AP Photo/Tyler Kaufman

Tanking tension central to Anthony Davis drama

11 Comments

NBA teams collectively play 2,460 games each season.

Too few of those games matter.

A few weeks ago, Anthony Davis decided it was no longer worth trying to accomplish his goals with the Pelicans. His trade request derailed New Orleans’ season, and there has been only more difficulty since the team kept him past the trade deadline. Davis has faced immense criticism for making his trade request in-season rather than waiting until the summer.

But teams frequently make a similar determination – that it’s no longer worth trying to accomplish their season goals – well before the season ends.

The most common form of tanking is a team entering the season with playoff aspirations, losing more than hoped then pivoting into more-intended losing down the stretch. Those teams reduce playing time for better veterans and turn toward younger players less-equipped to win presently. Future seasons become the priority well before the current season ends.

The Davis situation is just a version of that.

It might be a long time until a player as good as Davis requests a trade, let alone during a season. But unless the NBA addresses its draft system, there will continue to be weeks of miserable games in the second half of seasons.

The league can try to force teams to play good players. The league can change lottery odds. The league can even pressure teams to oust executives who push tanking to the extreme.

But problems will remain as long as draft positioning is tied to inverse standings. The incentive to lose might be reduced, but it’s still way stronger than the incentive to win extra games late in a losing season.

What do the Suns, Knicks, Cavaliers, Bulls and Hawks have to play for the rest of the season? Winning a few extra games won’t change perception of those teams or draw a significant number of fans. But extra wins would reduce those teams’ odds of drafting a franchise-changer.

The Pelicans face a similar situation. They want to escape the season with Davis healthy and his trade value fully intact. They want a higher draft pick. They care less about winning down the stretch.

The script is flipped because Davis put them into this position. If he hadn’t requested a trade, New Orleans would likely be making a longshot playoff pursuit.

But the result is the same – many remaining games the team doesn’t care about winning or even actively prefers to lose.

There have been numerous suggestions, some even two extreme for me.

The Wheel has been the most popular of those. Celtics assistant general manager Mike Zarren’s proposal gives each team a pick in each segment of the draft in a rotating basis over a multi-year period. The draft order is completely decoupled from record. Each team is on identical footing for the draft.

But I think losing teams should get a leg up in the draft. The NBA is trying to engage all its fanbases. Winning comes with the joy of winning. Losing comes with hope. If losing teams didn’t have the upside of a higher draft pick, their fans would completely lose interest.

A shorter schedule would compact the standings and delay losing teams’ decisions to punt the season. But that’s a non-starter. Nobody is surrendering revenue by eliminating games. Besides, a longer season benefits fans, especially those who are the fringe of being able to afford tickets. A higher supply of games drives down ticket prices.

The NBA is threatening to fine teams for sitting healthy players. But that policy is far too arbitrary for me. Davis obviously draws league scrutiny. But what about Enes Kanter with the Knicks? What about Eric Bledsoe with the Suns in 2017? I prefer clear lines then allowing teams to operate within them.

My general suggestion: Give teams one lottery combination for each loss until they’re eliminated from the playoff race then, thereafter, one lottery combination for each win. Only non-playoff teams get put in the lottery.

There are plenty of ways to tweak it. Maybe teams should get more lottery combinations for the early losses or late wins. Maybe something needs to be done about conference disparity changing when teams are eliminated. How many teams to draw in the lottery and how many to slot and in what order must be determined.

But the general outcome would be awarding higher draft picks to bad teams – especially those that compete to the end of the season.

The NBA would be healthier if teams cared about winning more games.

Winning their remaining games this season is no longer the Pelicans’ priority. They want to protect their most valuable trade asset and improve draft position. Davis’ trade request obviously makes this a unique situation.

But plenty of teams annually sit their top players late in losing seasons without those players first requesting a trade. The problem runs much wider than Davis and New Orleans.

Magic Johnson just explained he didn’t understand his Lakers job

Getty Images
Leave a comment

The Lakers spring of dysfunction continues, and every time you don’t think things could get much worse…

This time Magic Johnson went on ESPN’s First Take and went Daenerys on the dragon on the Lakers, saying what he thought made him look good, or at least what made him seem the victim. If you think it was an accident Magic did that on the day the Lakers were hosting a press conference to introduce Frank Vogel as their new coach, well, I know a Nigerian prince who just needs a few of your dollars.

