“He’s one of us”
What good teams look for in trade season
BY DAVID THORPE
Wednesday was December 15, when the NBA season trips over an invisible line from deep in the collective bargaining agreement. Suddenly the vast majority of the league is tradable, meaning between now and the trade deadline at 3 p.m. ET on February 10, trade season is upon us.
The best teams in the world are asking themselves what they need to become champions. A lot of the discussion will be about skill or position. Who can defend the pick-and-roll, hit the corner 3, or protect the rim?
I think the right answer might come from season four of The West Wing. By season four, that fictional White House is in a state of flux. The president has won reelection, and one of his key speechwriters—Sam—is working in California, leaving a big hole in Washington. Sam meets a guy, Will Bailey, whom he feels is his perfect replacement. He convinces Bailey to delay a much-needed vacation to interview with Sam’s former boss, Toby. And Sam sends along a note for Toby.
The meeting (you can see it here) goes well. There’s some dramatic made-for-TV, will-he-or-won’t-he-take-the-job tension. But Will Bailey is still going to take his vacation first. Just as he leaves, Toby opens the note from Sam. It reads, “He’s one of us.” And that’s when Will pops his head around the corner, and asks Toby if they’d like to get to work starting right now.
He is one of them; they are all great at caring too much. They are all addicted to the fight. They make a great team. “He’s one of us.”
What was the most important trade of last season? The one that made a champion: Jrue Holiday to the Bucks.
After the bubble, the Bucks had a hard decision about Eric Bledsoe, a defensive demon who had struggled to score for two straight postseasons. November’s trade for Holiday was seen as the last piece of the puzzle. Holiday could keep up Bledsoe’s defense, while finally giving Giannis Antetokounmpo a point guard who could shoot well enough to let Giannis plow his way through to the rim without bringing too many defenders with him.
But Holiday just didn’t shoot well in the playoffs. Following a simple sweep of the Miami Heat, Holiday made 133 of 337 shots from the field, 40 of his 127 3’s, and 40 of 56 free throws. (You’ve heard about the 50-40-90 club? Holiday was in the 39-31-71 club.) Even when the Bucks came back to beat the Brooklyn Nets after being down in the series 2-3, it was impossible to point to Holiday as an impact scorer. He made only 13 of 44 shots in those final two games, and made only three of 14 3s. Up and down in the conference finals against the Hawks, Holiday had a horrific start in the Finals, looking completely out of confidence making 11 of 35 shots in two straight losses in Phoenix.
After Game 2, reporters asked Giannis about Jrue’s shooting woes. He replied:
It’s not about me. It’s not about him. It’s not about Khris. It’s not about Coach. It’s about all of us. … If there’s a game that you’re 3-for-12 or whatever the case might be and you can rebound the ball or get a steal or do something else to help the team win, that’s what it’s all about right now. I think he understands that.
There is a Middle Eastern proverb; “I against my brother. I and my brother against my cousin. I, my brother, and my cousin against the world.” Tribalism can be very dangerous, but in the right hands it can be the bedrock of teamwork. “Us against the league” is a winning mentality. What I hear Giannis saying is that Jrue means a lot more to Giannis than made jumpers. “He’s one of us,” and if we keep working, we will get it done.
Early in Giannis’s career, it was clear his 100-miles-an-hour personality meshed well with Khris Middleton’s deadly serious accuracy. Both arrived as underdogs. Giannis from Greece, and Middleton as a second-round pick who played in the G-League and was nowhere close to a sure thing the first few seasons. As Giannis said this past summer, they share a connection that goes far beyond one player's skills complementing the other.
Henry Abbott wrote about another Bucks player who adds to the Bucks’ championship identity: Pat Connaughton. After seasons in Brooklyn and Portland, he arrived in August 2018 as an affordable free agent. Giannis and Pat quickly connected over their obsessive work habit, as Henry writes:
Everyone on the team also knows about Connaughton’s friendship with Giannis and the unique way it began when the Bucks signed their new shooting guard last summer. “I remember when I got here,” Connaughton mentions casually, “it was hey Giannis I can lift more than you. He was like no way, and then we started to go back and forth.”
Wait, that’s literally how their relationship began? With Pat straight up challenging a new coworker to a contest?
