Kennedy Citizenship award.
Is that the “African” he means?
Luol has made two all-star teams. A couple of years ago, he had a terrible reaction to a spinal tap. He lost 15 pounds in the hospital. I was texting with him during that ordeal, which was very serious. He always remained humble and full of personality. When he got out, he still tried to play for his team during a playoff series.
Is that “African”?
Ujiri goes on to say explain why he can bring himself to forgive Ferry.
D. Clarke Evans/NBAE/Getty Images
The Mavericks' head man is the only NBA head coach who has defeated LeBron's Heat in a series.
Rick Carlisle will be in the stands, and not on the sidelines, as Game 1 of the 2014 NBA Finals tip-off in San Antonio Thursday evening. And his Mavericks' season ended a month ago.
Yet Carlisle is surprisingly relevant: He's the only coach to beat the Heatles in a playoff series, and his Dallas squad came closest to ousting this year's Spurs, losing in a 7-game Round 1. I contacted him hoping he'd share the nitty gritty X's and O's of these teams. No such luck; Coach Carlisle wasn't about to give away any trade secrets. And he wouldn't pick a winner.
But he did say several things that will matter as the series unfolds.
- Slow play is death. "NBA defenses are so sophisticated now. You don't want to give them a chance to get fully established. When we played Miami in the Finals, we knew that if we called any plays we were doomed. We had to play faster than that. Popovich really pioneered a lot of that. There is a pendulum on a lot of these things, but I really don't see faster offense going away."
- Erik Spoelstra doesn't get nearly enough credit, but ... "Gregg Popovich is the greatest coach ever."
- The Tony Parker effect. "The Heat don't have big-time rim protectors. LeBron James will block some shots. Dwyane Wade will get some blocks. But how they handle the Spurs penetration will tell a lot."
- Get the ball. "Neither team is great at rebounding. It's a chance to establish an edge."
- Keep the ball. "In the NFL, turnovers practically determine every game. In the NBA it's not like that. But in this series it might be. Both teams take such good care of the ball, and I expect the games to be very close. Turnovers could determine everything."
The specter of a Spurs-Pacers NBA Finals might haunt Silver more than the question of who owns the Clippers, but the NBA has already been bleeding interest in the run-up to the main event. In April, the Sports Business Journal reported a 5 percent drop in local TV ratings league-wide this season. The SBJ made sure to note that a decline this steep is unusual per historical trends. The timing also couldn't be worse for a league negotiating a national television rights deal.
The culprit? Big-market disappointment across the board. Blame the Knicks and Lakers for being bad. Blame the Bulls for being broken. Even blame the Nets for being boring while you’re at it. The Knicks lost 29 percent of their viewership, and the Nets failed miserably at being the rebound relationship, losing 20 percent of their viewership this season. For some bizarre reason, Basketball’s Mecca has turned to hobbies that don’t include returning Andrea Bargnani’s vacant gaze.
Of course, failure doesn’t happen in a vacuum. By the construct of American sports, there is a victor for every loser. The Pacers, Pelicans, Blazers and Bobcats all saw ratings surges. On balance, those fans just couldn’t come close to compensating for all the big-city folks who changed the channel.
This reality runs counter to a technology-based argument on behalf of small-market teams: Market size doesn’t matter because people from all over can easily watch the biggest stars whether they play for Oklahoma City or New York City. The Internet! Apps! No player will be underrated ever again!
Just because people can do something doesn’t mean they will. Even though fans could splurge on League Pass and watch any team, they still largely follow the teams within reasonable driving distance. This is especially true of the NBA, according to a Facebook-based NBA fandom map that the New York Times released last week.
From the article about the map: "One of the striking aspects of basketball fandom is its limited geographic reach, especially relative to baseball fandom. In baseball, teams tend to dominate their home state, and several have a strong regional identity."
