Not the Warriors

The heavy toll of injuries and fatigue alter a Finals team.

In advance of Game 3 of the NBA Finals, some TrueHoop insight.

BY HENRY ABBOTT

Since they first emerged under Coach Steve Kerr five years ago, the Warriors have lost only one playoff series. If they lose these Finals, no one will wonder why: injuries. This team today barely resembles the Warriors we saw all season. At some point in this evening’s Game 3, Steve Kerr will look down his bench, and see a patchwork quilt of some of the regular season’s worst-performing NBA players. Here are the Warriors ranked by their Real Plus-Minus performance this season:

The key matchup becomes compromised Kawhi Leonard against beat-up Andre Iguodala.

Huge opportunity for the Raptors. Certainly this elite defensive team has a real chance to make history for Canada. It’s time to press the foot to the floor, to fire all the guns. However, their star Leonard, has been in and out of the lineup for the last two seasons with what has been reported as complications of a knee injury or quad injury. On the bench in the playoffs, he has been seen applying heat to his left knee. He hasn’t been himself in the series’ first two games, slowed by great defense and his mysterious nagging injury, reported by the Athletic’s Joe Vardon and Sam Amick as a left knee injury that resulted from overcompensating from last year’s right quad injury. Dennis Robertson, Kawhi’s uncle and manager, recently told Yahoo’s Chris Haynes that Kawhi is a Raptor because of serious injury in San Antonio: “Sometimes you get these team doctors telling you what you can and cannot do, and Kawhi was just in too much pain to get out there. This was a serious issue.”

Iguodala in the eye of the storm. Warriors wing Iguodala started the series as Plan A guarding Kawhi. With Klay Thompson grimacing in pain through his press conference yesterday, and one of the NBA’s best-switching defensive big men Kevon Looney out for the duration, Iguodala looks more like plans A, B, and C. In his 30s, Iguodala has come off the bench, playing restricted minutes because of the wear and tear of a 15-year career. He sat out a game in the conference finals because of trouble with his left calf, which he has also been seen grabbing in pain occasionally since returning (including at the end of the Finals’ Game 1). He has talked openly about playing in pain and through injury. This all adds up to a pivotal Finals’ matchup of the mysteriously injured Kawhi and a depleted Iguodala.

THIS IS BAD FOR:

  • The 82-game schedule. There’s a lot of science to suggest that if the NBA season had fewer games and more rest there would be fewer injuries. Experts say that demanding more than five hard efforts in two weeks impairs performance and increases injury risk. One of the playoffs’ most-told stories is how smart the Raptors were to sit their star, Kawhi, for 22 games this year.

  • Casual fans hoping to see exciting basketball. There is a noticeable lack of pep in all the Finals players. Casual fans tuning into basketball would see players run faster and jump higher in preseason. The Warriors of January would wax these Warriors.

  • The NBA’s promise to deliver transparency to gamblers. Two things converged a year ago: sports gambling became legal and LeBron James played much of the Finals with a secret hand injury. In these Finals, do you feel like you have honest and accurate sense of what is happening with Kawhi, who has an unnamed injury? What about Kevin Durant, whose injury has defied all public timelines? Stephen Curry, Iguodala, and Thompson have drifted in and out of health uncertainty. That might annoy fans, but it infuriates gamblers, who are part of a huge and growing business.


The league recently cut deals to deliver gamblers honest and accurate information. TrueHoop subscribers received a story about that in the first round, when Paul George was playing banged up. Here’s an excerpt:

Bigger implications
Last May, NBA spokesman Mike Bass made a case to the Associated Press that “it is reasonable for casinos to compensate the NBA” in the name of “the protection of our fans and the integrity of our games.”

It’s an unresolved issue, but one where states have tended not to agree with the NBA’s position. Where gambling has always been legal, like Nevada, the NBA has historically not been paid. But now, as sports gambling is becoming a big, legal, international business, the NBA has a hand out, saying it deserves a cut for serving up a game with a level playing field to gamblers, presumably so their bets have a decent chance of winning, when based on publicly available information.

Nine days after Bass’s statement, the league would fail just such a test by effectively smashing its integrity into a whiteboard. You might remember the story: LeBron’s teammate J.R. Smith made history as one of crunch time’s all-time boneheads for dribbling out the clock in a tied game, costing the Cavaliers a precious chance to win. Epically angry on camera, LeBron reportedly then further doomed the Cavs by punching a whiteboard in anger behind the scenes. Many experts suggest LeBron’s performance was sub-par over the rest of the Finals.