Connaughton couldn’t remember exactly the order of things, but maybe. “I don’t know if that’s the first way it started,” he says, but the rivalry “definitely started early.”
Giannis is fine with it, anyway, and later confirms Connaughton can outlift him, before adding “I’m going to get him in the summer.”
I laugh. This is not a normal way to make a new friend! Connaughton laughs too, but less than I do, and says, “Wired differently, I guess.”
There’s a similar, yet more conventional, story behind Holiday’s success in winning Giannis over. He guarded him on day one of training camp last year. Giannis had played against him before, of course, but this was different. Bucks Governor Marc Lasry thinks that day helped convince Giannis to sign his supermax extension, which came two weeks after that first day of camp. The Bucks had a group Giannis wanted.
Jrue never shot well over the course of the Finals, his 4-19 effort in the Game 6 clincher was no outlier. But his shooting was only a fraction of what he brought to his team. The Bucks needed someone to build a tighter locker room, to feed the post with accuracy, to earn the trust of Giannis and Middleton, and to be reliably scrappy in hard times. That's what the Bucks got. Holiday fit into their culture and schemes as if they had drafted him a decade earlier.
Three games after Giannis’s comments, Jrue and Giannis combined for one of the most memorable NBA Finals highlights of all-time. In the closing seconds of a one-point game, Holiday got the steal and the assist, Giannis the lob dunk. Without that play, there’s a great chance the Bucks lose the title. Holiday had 27 points in that game, his best of the Finals, but throughout the season and playoffs it was not his scoring that pushed this team best. It was his ability to battle through rough shooting nights to still impact games. Passing, leadership, defense, IQ, and an ability to connect to teammates and engender belief in the mission can never be forgotten but often are in the search to fill needs.
There’s no title without Giannis, to be sure. But Jrue Holiday was likely the only point guard who could have run the Bucks to their first title since 1971. There's a lesson to be learned here. Starting now.
Today, a heap of NBA players are newly available to be traded. The rumor mill is about to heat up. Between health and safety protocols, injuries, or just poor on-court play, all kinds of teams know they have needs.
The way some NBA teams, and the media in general, look at using trades to build a team, is transactionally based. “Our team needs more shooting, so let’s trade for a shooter!” The same is said, or written about, for rebounding, ball handling, and defense too. It’s as if there are holes to fill, and the players, in this metaphor, are nothing but skillsets that do or don’t fit.
That often leads to problems, which are seldom the players’ fault. Players are not data points, their raw stats and their advanced ones can fluctuate based on tough-to-predict psyches. But it’s also true that not every player is equally likely to fit a team. If I were looking to build a team, I would look for players who felt like that team was home.
Kevin Durant won two titles in three years in Golden State and chose the Nets, where he felt more a part of the team. It’s hard to pin down exactly what it is that adds that extra dimension to the perfect trade acquisition. It can be many things.
Jae Crowder was once a disappointing teammate to LeBron James, and has been an incredible teammate to Chris Paul.
Kobe Bryant made many public comments that made it clear he didn’t feel Shaquille O’Neal and Andrew Bynum fit his vision of the team.
LeBron, Dwyane Wade, and Chris Bosh created a team together in Miami to create that feeling.
Dwight Howard is a surefire Hall of Famer who has talents--defense and rebounding--that every team needs. He isn’t a ball stopper. And he has won plenty. But boy has it been hard for him to become “one of us.” There's something about him that, well, makes it very hard for him to weave into the fabric of a team. It was one season between when he was hailed as the Lakers’ savior and when he became a Rocket. He is on his sixth team in six seasons right now.
Summer trades, winter deals, free agency, and the draft. That’s how teams are built. Except for the draft, which is focused on very young players, the analysis in those deals tends to be very short sighted. It’s a struggle to get an organization to think years down the road about fitting the pieces together off the court. It’s about a lot more than filling holes.
The Bucks have one of the best overall players of all-time, and a collection of guys who form as connected a unit as we’ve seen in a long time. The Bucks are not likely to be too active this trade season. But their starting center, Brook Lopez, is out injured. If they do feel the need to replace him, it’s a good bet they’ll look for someone who is “one of us.” Every team would be smart to do the same.
Thank you for reading TrueHoop!