Basketball, "the city game," hews close to its cities. The smaller markets have a very confined kind of fandom. On the NYT map, the exciting, successful Thunder claim an intense "super cell" following in Oklahoma. Thunder fandom stops around the state border as though cut off by biodome walls. In most neutral American territories the Lakers, Bulls and Heat will round out the top three fan choices (note: The Heat have a much larger TV reach than the Miami metropolitan area alone. Remember, Florida has roughly 20 million people). The Thunder cracks the top three only in areas in Oklahoma and areas bordering Oklahoma. This is in line with Google results that reflect a lack of broader Internet excitement over a super exciting Thunder team.
Perhaps it would be different if the Thunder had rings? Maybe, but the Spurs have won four titles since the last Bulls championship. While the Duncan dynasty boasts a robust following in Texas and eastern New Mexico, they still aren't a top-three choice in any county outside those areas.
The NBA might hope for a reality where market size is ancillary to the sport’s popularity, where technology transcends all. So far that hasn't happened. Technology might even be a force multiplier for built-in market advantages.
In the early 2000s, many of us knew Kobe fans only by the televised jerseys in the stands. These days, social media allows Bryant a mobilized army of supporters who spread his gospel through uploaded YouTube highlights, game tweets, Facebook notes, even an ESPN comments section like the one below this article. It's all free advertising. The already popular are afforded more positive representation, which snowballs into even more popularity.
While it's true that technology makes it easier for a guy in Maine to follow Kevin Durant's career, it's also true that technology makes it easier for a guy in Maine to be influenced by Kobe's. The big-market base of support has the added advantage of large immigrant communities that connect to populous countries. Playing well in a big city isn't so many steps removed from massive international celebrity.
Now Kobe has a bum leg and the NBA is losing viewership. Meanwhile, the league has achieved the kind of location parity its owners desperately wanted. Basketball did a neat trick in divorcing market size from team success. The NBA just couldn't separate market size from league success. That's a problem for a league that, since 2001, moved teams to Memphis, Oklahoma City, New Orleans and Charlotte.
Like the old riddle about a tree falling in the woods, if location parity happens and nobody's around to watch, is it a success? Right now it looks as though the success of the small means self-sabotage for all. How can the new CBA be working with so many people tuning out the sport?
What Adam did was fantastic. I support him 100 percent. He sent a very clear, unequivocal and decisive message that we will have zero tolerance for this kind of behavior.
The NBA, and I call it NBA 2.0, is a global game, it's a global brand. It has a universality to it. And so I will not just second the motion, but lead the motion for us to do as Adam recommends. I believe that the other owners will support it as well. (Note: 29 of 29 have already expressed support.)
The owners I know, they all are colorblind. That was the irony of this situation, that the NBA is one of the most colorblind institutions in the world. To have that be challenged or embarrassed in the way Mr. Sterling did with his comments is bad for the game of basketball, and it's bad for the league.
It's a global institution and it has values. With technology and social media now, if something happens, you have the evidence and it's known to people. What the commissioner said was exactly right. It was brought to his attention. The evidence was there. The proof was there. He investigated it and he acted. I think it's a combination of circumstances. One is the changing nature of the sport, the universality of it, the global nature, it being more than a game, it being a set of values, and also now through social media and technology there's much more information available.
I expect it to happen quickly.
The commissioner has shown that he's decisive and we will be guided by Commissioner Silver.
Even if all that happens, we're saying, so, OK, you get punished. But you get a billion-dollar profit as punishment. Look, I don't think what the commissioner is saying is the least bit unreasonable. I fully support it.
I learned about it because one of my boys sent it to me. The TMZ article. I looked at it and I was shocked. It was extremely distasteful. The Gandhi quote came to mind. If you slight one person, then you slight us all. You slight the universe. You slight the whole world. It wasn't just Magic Johnson, it was all black people, and really, everybody.
I'm someone who has compassion. I'm not one to kick someone when they're down. But there has been no remorse or no statement. I believe that the commissioner did everything right.
