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The great equalizer in the NBA is ego. Not culture. Not the draft. Not talent. Not luck. Not location.
We’ve seen it all across the NBA in recent seasons, really since the league started to use the selling of superstars as its main base. Influential players have made it their mantra to use leverage to influence roster moves. Michael Jordan did it when he was in Chicago. Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal tried to use it against each other. LeBron James has done it his entire career.
The same can be said for former players, as well as executives and owners. The teams that continually end up in the bottom of the standings despite their best efforts often find their way there thanks to stubborn gatekeeping. You know the kind.
As executives, these former hardwood heroes sometimes baffle their fanbases. Against all logic (and probably their own professional scouts) they sign or draft a guy because a player seems like a pure scorer or a monster rebounder, devoid of advanced statistical analysis. It’s those same general managers, or perhaps owners, who hire former players to be head coaches with little experience. Jason Kidd and Earl Watson immediately come to mind.
There has been very little in the way of former stars succeeding outright when it comes to team building. Both current players and former, as we have seen, are often unable to divest their own ego from their position. With old school knowledge and bolstered confidence, many of these players wind up steering their teams in the wrong direction. Vlade Divacs and his menagerie of power forward, for example.
That is not to say that former stars can’t be successful executives and coaches. Steve Kerr won five championships as a player, and he had to go to the Phoenix Suns before he stopped off in Golden State. And in Phoenix, he failed. Kerr traded away much of the Suns’ core, including Shawn Marion, Boris Diaw, and Raja Bell. He eventually left the Phoenix front office in 2010, turning to the Golden State Warriors in a role as coach without explicit executive power.
Perhaps that is one of the main reasons Golden State remains atop the league. Not only is the team managed by smart basketball people who clearly know their role, the team is unaffected by the types of players who — at least to our outward knowledge — try to significantly impact roster moves. Sure, Warriors players banded together to attract Kevin Durant a couple of years ago, but that was a no-brainer. The front office wanted KD, too.
I’m not sure if it’s a humongous black mark on the legacies of guys like LeBron and MJ, either as players or as front office folks. But there is an invisible hand in the NBA, one where the human element of superstardom affects real choices that may not always be the best for the product on the basketball court.
Putting together a functional NBA roster, especially one that is championship ready, is already akin to wrangling cats. Having to deal with and impetuous owner, or a former player GM still stuck in the 80s, or a star player who wants to team up with his AAU buddies makes it that much more difficult.
Then again, in a league that decided to sell the smiling face of star players, ego was always going to be the sword that cut both ways. The Cavaliers knew that. The Lakers know that. Hell, even the San Antonio Spurs know that now.
Kobe would have been a Charlotte Hornet; Steve Francis would have been a Vancouver Grizzly; Jon Barry would have been a Boston Celtic, all if not for self-empowerment fueled by ego.
This isn’t to put the idea of “ego” as purely negative, either. Surely, Russell Westbrook won the MVP two seasons ago largely in part due to his ego and knowing that he could carry a team all alone. Ego is often the driving force for what makes a player successful, and compartmentalizing it as separate from the player himself does nobody any good.
Next time you are thinking about your favorite team’s roster, think hard about how much ego either at the player, executive, or owner level has affected the direction of that franchise. It might be better than you think! Or, you might be a Knicks fan.
Let’s get to your questions.
What are the Knicks and Lakers best options for Joakim Noah and Luol Deng? Are the Knicks and Lakers better off simply waiting out the final two years of Noah and Deng’s contracts until they expire, waiving and stretching them in 2019, or sitting tight for this season and then try trading them as an expiring contracts next off-season. In my opinion, the third option would only happen if either offers a protected future 1st round pick, at minimum.
The question for both of these teams is what they see themselves doing in the future and how their current salary cap figures factor into those future plans. We all know that major teams are waiting for the summer of 2019 to sign a bevy of free agents that will become available. It’s clear that by their current signings this season around LeBron James, that the Los Angeles Lakers are aiming directly for 2019. New York is more of a mystery, especially because Kristaps Porzingis might miss this entire season and that could put a damper on the Knicks’ free agent pitch.
Stretching seems to be the option people are jonesing for in this scenario, especially because both players are sort of in the same situation. Deng has two years left on his contract at around $18 million a piece, and stretching him (over five years if done before Aug. 31) could save the Lakers around $7 million dollars in cap space over the next two seasons.