After the Warriors swept the Cavs, James attended a press conference wearing a cast and revealed that he had played the last three games with a badly injured hand, reported at the time as a “deep bone contusion.”

James' injury was a bummer for the faithful in Ohio and a crisis for those trying to build confidence in freshly legalized sports gambling.

In defending integrity fees, the NBA spokesman had added that the league expected to incur “additional expenses in the name of compliance and enforcement programs.” Who knows what that means, but presumably it would be good if one of those programs informed people before they bet if the biggest name in the game was hiding his hand under the table in press conferences so people wouldn’t notice how swollen it was.

On Pro Football Talk, Michael David Smith pointed out that nobody, not James, not the Cavs, and not the NBA had disclosed that injury while the games were going on. Some of the NBA’s most important new customers—gamblers—were placing their bets, assuming a bet on the Cavs was a bet on the version of LeBron James, with two good hands, who had a track record of dragging sub-par rosters to Finals wins over the Warriors.

But these weren’t those Cavaliers, because this wasn’t that James, which made some of those bettors into suckers. In an accompanying NBC video, there was talk of people monitoring the medical staffs of pro teams, and—the magical words that annoy the living hell out of sports leagues—a federal commission to oversee it all. There’s a lot to solve. Gamblers have a right to know, players have the same rights we all do to keep our medical information private.

A reader comment on that story: “I have no confidence in the NBA when it comes to gambling.”

Rub some dirt on it
In NBA circles, legalized gambling is poorly served by the game’s traditions around public injury information, which has been meted out sparingly, or not at all. Stephen Curry once played a Finals so injured he couldn’t drive around Kevin Lovelater the Warriors admitted he was beat up. The spirit of the late Red Auerbach smiles over the league’s tradition of, essentially, rubbing some dirt on it.

There are many reasons for a team to play its injury cards close to its chest. First and foremost, it can help them win. In the other locker room, they are looking for weaknesses to exploit. If they think you can’t go left, they’ll steer you left all night. If they think you can’t jump, they’ll be sure to dunk over you. There have been cases of players admitting an injury, only to have an opponent hit them there. Misleading fans is one of many things sacrificed on the altar of winning.

There is practiced double-speak on this issue. In real time, all available Cavs sources said LeBron was ready to play. But watch what happens as the various coaching vacancies inspire more talk of Tyronn Lue as a coaching prospect. Did he do a bad job in the 2018 Finals? They were doomed by LeBron’s injury! They will say. Everyone knows that.

Everyone except those who believed the player, the team, and the league in real time. If you want to charge real money for honesty and full disclosure, you’ll need a reputation for those things.

This is a nest of trouble. It means a smart person watching from afar would do a terrible job of analyzing the Cavaliers’ chances. If history is any guide, it also means it could be worthwhile for a sharp bettor to develop relationships with locker room attendants, trainers, and the like around the league—anyone who might see LeBron icing his hand—and make a phone call. (One of the arguments to legalize sports gambling is like the argument to legalize marijuana: bring everything into the open and daylight works as a disinfectant.) It’s suitable for the legal sports gambling industry, which sells itself based on fairness, if the best information comes equally to all from press releases, not to a select few through secret underground networks.

So much integrity
Thirty-two days after LeBron divulged his secret Finals injury, the NBA announced its partnership with MGM Resorts International, the league’s first with a gambling outfit, at a short press conference in Las Vegas. Undoubtedly the negotiations had focused on the check MGM would write the NBA. (New revenue matters: the NBA pays the bills now with income from the declining cable television industry. )“I will say,” Silver allowed, “we do feel that we’re being adequately compensated.”

But despite the location, the emphasis of the event was not money: “We’re very focused,” Commissioner Silver said, setting an early tone, “on integrity provisions to protect our fans.” The official transcript provided by the NBA shows Silver used the word integrity four times. His partner on the dais, MGM CEO Jim Murren, said it an almost-funny eight times.

I was reminded of the TV show Tiny House Hunters. There might not be room to stand up in the bedroom; the office may be a slender shelf. But I guarantee there is no show where people talk more about how big everything is. Here are people trying to convince themselves everything will be OK in their new compact lives. Maybe they believe it. Maybe saying how big everything seems will help them believe it more.