Hopefully this brings about this dialogue among people, and it's something that will be discussed at dinner tables all over America and all over the world. Hopefully some good comes out of it in that you know, people get an even better understanding of each other.
I asked some people of color what they thought about this, and they shrugged and said, well, what's new? That hurt me deeply. I just think that maybe some goodwill come from this and there will be a more gentle dialogue and the NBA will be shining example of how we deal, and how we have a policy of zero tolerance on these issues.
To hear these stories and to hear people say yeah, we hear that every day. And so I can fully understand how a black person would feel. I just think that the fact that the commissioner acted on it at lightning speed, decisively, beyond maximum measures, it just shows that he's going to be a great commissioner.
I feel for the players and particularly the Clippers. I hope that with this bold action they can go back and play a great game. I texted Doc [Rivers] the day it happened and I told him to remember that the owners are just custodians. The game really belongs to the players and the fans and the city. Remember the great Jesse Owens who had to compete under the eye of Hitler. There are athletes who've had to compete under difficult circumstances before, I'm sure there will be difficult circumstances again in the future. Let's just have a great game.
I didn't hesitate to speak out when this first happened, and I feel very very confident the other owners will act according to Adam's wishes.
Because it has to be.
The public at large doesn't care that Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban criticizes officials, actions that have cost him up to $500,000 in a single fine. Breaking solidarity during the last NBA lockout cost Miami Heat owner Micky Arison half a million as well, but that's nothing more than a local news item.
Even the highest NBA fine dropped on a team to date -- $3.5 million for the Minnesota Timberwolves negotiating a secret contract with Joe Smith -- doesn't make the national office water-cooler talk. Illicit dealings like this are chronicled in the business pages seemingly every day.
Each of these situations is a crime against league bylaws. They don't inspire media members halfway across the world to ask the president of the United States to weigh in, as Barack Obama did from Malaysia.
What the recording allegedly made by Sterling represents is a completely different ballgame.
The ugly words, dropped in such a casual tone, are a crime against society, a slight to human decency. People who had never heard of Sterling, never even heard of the Los Angeles Clippers, are rooting for NBA commissioner Adam Silver to do the right thing. They care.
Silver's first major challenge ranks right up there with the toughest things David Stern faced -- the "Malice at the Palace" fight, the Tim Donaghy scandal, Latrell Sprewell choking P.J. Carlesimo -- in his 30-year tenure.
The only case comparable to Sterling's is that of Cincinnati Reds owner Marge Schott, who in 1993 was fined $25,000 and kicked out of Major League Baseball for a year for her racist comments. Three years later, she was pulled away from operating the team, and never regained control, after making a positive comment about Hitler.
But Sterling's remarks are more troublesome for the NBA than Schott's were for Major League Baseball. Sure, the words are just as disgusting, just as unacceptable. But with Sterling, one can hear the words allegedly coming from his mouth; Schott's comments were made in private conversations to employees, or read on a printed page of deposition transcript.
Then there's the great multiplier.
In the nearly 18 years since Schott made her last troublesome remarks, the Internet and social media have exploded. The world has gotten smaller. Indiscretions are magnified, and words, especially bad ones, move at lightning speed. In 1996, it was possible that someone didn't see or hear about what the Reds owner said. Today, the odds that anyone with a computer, TV or phone hasn't heard the Sterling TMZ recording are slim.
That's why Silver has to give Sterling the biggest penalty his lawyers will allow, and he has a lot of options, as ESPN’s Lester Munson has outlined. The eyes of the world are on him. And, unlike almost all other league crises that require fines or suspensions, people who never watched a single NBA game this year, or maybe even in their lifetime, are waiting for Silver to make Sterling pay.
Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE/Getty Images
In Brooklyn, Jason Collins is making history evidently without harming the team.
NBA front office people, even the ones who swore they were socially progressive, fretted -- in various unattributed conversations -- that if they signed an openly gay player like Jason Collins it might be good for humanity, but bad for the team.