The only problem is that if LA decides to stretch Deng then they will also have that cap hit for many years to come, well through LeBron’s first contract with the Lakers. Whether Magic Johnson and Rob Pelinka want to have $7 million dollars of Deng on the books through 2022-23 is another question.
The same can be said for Noah and the Knicks. Stretching Noah with two years left on his contract represents a similar amount of savings for New York, but he would be attached to their cap for many years to come. The Knicks already handed out a large contract to Tim Hardaway Jr., and Porzingis is due for an extension here soon. No doubt they will be wanting to put players around them.
Looking at projected salary figures for both teams in these scenarios — whether they stretch these players or not — it seems like they should have enough space to sign guys to build around their stars. But you can never have enough flexibility in the NBA, and I think bogging down cap space for half a decade to open up less than $10 million for next summer isn’t a gamble either are likely to make. The Lakers will be big players next season no matter what, whether via free agency or trade. Players will come to LA, as we have already seen. They don’t really need to have that extra boost in cap space thanks to the one-year deals they made everyone sign this summer.
New York’s build is on a slower path and two more seasons of Noah on the books isn’t that big of a deal. Then again, after Porzingis signs his extension it’s likely they will be toying with the luxury tax. Whether James Dolan wants to pay that for one year thanks largely to Noah’s contract is a big question.
Right now, it seems like they will likely just wait out both of those contracts.
I saw LeBron KD and Draymond at Mastro’s in LA last night. Draymond seemed to be spending most of his time keeping an eye on KD and LeBron. Is he the Warriors’ official babysitter?
Sent from my iPad
This is why I started the mailbag feature: to break news about NBA players canoodling with each other over high-priced steaks. I also like that this is sort of a humblebrag about you being at Mastro’s yourself, Lamar. Kudos.
Even if we could verify this meeting actually happened, it probably wouldn’t mean anything. All NBA players hang out with each other all the time, usually in LA, over the summer. But if we wanted to make a big deal out of it, we could suppose that instead of Draymond keeping an eye on Kevin Durant, he is actually working together to try to figure out a way to end up on the Lakers with him in a couple of years.
Draymond’s contract is up after the 2019-20 season. And although the rumblings about Durant leaving Golden State are growing, there are smaller ones about how much Golden State will be willing to pay as their core ages. Perhaps Green decides that he wants to leave as well? It would be the ultimate heel turn for him to join up with LeBron in Los Angeles.
I’m not supposing this actually happens, by the way. I’m mostly just putting it out there for fun because your original question is sort of ridiculous. Draymond is a strong personality, but I don’t think anyone can influence directly what KD will do in the future. That’s solely up to Durant and the people who are mean to him on Instagram.
After a pretty good showing in Vegas … would it make sense for Portland to have Jake Layman start at the 3 and Al-Farouq Aminu at the 4 with Turner and Harkless in the second unit?
I realize that fans in Portland are hungry for any kind of championship after the Trail Blazers took home the 2018 NBA Las Vegas Summer League Title. I’m not going to take that away from you. But, we have to understand what the can take away realistically from Summer League, and it’s not much.
On a basketball floor, Summer League serves essentially two purposes. The first is to suss out who will be the 14th or 15th guy on your roster that you might be able to develop over the next three years into an end of the rotation player. More importantly, it’s to indoctrinate new draft picks into your offensive system and get them into game shape over the summer. It allows you first contact and basketball drill availability for top picks, who for many teams will play an important role in the upcoming season. If you draft a guy in the lottery and you need him to score for you each night during his rookie season, it’s best to get a head start.
Otherwise, the rest of it is for us basketball nerds. We go to hang out, network, and spy on 1990’s NBA stars losing $500 a hand at the blackjack table.
So back to your question: I’m not sure that we have seen Layman be aggressive enough to garner real minutes heading into the season. That’s not to say that it’s not a possibility given Pat Connaughton is gone, but from a readiness perspective I don’t see Layman taking that spot.
Frankly, I’m not sure exactly what GM Neil Olshey is up to. It seems like he is going to let Portland’s trade exception expire from the Allen Crabbe swap with the Brooklyn Nets, and that means their roster is likely going to be set lest they trade some of their bigger pieces.
What that probably means is that Portland is not going to rely on Layman more, but Moe Harkless. The wing rotation for Portland will probably be shorter, much like they do with their guards. Starters next season in Rip City likely won’t matter it because Aminu, Turner, and Harkless will all share that duty relatively equally as they swap across the rotation.