True or not, Magic genuinely believes everything he said on that show — that GM Rob Pelinka stabbed him in the back by questioning Magic’s work ethic and commitment to the job. That Jesse Buss and Joey Buss are trying to grab more power (maybe they should have more power). That Tim Harris has been encroaching from the business side to the basketball side. That his good friend Jeanie Buss was not keeping all those people in their lanes.

While this is Magic’s word, those are all issues (or, to my eyes, symptoms of the Lakers’ dysfunction).

What Magic doesn’t understand: Dealing with all that was EXACTLY his job.

This is what it means to be the President of Basketball Operations (POBO) of an NBA team. Yes, you get to make draft picks, hire/fire coaches, and have the hammer on trades, but that’s just a part of the gig. You manage the entire basketball side of the business. Manage being the key word here. This is a job more about organization and setting a culture than it is basketball decisions.

If Pelinka is calling you out, get in a room with him and Jeanie Buss and deal with it.

Or, you know, actually show up to the office more. Magic said he told Jeanie Buss he would be “in and out” because he wasn’t giving up is other businesses, and she okayed it. That showed a lack of understanding on both their parts as to what this job actually entails. Magic was not a consultant who got to parachute in for a few days once or twice a month and make decisions. He was the POBO — this is the job for a grinder. It’s long hours of mostly of thankless work. It’s culture setting. It’s scouting mid-major college games to know who to draft in the second round. It’s talking to everyone from other teams to have a real understanding of the value of your players in the market, and the value of other players you may want. It’s understanding the chemistry makeup of your own team enough to know that if things go public with your efforts to land Anthony Davis midseason — and they will go public, one way or another — it could devastate your team. It’s much more than that, too.

If the younger Buss brothers were angling for more power, it’s Magic’s job to keep them in line. If CEO Tim Harris is getting out of his lane, put him back in it. If it takes help from Jeanie Buss to do those things, then you better be able to manage up and get her to handle it. For a POBO, managing the owner is part of the job (and a harder job in some markets than others).

It’s understandable why Magic wanted out of this Lakers’ job, it was not a good fit for him from the start. He enjoyed his celebrity too much, he wasn’t going to put in the kind of hours needed to do the job properly (there are certainly other GMs/POBOs around the league who do this as well but don’t get called out for it this way, welcome to the Lakers). Him stepping aside was the right move.

But what we saw on ESPN Monday was a quality encapsulation of the Lakers dysfunction right now — a lot of people stepping out of their lanes and nobody shaping a culture.

I could write (or say in on a podcast/in a radio interview) for what feels like the 487th time that what the Lakers need to do is hire a go outside Jeanie Buss’ tight circle of friends, outside her comfort zone, outside the “Lakers way,” and go get a very good POBO with experience from somewhere else — this is where being the Lakers is an advantage, go poach someone, this is a coveted job — and then give that person all the power. Stay out of the way. Let this person shape the culture. I could write that, but the Lakers will not be replacing Magic. So what you see is what you get.

And all of this might not matter — the Lakers may back their way into a good summer.

LeBron James (who showed up at Frank Vogel’s press conference) may help them recruit a quality free agent, or maybe the Anthony Davis trade talks turn their way after all. One way or another, expect the Lakers to get someone (whether that someone is good enough is another question for another day). Maybe this time the Lakers will put shooters and a good fitting roster around LeBron and this other star. Despite the dysfunction, this could all work out.

That doesn’t mean the Lakers are doing things the right way as an organization, how they operate will hurt them in the long run. It’s just in the short run it may work out.

And the Lakers will take that as a sign they are doing things right. Despite the fact Monday showed they clearly are not. Even if it came from the fact Magic didn’t really get what he was hired to do.

Sebastian Telfair’s sister charged with threatening witness who testified against him

Alex Goodlett/Getty Images
1 Comment

NEW YORK (AP) The sister of former NBA player Sebastian Telfair was accused on Monday of threatening a woman who testified against him at his New York City gun-possession trial.

Octavia Telfair was charged in federal court in Brooklyn with transmitting an interstate threat. There was no immediate response to an email seeking comment from her lawyer.

Sebastian Telfair – a once highly touted point guard with a disappointing NBA career and a history of brushes with the law – was convicted last month of carrying loaded guns in his pickup truck. Witnesses included his estranged wife and a girlfriend.