Why? Because the issue of the gayness would be a distraction.
The real-life research into that assertion is underway in Brooklyn, and the early returns are that there was never anything real to worry about.
Stefan Bondy reports in the New York Daily News that -- while Collins has endured the taunts of one unnamed opposing team "knuckelhead," (in Collins' words)-- it's tough to make the case Collins' public sexuality has harmed the Nets in any way.
Still a fringe rotation player whose main job is delivering fouls, Collins’ No. 98 jersey became the top seller on NBA.com, even as the media attention has died down to the point that he’ll leave a practice or locker room without an interview request.
Perhaps more than anything, the blending in will be the lasting legacy of Collins’ trailblazing stint which was put off until after the All-Star break, in part because of fears around the league that he’d be a distraction.
The Nets (35-31) certainly don’t seem distracted. They’re 10-3 since signing Collins, winners of 10 straight at Barclays Center ahead of Friday's game there against the Celtics.
“Not just for myself, but I think for everyone. This shows that ‘distraction’ is B.S. That it’s about the team, it’s about the sport,” said Collins, who signed for the rest of the season last week. “I hope this shows all players that you can still have your life off the court and not have to hide anything. And still have your life on the court or on the field or on the ice, I guess, in hockey. That’s a credit to my teammates and the entire Nets organization from ownership to coaching to teammates to everyone.”
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.
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.
AP Photo/Bill HaberNew commissioner, new rules.
On the flight to New Orleans for the first Sternless All-Star Game of my career I had a fleeting thought: Was All-Star Weekend possible without Stern? Or, for that matter, was the NBA? Maybe Stern was everything. CEO-as-bedrock.
So it's no surprise the lion's share of the news that Adam Silver is the new NBA commissioner has been built around the idea that Stern stepped down after three decades. Stern's absence has been the real headline. To the extent Silver has been defined it has generally been versus Stern -- for instance, he's taller, younger, more of a consensus-builder, etc.
A couple of weeks into the Silver Age, however, what's emerging is that there's a lot more to the new commissioner than the mere fact that he's not the old commissioner.
And in fact, the early evidence is that he'll be making his mark profoundly and quickly.
At Stern's final board of governors' meeting in October, a major function of which was the transfer of power to Silver, NBA executives suddenly began saying, repeatedly, that the worst reason to do something is because that's the way it has always been done.
It was not something I had ever heard them say before, and while it sounds canned, in fact it's a line that comes with huge implications. It means, essentially, that everything is up for review. It invites questions, which is an awkward thing to invite unless you intend to have answers.
Evidently it wasn't just corporate-speak, either. As Silver's agenda comes to light, it fits a theme: innovation. Silver addressed an invite-only crowd of powerbrokers (Mark Cuban, Vivek Ranadive and a few hundred others) at the Tech Summit in New Orleans on All-Star Friday. The talk was off the record, but word that everyone came away with from the conference was "innovation."
"He laid it down," a grinning team executive said in the hallway after hearing Silver talk. "It's a brand-new day."
Saturday, in his first major news conference, Silver sent more signals of change. Sponsorships on jerseys? "It ultimately will happen." The draft lottery? "The system's not perfect right now."
In a league that has long been dominated by lawyers, that counts as crystal-clear communication.
Meanwhile, the keepers of the game's rules, league executives Rod Thorn and Kiki Vandeweghe, disclosed on TrueHoop TV that their aim is to have real-time, off-site video review as soon as next season. Later it emerged that NBA personnel have already been building and rehearsing in a studio in New Jersey, stocked with a vast array of screens and digital tools. That's happening.
A couple of weeks into the job, D-Leaguers are wearing "performance analytic devices" in games, something that is still banned in the NBA. Things that have long been ideas are now happening.
Asked about all kinds of radical things -- speeding up the game, enlarging the court, 4-pointers -- Vandeweghe and Thorn sounded surprisingly open-minded tones.
