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NBA implementing zero-tolerance policy for abusive or hateful fan behavior

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About a dozen NBA players gathered for a teleconference with officials in the league office this summer, making their case about what they believe is one of the biggest problems in the game.

Fan behavior, they said, is getting worse.

The numbers show they’re right, and if that isn’t troubling enough race only adds to the complexity of the issue: Most NBA players are black, and it seems like most of those in the closest seats are white. Not every incident is racially motivated, though some clearly are.

After high-profile incidents involving Russell Westbrook, DeMarcus Cousins, Kyle Lowry and others last season – including ones involving racist taunts – zero tolerance for abusive or hateful behavior is now to become the NBA’s policy going forward. The league is changing and toughening its code of conduct for fans, especially putting those in closest proximity to the players and the court on alert that anything over the line will lead to ejections and possibly more.

“We’ve added any sexist language or LGBTQ language, any denigrating language in that way, anything that is non-basketball related,” said Jerome Pickett, the NBA’s executive vice president and chief security officer. “So `your mother’ comments, talking about your family, talking about test scores, anything non-basketball related, we’ve added that in as well as being something that we will go and pull a fan out of the seat and investigate what happened.”

Westbrook and Cousins were subjected to racist taunts in Salt Lake City and Boston and the fans involved in those incidents were banned by the Jazz and Celtics. Lowry was shoved by a minority partner of the Golden State Warriors’ ownership group, seated courtside during the NBA Finals, and that person was banned from team business for a year by the league.

There were more. Those were just the highest-profile ones. The NBA would not release exact numbers – and the totals are believed to be very low – but Pickett said the ejections of fans in the courtside area still more than doubled last season.

Westbrook declined comment for this story, saying through a Rockets official that he was not comfortable discussing the matter. But the players’ union insists that the problem is getting bigger and bigger.

“Last season, I began to sense even at the games I was attending that there was a certain, I’ll call it absence of civility, that permeated the games,” said Michele Roberts, the executive director of the National Basketball Players Association. “I was seeing more bad-mouthing opposing teams that were not simply `you suck,’ which every one of us will tolerate, but really nasty, nasty comments being directed at players.”

The Celtics banned a fan for two years for directing racist chants at Cousins. Westbrook was involved in a pair of incidents in Utah that came to light last season; was offended by a fan during the 2018 playoffs by a fan calling him “boy” before a playoff game, and then last season was involved in a back-and-forth shouting match with another fan.

The Jazz banned both fans for life, and Westbrook was fined $25,000 by the NBA for threatening the fan involved in last season’s incident.

“I try very hard not to have my default answer be, `It’s racism.’ I really do because I don’t think that necessarily advances the argument,” Roberts said. “If it’s undoubtedly that, then I’m happy to say it.”

It’s not always racism, either – Roberts also said she’s received complaints from many white players about being the subject of nastiness from fans.

Amira Davis is an assistant professor at Penn State specializing in 20th Century American History with an emphasis on race, gender, sports and politics. She believes fans feel more emboldened now to say whatever they like, without fear of repercussions.

“There have been plenty of sober fans yelling slurs and attacking players in the worst way,” Davis said. “I think it’s a mix of all of those things and when looking at predominantly white spaces like Utah and a largely black labor force, it ratchets it up a little bit more and makes it a lot more intense. Particularly in this political climate in which it’s very easy to project onto high-profile black athletes and pathologies and misconceptions about the black community.”

Fan behavior is not just a concern in the NBA. It is being noted everywhere.

Racist chants and taunts are a major issue in European soccer, including at a Euro 2020 qualifier between Bulgaria and England last week. Green Bay and Philadelphia fans fought in the stands at Lambeau Field last month. The Atlanta Braves had fans stop doing their “tomahawk chop” during the playoffs earlier this month. During the AL Championship Series between Houston and New York, Astros manager A.J. Hinch told umpires that he felt the behavior of fans at Yankee Stadium had crossed the line and that it “was becoming a dangerous situation.”

“There’s no place for that,” Hinch said, referencing matters like debris being thrown from the stands toward players and taunts directed toward some of the Astros. “Both teams will agree. And it’s really hard to stop fans from doing that. But it’s also very dangerous.”

And the athletes are not always just victims, either.

Golfer Bio Kim was suspended by the Korean PGA for three years for making an obscene gesture at the crowd during the final round of a tournament that he won, angry because of noise from a cellphone camera.

In the NBA, the league is expanding the area in arenas most closely monitored when it comes to player-fan interaction. The top-priority area used to be just those seated with feet on the court itself or maybe the first couple rows of courtside seats; now, that area goes several rows deep in every building, plus the areas where teams and referees enter and exit the court.

The fan code of conduct, a standard announcement at every NBA arena for years, is now being shown and promoted more times in each game. Season-ticket holders have been put on notice by teams that they may lose their seats even if they give their tickets to someone who goes over the line and harasses players or officials too vociferously.