Shortly after the guilty verdict, Octavia Telfair made threatening phone calls to one of the witnesses in California, according to a criminal complaint that didn’t identify the alleged victim. The sister told the woman she either was “gonna die” or going to have to live with a “rearranged face,” the complaint says.

The Brooklyn-born Sebastian Telfair was a first-round draft pick out of high school in 2004. He started with the Portland Trail Blazers and spent time with the Boston Celtics, Minnesota Timberwolves and other teams before ending his career in China in 2014.

Telfair and a friend were arrested in 2007 after a traffic stop during which police found a loaded handgun in the vehicle. He pleaded guilty to criminal possession of a weapon and was sentenced to three years’ probation.

Telfair faces 3 + to 15 years in prison at his sentencing next month for his current gun case.

James Ennis opting out of 76ers contract

Mitchell Leff/Getty Images
Leave a comment

James Ennis was the 76ers’ lone reliably good backup this postseason.

He’s hoping to parlay that success into a salary above $1,845,301 next season.

Noah Levick of NBC Sports Philadelphia:

James Ennis will decline his player option and become a free agent, his agent, Scott Nichols from Rize Management, confirmed Monday morning.

Teams can’t get enough versatile forwards like Ennis. He can defend multiple positions and, sometimes, shoot adequately from outside. The 28-year-old should remain a helpful player.

With his Non-Bird Rights, Philadelphia can offer him a starting salary up to 120% of his minimum salary. That projects to be about $2.3 million. Paying Ennis more would require using another exception (like the mid-level) or cap space.

Of course, Jimmy Butler and Tobias Harris are the main priorities in free agency. But the 76ers sacrificed a lot of depth to acquire those two. Philadelphia must build back up its roster.

So, whether or not they re-sign Ennis, the 76ers should keep pursuing more capable reserves.

Rob Pelinka: Magic Johnson saying I betrayed him ‘simply not true’

Ethan Miller/Getty Images
4 Comments

Frank Vogel – at was ostensibly his own introductory press conference – sat quietly while Lakers general manager Pelinka fielded six straight questions.

Finally, at Pelinka’s urging, Vogel chimed in.

“What I’d like to add, quite frankly, is the perception of our organization is very far from the reality,” Vogel said, “from my experience coming in here, of just the thoroughness of the work, the collaboration of how things are being done with the decision-making.”

Vogel has worked one week for the Lakers. His claims of stability carry far less weight than the description Magic Johnson – who ran the front office for two years before stunningly resigning last month – gave in an explosive interview earlier in the day.

Johnson said Pelinka betrayed him. Johnson said business-side executive Tim Harris interfered in basketball operations. Johnson said mid-level employees Joey Buss and Jesse Buss thought they should be general manager or president.

And Johnson said Lakers owner Jeanie Buss enabled this toxic environment.

Pelinka stressed how much he enjoyed working with Johnson. Pelinka said he had spoken positively with Johnson several times in the last month. So, Pelinka called Johnson’s characterizations “saddening and disheartening.”

“They’re just simply not true,” Pelinka said. “I stand beside him. I stand with him as a colleague and a partner. I’ve always supported everything he’s done and will continue to.”

Pelinka is fighting an uphill battle on his reputation. Johnson remains so popular because of his greatness as a player and endearing personality.

Johnson effectively admitted today to being an absentee executive. He even contradicted his own tweet:

But most still view Johnson as more credible than Pelinka.

Really, this whole saga was sad for Frank, who was clearly excited about this opportunity after failing with the Magic. He was often a bystander at his own press conference.

Ultimately, it won’t matter Johnson-Pelinka drama upstaged Frank. He still takes over a team with LeBron James. a good amount of young talent, the No. 4 pick and max cap space. Vogel can succeed in this job.

If he does, everyone will come around. Pelinka was right about one thing: Winning will solve most of the Lakers’ issues.

But it’ll be harder for them to win because of their issues.

Frank can do his part by coaching well and, as he said he was up for, instilling energy and cohesion around him.

He can’t simply say the Lakers have their act together and expect us to believe him. Neither can Pelinka. And Johnson is obviously saying the opposite.

The next big question: How will they pitch free agents and stop these problems from spiraling even further?