"Players are faster, they're bigger, they're stronger. Coaches are smarter. ... With that you evolve the rules, too," Vandeweghe said.
But that's not to say Silver, a noted consensus builder, isn't aware that change can be scary. "People keep encouraging me to do new things," says Silver, addressing a question about the NBA's controversial new T-shirt style jerseys. "And then when we try new things, they say we've lost our minds."
There's almost no chance the NBA will look in five years like it does now.
Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images Sport"I’m still new to this whole 'star player' thing" says the Rockets' leading scorer, James Harden.
“I’m super selective,” said James Harden from the stylist’s chair on the Houston set of the ad shoot, “about who trims my beard.”
It was an off day in mid-January, and Harden was in full NBA-leading-man mode. It's not just that the iconic global brand on his chin was being groomed. It's routine offseason trips to Asia on behalf of sneaker companies, his status as a shoo-in All-Star, his highlight-ready score-from-anywhere game, his flirting with the unofficial "NBA's best shooting guard" title. On top of all that, Harden had a reporter on speakerphone and an assortment of “people” hovering at the ready -- from Foot Locker, from various agencies -- to fetch things or chime in to protect Harden, the beard or the brand, as necessary.
Although Harden has a disarmingly low-key way of talking -- part of his appeal is everyday nonchalance -- his message can veer into star territory. At one point, he circled back to add “you know, me and Dwight,” after, accidentally or not, calling the Rockets “basically my own team.”
And the commercial he's in the middle of making pivots, with a wink, on the notion that Harden is incredibly famous.
Of course, there’s nothing wrong with one of the best basketball players in the world acting and talking like one of the best basketball players in the world. Harden is a business worth many millions. He is the centerpiece of a team that’s hanging tough in a stacked Western Conference. He is one of the most skilled scorers in the game. He is all that.
The surprising part of Harden’s place in the spotlight is that Harden was known, not long ago, for the opposite.
Less than two years ago, Harden was a delightful young surprise off the Thunder's bench, and his GM in Oklahoma City, Sam Presti, was telling The New York Times that what made Harden special was that fitting into a team was “really more appealing to him than being a focal-point player.”
If that was wishful thinking from a GM hoping to hold his contending squad together, it didn't sound like it. Everyone in the organization, including Harden, talked like that. It was believable, and, to those fans who prefer players who don't act like millionaires, delightful. Here was a player you could love for his jaw-dropping highlights, his blue-collar attitude or both.
Then, in the summer of 2012, coming off an NBA Finals loss to the Miami Heat, the Thunder faced a dilemma. Assorted hard realities -- no team has ever had three maximum-contract wing players, the owners were feeling a financial pinch, the team was destined for heinous salary-cap and luxury-tax issues -- drove Presti to offer Harden less than a max deal to remain with the team.
When Harden declined, he was promptly traded to the Rockets, causing an uproar that still simmers. “If the Thunder could have kept Harden” is one of the league’s enduring memes.
In Houston, famously analytical general manager Daryl Morey was ready to pounce. He had examined Harden’s production every which way and saw the elite double-team-drawing scorer his team sorely lacked. The Rockets were only too happy to give Harden all the dollars, minutes and touches any All-Star could dream of. And, more than any other move, nabbing Harden made Morey's early career. Although there will always be grousing about Harden’s defense (it’s not great) and his high usage rate (he shoots a lot) -- not to mention the coming barrage of "What has he won?" critiques that are standard for ringless All-Stars -- there's no disputing that Harden is a top-tier NBA scoring talent, and now he's a Rocket.
Yet Harden remains a source of anguish. The Thunder had the closest thing the NBA has to a fairy tale -- all those supertalented young Durants, Westbrooks, Hardens and Ibakas putting the team first. A lot of NBA watchers and Thunder fans liked the idea of Harden sticking around for the long haul as an icon of good-natured ego management. A lot of people wanted the dream of that Thunder team to last forever. Even Harden sounds wistful at times, saying, for instance, that he wishes the team could replay Game 2 of the Finals the Thunder lost to the Heat.