Fans believed to have been involved in incidents will be removed from seats while officials investigate; many times, when a security guard asks those in a certain area what just happened, no one would volunteer information with the suspected heckler present.

“I think players are definitely vulnerable,” Golden State’s Draymond Green said after the Lowry incident. “Any time you’re in a situation where you can do no right, like in defending yourself, you’re vulnerable.”

Barrier to entry for NBA playoff race is historically low

NBA playoff race includes Grizzlies, Nets
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As free agency neared last summer, Andre Iguodala told his wife he suspected he’d get traded. She asked, where?

“I’ll probably end up in Memphis or some s—,” Iguodala replied.

The tone seemed apt. The Grizzlies were in the initial stages of a rebuild. Hardly a fit for 35-year-old Iguodala. In fact, Memphis – which of course traded for Iguodala – has agreed to let Iguodala sit out since training camp began. The Grizzlies could search for a trade. Iguodala could stay fresh for a team ready to win now.

But a funny thing happened: Halfway through the NBA season, Memphis is in playoff position.

The Grizzlies are exceeding expectations, of course. Ja Morant and a young core are thriving far sooner than expected. That isn’t the whole story, though.

Memphis (19-22) has won just 46% of its games. That would have been good for 11th place last season. In the East.

The Grizzlies are fortunate to play in Western Conference with a weak middle class. Memphis on pace to become the first sub-.500 Western Conference playoff teams since the conference expanded to 15 teams.

And it’s not as if the Grizzlies are getting pushed hard from behind. The ninth-place Spurs (17-22) are on pace for the worst ninth-place finish in the West in this era (since 2004-05).

It’s a similar story in the East.

The Nets (18-22) are in playoff position with a winning percentage barely ahead of the 2003-04 Celtics, who went 36-46 and made the postseason. That Boston team set the low watermark since the Eastern Conference expanded to 15 teams (since 1995-96).

Like Memphis in the West, Brooklyn faces uninspiring competition. The ninth-place Bulls (15-27), 10th-place Pistons (15-27) AND 11th-place Hornets (15-29) are all on pace for the worst finish for their spot in the standings in this era.

Here’s how each team’s win percentage in each conference compares to teams in the same place in the standings in prior 15-team conferences. The 2019-20 teams are shown by their logo. Prior teams are marked with a dot. Columns are sorted by place within a conference, 1-15. After the graphics, 2018-19 teams are compared to the worst, average and best teams ever to finish in each place, 1-15.

Western Conference

NBA Western Conference standings

NBA Western Conference standings

Eastern Conference

NBA Eastern Conference standings

NBA Eastern Conference standings

At least several decent teams are lurking in the West. Even the 14th-place Kings would rank ninth in the East. Between the Grizzlies, Spurs, Trail Blazers, Suns, Pelicans, Timberwolves and Kings, one probably emerges with a winning record.

Both conferences feature relative strength in the 3-6 range. That could mean a high-quality first-round series or two in each conference.

So, why do the conferences look how they do? I wouldn’t rush to ascribe meaning.

The NBA implemented lottery reform last season, and that might have something to do with a lack of teams deeply bottoming out. But it’s too soon to say with certainty how the new lottery odds will affect things. After all, the shape of the standings looked quite different around this time last season.

The league getting further removed from the 2016 cap spike might also play a part in producing parity among good teams. Again, though, it’s too early to carve conclusions into stone.

Mostly, I think there’s just a randomness to it. Some years, the standings shake out a certain way. Other years, it’s a different way.

But now that we know how this year looks, we can see that only a few teams are out of the playoff race. Twelve teams ought to believe they have at least a fair chance of winning a postseason series. That could produce more buyers than usual before the trade deadline.

PBT mid-season awards: Defensive Player of the Year, Rookie of the Year and more

Defensive Player of the Year Rudy Gobert and Ja Morant
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The 2019-20 NBA season reached its midpoint by games played last night. So, we’re naming winners for mid-season awards. Yesterday, we picked Most Valuable Player and All-NBA. Now, we’re onto the other major honors.

Defensive Player of the Year

Kurt Helin: Rudy Gobert (Jazz)

This is the hardest award for me to pick mid-season, but the Jazz put more on the plate of Gobert this season and he has responded amazingly (even if the Jazz’s defense is a little off from its usual highs this season). A lot of other players still in the mix here for me including Joel Embiid (if he plays enough games), Giannis Antetokounmpo, Jimmy Butler, Anthony Davis, Kawhi Leonard, and Marcus Smart.

Dan Feldman: Rudy Gobert (Jazz)

Even as reigning back-to-back Defensive Player of the Year, Gobert doesn’t have the final award sewn up. Anthony Davis, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Brook Lopez and Kawhi Leonard are in the mix. But in a tight race, Gobert gets the benefit of the doubt. Utah’s strong defense is built entirely around Gobert’s rim protection.