I don’t think that’s a good idea, but it’s in line with how Terry Stotts has managed his games before. Stotts likes a short rotation, and sliding laymen in there isn’t going to be his first priority.
Y’all got to come down. You won the Summer League Championship, go get a slice of pizza on Mississippi and chill. Layman isn’t your answer.
Then again, I (rightly) called Joel Freeland the worst backup big man in the NBA the year before he broke out and was super crucial for Portland in 2013-14. What the hell do I know? Maybe Slayman will average 14 points a night.
What’s the over/under on games played as a Raptor for Kawhi Leonard? Is it under 60?
This really depends on whether or not you think Leonard will be traded during the course of this upcoming season or if you think he will somehow re-sign with the Raptors.
Either seems possible because Leonard’s been super erratic over the course of the last year. His business management team seems like a bunch of goobers if you ask me. They were trying to angle him into Los Angeles, and instead saw him swap sunny, no-income-tax Texas for a distant, cold, high income tax city where he doesn’t want to play and that’s not even in America. No glitz and glam for him — instead he’ll need an international phone plan and a green card. Top notch work, if you ask me.
Anyway, I’m going to set the over/under for games Kawhi plays in Toronto at 30.
That’s the amount of games there or thereabouts that it takes to get to the 2019 NBA trade deadline. It’s also triple the number of games that Leonard played for the Spurs last year, and if he reaches that mark it shows that he’s not holding out due to “rehabilitation”.
I think the most annoying thing about Leonard being traded to the Raptors is that we are going to have to continue to talk about him and his mismanaged brand image for the rest of the year. Him holding out — or whatever he was doing — in San Antonio last year got to be too much to talk about week in and week out. It just got boring.
But hey, we will see. Maybe in three years time he will be a Laker and starring in “Space Jam 3: Porky’s Revenge” and it will have all worked out for him. But perhaps not.
Which team doomed by their own ownership would you rather be a fan of if you were forced to pick between them? The Kings, where they have a billionaire owner who seems to mean well but who also makes crazy suggestions like playing 4-on-5? Or the Knicks, where you are pretty sure (but not that sure) that owning the team is part of some kind of tax dodge or at the very least, a Ponzi scheme for James Dolan?
This is a pretty tough question. Do I have to have lived in one of these two places? Is that part of the requisite fanhood? Because to be honest, I don’t really want to have spent any time in either of those cities.
If I had to, I guess I would pick Sacramento. That area of California is sort of beautiful and reminds me of where I’m from. New York’s reputation seems so over-inflated that there’s no possible way that it lives up to the hype. Any time someone tells me about New York City they always say things like “You can get any food you want at 2 am!” as if:
- I wasn’t already from Portland where that’s already a thing
- I’m not also in my 30s and can’t even eat Goldfish crackers without getting heartburn
I don’t need to be out boozing and eating Cambodian food until the wee hours of the morning. That may have worked for me in my twenties, but in my thirties I just want to be able to fall asleep before the next day rolls over. My friend just went to New York this last winter and said it was basically uninhabitable. She did meet Michael Che within an hour of getting into the city. But is hanging out with Michael Che single every night really worth it to be a Knicks fan? Probably not.
My point is that being a Kings fan would be much better, perhaps because of the lack of expectation. Only Millennials yammer on about those early 2000s Sacramento teams anymore. And while it would be nice to recapture those Chris Webber and White Chocolate days, nobody is saying that the Kings franchise has taken dip past its historical reputation. That’s pompous anyways.
Plus, eventually it seems like Vivek Ranadive might actually hire somebody competent to run the team. Ranadive’s goal, even if he did hire Vlade Divac, is to win. At least I think. To your credit, it seems like James Dolan mostly owns the team because the games are over before open mic nights start in the city and because guys from the Bronx will buy any new sports equipment that says NEW YAWHK on it.
And while his billionaire ego might push Ranadive to eventually hire someone useful to set his team in the right direction, it’s that same ego that means Dolan will likely never sell the Knicks. He will continue to hire yes-men while Knicks fans watch Kristaps Porzingis leave in 2025 for the Clippers or something.
Also: shut up about Allan Houston already. Allan Houston is like if Steve Smith wasn’t quite as good.
How is Zach Collins projecting as a defender? Sometimes he looks elite. But his fouls are so high.
We don’t really know the answer to this question and it’s a big gamble that the Blazers took over the offseason by failing to re-sign at Davis. Collins had a surprising rookie season, but it was easy to see how well he played while paired with Davis versus without him.