But it's over. And, in part, Harden plays the hero in that story -- as the player everyone wanted. At the same time, he's part villain. His insistence on more dollars helped bring it all to an end. At times, Harden has been reluctant to discuss his transition from Oklahoma City backup to Rockets leading man, but, from the beard stylist's chair on the set of a commercial shoot in Houston, he was gracious enough to address it in some detail. The conversation has been edited for length.
Can you talk? Are you allowed to move your jaw while you’re getting a beard trim?
Yeah. Little movements. But I can do it.
Do you have a beard-care strategy?
No strategy. I just let it grow. It’s got a mind of its own. If it needs trimming, it gets trimmed. I’m super selective about who trims my beard. My barber usually does it to make sure it’s fresh. But if he’s not around, then I usually comb it a lot and occasionally trim it myself.
Take me back to June 12, 2012. You were up 1-0 over the Miami Heat in the NBA Finals, and I think, if you asked Vegas, people would have bet that the Thunder were about to reel off multiple championships. What were you feeling like that day?
Oh. Three more. Three more, and our next game is at home. We’re going to win that game, and try to take care of business in Miami. Three games away from a championship is closer than ever. Seems like everything slipped away from there.
I guess the vast majority of NBA players never get to that point.
Right. It’s so tough in this league. You’re talking about championships, and some players go 10, 15 years without even making the playoffs. So it’s difficult. You have to cherish it every single time that you’re there.
Did you picture it? Did you picture winning it all?
Of course! Of course we pictured it. Like I said, we were there. We needed three more games. Our Game 2 was at our home court, and it was tough to beat us there. We would have to steal two in Miami. And if we didn’t, we would come back home. Like I said, it seemed like it just slipped away from there, and we lost four straight.
Miami did a pretty good job in just doing what they did. They were in that situation the previous year, and so they kind of knew, you know, how to play and especially on the road in the Finals. They stole one! And then they came home and took care of business at home.
If you had won that year, would you be in Oklahoma right now?
I have no idea. It’s a great question. I wish we could go back and play Game 2 again.
Then you had that crazy summer of contract uncertainty. I know you played it cool, but it must have turned your stomach a little not knowing what was going to happen.
No, not really. That summer was pretty busy for me. I didn’t really have time to think about it. Right after the Finals, it was off to USA Basketball for the entire summer, so I really didn’t have much time to think about it.
We started discussing it right after the Olympics. That’s when the discussions really started to begin.
It ended up they had some salary cap and money concerns and didn’t offer you as much as you could make elsewhere. If the money had been equal and you could choose OKC or Houston, where would you have chosen?
Um. It’s a tough question. It’s a tough question.
I don’t know.
Like I said, I grew in Oklahoma City. They taught me a lot. Now I’m in Houston, I’ve got my own, basically, my own team. You know, me and Dwight. It’s kind of different situations. Oklahoma City: came off the bench. Now, I’m starting. There’s a larger role. Both are great situations.
I found this old Sam Presti quote: “James really wanted to be a part of something … [being part of something bigger] was really more appealing to him than being a focal-point player. We loved that mentality. We thought it was a really mature outlook.” Was that a phase? Was it never really the case?
Definitely that was the case. Winning is the most important thing. Winning is how anybody gets recognition. We already had our groove. We had me coming off the bench, the starters did what they did. Everybody felt comfortable in their role. That’s how it worked.
I fit in, and I bought in. And it was good for us.
Could it have ever lasted? One thing someone explained to me, that makes sense to me, is that no team has three max wings. It has never happened. If you had gotten there first, and Kevin Durant had arrived later, it would have been a no-brainer that he would have looked for his own team because he’s Kevin Durant. That you happened, by random chance, to get there later, doesn’t make it weird that you’d like to run your own team, because you’re James Harden.