Rookie of the Year

Kurt Helin: Ja Morant (Grizzlies)

This is a runaway award, but not for the guy we expected to run away with it. Zion Williamson makes his debut next week and maybe he could climb to third in this race, but he’s not winning the award. Morant and his fluid athleticism have turned Grizzlies into must-watch television, and he looks every bit the franchise player. Kendrick Nunn is a clear second in this race.

Dan Feldman: Ja Morant (Grizzlies)

Some rookie point guards put up big numbers. Some rookie point guards produce electric highlights. Some rookie point guards show promising flashes of winning basketball. Few rookie point guards are actually good. Morant is actually good. His athleticism, shooting and overall offensive control form an incredible package for his age. Sure, Morant is sometimes too reckless. He doesn’t completely break the mold of a young point guard. But Memphis has a gem.

Most Improved Player

Kurt Helin: Devonte' Graham (Hornets)

Last season, Graham was an end-of-the-bench guy in Charlotte. This season, he’s averaging 18.7 points a game, hitting 38.7 percent from three and is the team’s best player. Nobody saw that coming and it’s a radical improvement. Also in the mix for this award are Bam Adebayo and Luka Doncic — yes, the MVP candidate, he as made a massive leap this season.

Dan Feldman: Luka Doncic (Mavericks)

It’s a two-man race between Doncic and Devonte’ Graham. As the reigning Rookie of the Year, Doncic will get overlooked. He’s a second-year player. He was supposed to be this good. BS. The leap into superstardom is generally more difficult than the climb from non-rotation player to good starter, which Graham made. For Doncic to get this good this quickly is unprecedented.

Sixth Man of the Year

Kurt Helin: Montrezl Harrell (Clippers)

Harrell was in the mix for this award last season and came back this season as a better defender and more efficient on offense. He’s a critical element for a contending Clippers team, and closes games for them at the five. However, this is not a decided race by any means, both Derrick Rose and George Hill deserve serious consideration. Also, Spencer Dinwiddie in Brooklyn could be in the mix, but likely starts too many games to qualify.

Dan Feldman: Montrezl Harrell (Clippers)

I nearly chose Harrell for this award last season. Since, he has improved his offensive skill and defensive effectiveness. His big role in L.A. gives Harrell the edge over another highly productive reserve, the Bucks’ George Hill. Derrick Rose and Harrell’s teammate, Lou Williams, also warrant consideration.

Coach of the Year

Kurt Helin: Erik Spoelstra (Heat)

This is a wide-open race and my spreadsheet goes eight deep with worthy candidates: Nick Nurse has done an impressive job in Toronto, same with Brad Stevens in Boston and Frank Vogel with the Lakers, and the list goes on. Spoelstra, however, leads for me because of a combination of player development — Kendrick Nunn, Bam Adebayo, Tyler Herro, etc. — and smart utilization of the players’ he has. Plus, Spoelstra is getting it all to mesh around Jimmy Butler.

Dan Feldman: Nick Nurse (Raptors)

Nurse kept Toronto humming when Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green left. Nurse kept Toronto humming when key players, including breakout star Pascal Siakam, got hurt. Nurse kept Toronto humming when unproven young players had to join the rotation. Nurse’s defenses are particularly exemplary – both his creativity and ability to get everyone up to speed. The Heat’s Erik Spoelstra and the Pacers’ Nate McMillan aren’t far behind.

DeAndre Ayton got the start for Phoenix, put up 26 and 21 (VIDEO)

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Coach Monty Williams changed things up as Phoenix went into Madison Square Garden Thursday:

Deandre Ayton got the start at center and Aron Baynes came off the bench.

The result? Ayton had his first-ever 20/20 game — 26 points and 21 rebounds — as the Suns blew out the Knicks 121-98.

Phoenix also got a big night from Ricky Rubio, 25 points and 13 assists. He kept finding Ayton in places the second-year big man could do damage.

It’s one step in a long road for the Suns’ big man, but it was good to see.

Here’s video of Klay Thompson getting up shots in an empty Chase Center

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“I would love to get out there… But I’m trying to make sure this type of injury never happens to me again. So, I’ll be very patient because I want to play at a high level until I’m in my late-30s.”

That’s how Klay Thompson recently described his recovery, making sure there was no specific timeline mentioned. He’ll be back when the doctors clear him to be back — which could be next season. He will be re-evaluated next month. 

That said, Thompson is getting in work on the court and putting up shots. As you can see from the video above, he’s doing it headband on in the Chase Center pregame.

What does that mean? Nothing. It’s not like Thompson is moving at NBA speeds in this video, and ultimately it’s the people who spent years in medical school who get to make this call. Considering where the Warriors are in the standings, management may decide to give Thompson the entire season off. Even if he wants to return.

For now, just enjoy the video.