Now that Davis is a member of the Brooklyn Nets, Collins will be getting not only his own minutes from last season but much of Davis’s former workload. This time, he won’t have Davis to help him out when he blows rotations or ends up half a step slow. That’s not to say that he’s bad on D, it’s just that young big men take time to develop.
Portland is taking a lot of gambles this season already, especially given that they are set to let that trade exception expire. I’m not really sure if that’s the best choice, but they will have to rely on their young players in supporting roles like they’ve never done before.
I still think Blazer fans should be excited about Collins, and more interesting might be what he can provide on the offensive side of the floor when he plays more minutes. Jusuf Nurkic wasn’t the offensive player Portland was thinking he would turn into after his first half-season in Rip City. He didn’t shoot as many jumpers off the pick-and-roll as we thought, and his post moves, while sometimes effective, are plodding. Nurkic can’t really shoot with his left hand, and against top defensive big men he really struggled.
Portland needs players to space the floor, and Collins showed that he might be able to hit those LaMarcus Aldridge-type jumpers moving forward. He might be a player who can both dive and fade on the pick-and-roll, and that might make him more interesting offensively. It could be painful to watch the Blazers as they struggle for the playoffs this year, but they certainly should be interesting.
I am a huge Stephon Marbury fan and was curious, do you think he will get signed by an NBA team? I think he would be a great for for the Rockets and Spurs or even the Lakers. What are your thoughts? Will somebody sign him?
I think Stephon Marbury would be great on the Lakers. In fact, let’s add every weirdo NBA player that we think could still find five minutes off the bench for LA from the early 2000s.
Here’s the list I put together:
- Vince Carter
- Richard Jefferson
- Jason Kidd
- Antoine Walker
- Latrell Sprewell
- Gilbert Arenas
- Robert Swift
- Stromile Swift
- Michael Redd
- Bonzi Wells
- Rashard Lewis
- Stephen Jackson
- Kenyon Martin
This question makes me think of the best tweet I saw from this past week. Here it is:
Why NBA referees are so unfair? Is there training camp for referees before the beginning of each season, like they do for the players?
I’m not going to clutch my pearls for the referees in the NBA. The fact is, it is true that some of their calls are inherently unfair. Bending the rules in the NBA is part of the game, and it takes an understanding of social context to know why some players get certain calls and why others don’t.
I think the real problem is how people still have a problem with that in 2018. The reality of the sport is that people want to see stars succeed. They want to see stars on their teams succeed, and in general NBA fans want to see stars they like succeed. It’s that ability to create cross fanbase allegiances that strengthens the bonds of the core NBA business.
Now, whether you think referees do a good job outside of “superstar calls” is another animal all together. The reality is that teams, whether they admit it or not, spend time teaching players how to account for the fact that there are only three referees on the floor at any given time.
Teams use the human element of NBA officiating to their advantage. It can be something as simple as a head kick or an over emphasized flail on a foul. In more complex examples, teams teach players to get away with certain things when they are positioned at specific spots on the floor thanks to blind spots.
There’s also a disparity of confidence created between officials and fans thanks in part to slow motion replay. We get to see every foul seven times over in 30 seconds, allowing us to judge each referee call nearly in real time. Referees don’t have that advantage, and it leads to people believing that they are bad at their jobs.
The reality is that referees are always going to be other human beings, and thus open to human error. The alternative is a game officiated by robots, and as much as I would like to see Doc Rivers scream until he’s red in the face at a floating drone while arguing a blocking foul, that doesn’t seem like the way to go either.
The NBA has some issues to clean up. The one that seems the most pressing when it comes to officiating is offensive players drawing fouls while illegally within a defender’s rightful place on the floor. They tried to get rid of the rip through move a couple of years ago, but the result was an impotent change toward making it a non-shooting foul. You shouldn’t be able to just throw your arms into the stationary arms of a defender. That should be an offensive foul, or perhaps a team technical foul.
But the Association isn’t the NFL, where you don’t know what a catch is and you’re not sure when a quarterback actually fumbles. In contrast, the NBA is doing okay and the problem is the rules are behind the physical ability of players and the data teams have gathered in order to use the officials to their advantage. They aren’t in a dire spot at the moment, so there’s no need to get worked up about them moving forward.
See y’all next week.
Submit your questions to the mailbag for next week by e-mailing firstname.lastname@example.org.