I didn’t look at it that way. Like I said, those were my brothers; we were focused on one thing, and that was winning. If I had to take a backseat, I was comfortable with it. Just ’cause, you know, the most important thing was winning.
You have this incredible array of ways you score. Jabs, step-backs, Euro-steps, floaters, hesitations ... how does that evolve? Does it come from the offseason? Does it come from watching film? Do you steal from other players? Do you have a personal coach who helps you with that? Is it Rockets staff, do they help you develop it?
All of the above. I do a lot of work in the summertime. I have coaches helping me out with the Rockets. I watch a lot of film and see how defenders are guarding me. Even during the season, every single day I’m constantly working on something in my game. I’m still new to this whole "star player" thing, so I have to be on point at all times. Just me working every single day is going to help me out.
If you work on something alone, how do you know it’s going to work with defense there? What are the signs of a good maneuver?
Just by watching film. Like I said, by watching film and seeing how different defenders are guarding me and different counters to how they’re guarding me. Obviously, it’s a lot different when they’re there, but if you focus on the move and you go hard enough, it doesn’t matter if the defender’s there or not.
How deep is your shooting range? If they had 4-pointers that were 35 feet or whatever, would you take ’em?
I would probably take ’em. But not often. Not often. I’d leave that to other guys in the league.
People can do it though, right? In practice, people can hit very long shots.
Oh yeah, definitely. I see it all the time. I see it all the time. But I wouldn’t be one of those guys to take a lot of 4-pointers.
Does your left hand, still, at this level, get you buckets from the fact that people are used to guarding righties?
Us lefties are very rare. So, um, I don’t know if people forget sometimes that I’m left-handed or whatever, but it’s difficult to guard.
What was your role in recruiting Dwight?
Very small. I guess Dwight knew his choices and options and what he wanted to do and where he wanted to spend his career, and he chose Houston for the reasons that, you know, he did. As far as that we have a lot of options and a lot of growth. I guess he felt this was the right fit for him.
I saw that, when teams were pitching Dwight, some people told him that James Harden uses the ball just as much as Kobe does, so he shouldn’t go play with the Rockets because he won’t get the ball. How does that make you feel?
Uhh ... I mean, I never heard that. But I handle the ball a lot. A lot. As far as bringing the basketball up. But I’m definitely a willing passer. I would rather average 18 points and 10 assists than 28 points.
So, whatever it takes to win, that’s the kind of team player that I am. You know, my job is to make my teammates happy, and Dwight happy.
As Anthony Bennett hogs the national “draft bust?” spotlight, it’s easy to forget that there are other young players under local scrutiny. In an ideal world, we wouldn't hold these young men to expectations they didn't set, but that change isn't happening anytime soon.
In Barnes’ case, the expectations don’t stem just from being the No. 7 pick. There’s more to the anxiety of “Is this it?” than his lottery status. First, Barnes didn’t storm the scene just last season as Bennett did en route to becoming the No. 1 overall pick in the 2013 draft. Barnes is coming off his rookie season, but the former No. 1-ranked recruit has been underwhelming nervous fans for years now.
Barnes played for a high-profile North Carolina program and was featured before a March Madness TV audience that dwarfs that of Warriors games. His freshman year at Chapel Hill was underwhelming, albeit mildly so. Barnes scored, but didn't do it that efficiently, and did little else. He still probably would have been a top-three pick if he had opted for the draft then, but he elected to stay a year, which worked out badly for his draft stock, if not his “brand.” Sophomore Barnes played like freshman Barnes. His "NBA body" continued to move as though animated by what draftniks might call a "low motor." His handle remained stilted, his shot remained average, and his disappearances from the team’s offensive attack remained frequent.
As Barnes drifted through his final college season, the Warriors set about a deliberate course. They tanked mightily in pursuit of a top-seven protected pick. The process was excruciating for just about anyone who followed the team closely out of either obligation or habit. It made a grim mockery of Mark Jackson’s first season as head coach as he strove to prove himself with suited stars and a massive organizational incentive to lose, lose, lose.
Barnes was the prize, the guy who would vindicate the intentional indignity of 2012. And in the 2013 playoffs, after Warriors fortunes had dramatically reversed for the better, Barnes appeared to do just that. His rookie season was uneven, but Barnes got something of a spotlight during Golden State’s first-round upset of the Denver Nuggets. David Lee went down with a hip injury, and Barnes, who had seen almost no time at power forward to that point, was called upon to be the replacement.
Barnes thrived with more space on the court, using his long strides to sail toward the rim. Denver frequently left him open beyond the arc, allowing Barnes to shoot 40.6 percent from deep in the series.
The following Spurs series didn't help Harrison’s efficiency, but it did bolster his national cachet. Tony Parker "hid" on Barnes defensively, which goaded the Warriors into bogging their offense down into repeated post-ups with their rookie. The result was plenty of points for Barnes (an average of 17.3 over the six-game series), but at a below-average 51.4 percent true shooting mark. Since raw point totals still command a lot of respect, many filed Barnes’ series as a breakout performance.
The Warriors themselves were reputed to be highly optimistic about Barnes during last summer’s training camp, even if they did bring Andre Iguodala in to take his starting spot. Rumors about Barnes' killer training camp set off yet another drum roll in a career comprised of so many anticipatory drum rolls.
Barnes began this season with a foot ailment, and he’s been, to put it bluntly, quite bad so far. It's not often that you’ll see a player with a 9.95 PER get so many opportunities. Jackson continues to post Barnes up as though his high-flying wing is Al Jefferson waiting to happen. The results have been miserable, mostly because Barnes claims neither the shooting ability nor passing vision to capitalize on frequent post-ups. It’s not all Jackson’s fault, though. Barnes dribbles with the stultifying caution of someone who fears the ball might set off land mines. He also holds on to it with the slow, deliberate focus of someone consulting a Magic 8 ball. To summarize, he’s a ball-stopper, but without the gaudy individual offense that many ball-stoppers can conjure up in isolation.
Though blessed with the body of an elite perimeter defender, Barnes has shown none of the instincts this season. While it’s understandable that a younger player might struggle on defense, Barnes’ flaws on that end are highlighted by the dogged defensive efforts of less-touted second-year man Draymond Green.
Draft disappointments don’t just let fans down on their lonesome, as disappointment needs a comparison to some better, imagined outcome. Sam Bowie wouldn't be “Sam Bowie” without Michael Jordan. Perhaps the most agonizing aspect of draft pick disappointment is the emerging picture of the alternatives. As the draft pick hindsight gets more clear, less blurry, it shows Andre Drummond dunking off a high screen lob from Stephen Curry. It shows John Henson blocking a shot simultaneous with Andrew Bogut. It shows Terrence Ross claiming membership as a Splash Brother with a 51-point opus. It shows Terrence Jones as an even better stretch 4 than Barnes in the Denver series. It shows Jeremy Lamb as what Kent Bazemore was supposed to be defensively. Depending on the day, it might even show the better side of Jared Sullinger, Kendall Marshall and Tony Wroten.
Barnes still has time and still has plausible excuses (remember the early-season injury?). Mark Jackson repeatedly extols his work ethic. Nobody on the team has criticized Barnes for a lack of desire or effort. If you’re hopeful about Harrison, you’ll have to lean on the subjective because the statistical profile is looking bleak. If you’re looking for optimism, you’ll have to consider what Curry said about Barnes after the victory over the Clippers: “He’s still young. He’s still trying to, you know, find his way. New role this year, obviously, coming off the bench. He’s going to get it. We still have confidence in him, we keep staying in his ear; he has confidence in himself, and obviously he’s shown that he can make a huge impact.”