Basketball’s historical reputation for integrity would fit in a tiny house. As has been detailed in many a book, this game has long drawn the attention of gamblers. (I’m an alumnus of NYU, a huge university that still plays in Division III as a result of a gambling scandal). You don’t have to google very long to learn there were basketball scandals of 1951, 1961, 1979, and 1985. The FBI is presently investigating college basketball; a former FBI agent mentions the potential that gamblers and even the mob can influence sports. NBA legend Kareem Abdul-Jabbar wrote a fictitious children’s book about growing up playing basketball in the city; the crux of the story is a rigged game. I’ve personally heard stories from retired players about the finely dressed men who’d sidle up to them at summer camps and charity events, offering spending cash.

The NBA has resisted official relations with gamblers more or less throughout, a position that hardened after the 2007 scandal of crooked referee Tim Donaghy, which still has unresolved implications. In 2012, then-commissioner David Stern doubled down in a New Jersey lawsuit, writing that “the NBA cannot be compensated in damages for the harm that sports gambling poses to the fundamental bonds of loyalty and devotion between fans and teams. Once that special relationship has been compromised, the NBA will have been irreparably injured in a manner that cannot adequately be calculated in dollars."

Whatever Stern was so worried about, Silver and Murren’s press conference was announcing something like it. Gambling may well be a pillar of the NBA’s financial future. Everything Stern worried about could still come to pass.

Stern has since retired as commissioner, became an investor and consultant poised to benefit from gambling, and changed his position. Last year, he told Sports Illustrated:

I always said the reason we don't want to have gambling is because we don't want Junior going to the game and coming away disappointed because the home team won but they didn't cover. But as soon as they allowed daily fantasy, I said that's it, there's no sense in having daily fantasy and not being in favor of betting—especially when you add in the fact that so much of it is already done offshore illegally and lining the coffers of some people you don't know.

Here was the NBA, launching a partnership with a firm that operates in industries where big numbers of untraceable overseas dollars are commonplace. MGM’s projects and partners span the globe from Macau to Dubai. They include investigations("...wired about $20 million to Destron, an MGM Resorts subsidiary…"), raids, and arrests for money laundering right on the Vegas strip (“… $2.6 million in cash withdrawals at MGM …”), and hand-wringing that casino firms might be bad investments because of the risk of government fines for running afoul of money laundering rules.

Their forte, they insisted, would not be chasing dollars. “My overarching objective,” assured Murren, “is the integrity of the game.”

One unimpressed regulator
The dance between sports leagues, regulators, and casinos is complex, expensive, and largely boring. But it did include a zinger from the president of the New Jersey Senate, Stephen Sweeney, in a letter urging many politicians not to pay sports leagues.

Essentially, the leagues are asking to be paid to allow games to be played fairly. Ironically, they are calling this extortion attempt an “integrity fee,” even while fully aware that providing participants a stake in the volume of betting would amount to what could more accurately be called an “anti-integrity fee.” And their demand begs the question of what they would now start doing to preserve the integrity of their games that they have not been doing for years.

Playing hurt
In last year’s Finals, James had a bloodied eye that he said frightened his daughter, a twisted ankle, and a secret hand injury. When reporters asked how he was doing, he said: “I’ll be fine, everything is good.”

Paul George has some LeBron in him. On Monday, George met reporters in two shirts. A gray t-shirt, and a jersey over that. But both were bunched up around his neck on the right side, exposing a shoulder that was naked but for a massive, saran-wrapped pack of ice. He kept an absolutely straight face as he said he was “pain-free.” Off-camera, the squeak of sneakers—somebody was playing, but not George. His injuries, he said, “didn’t have any effect.” In fact, he added, “I feel good about it.”

What Damon Jones, Richard Jefferson, and I did at the beginning of this story—reading the tea leaves of Paul George’s performance through the television—was in some ways stupid. He looked, to me, like a man in pain. I’m worried for him. If he sits out or is sub-par in a way that decides the series, I would not be surprised. At the same time, I will also not be surprised if he bounces right back and plays like an MVP tonight in Game 2. That’s what it feels like when you don’t have good information.

The only people with real insight are on the inside: doctors, trainers, coaches—George, himself. From the vantage point of those insiders, my struggles to piece together what is truly going on must seem absurd and off base, like betting on blackjack and only seeing half the hand.

If the league is going to pay its bills with ass-kicking hoops performances, then who cares?

But now that the league is entering the gambling game, LeBron’s busted fist packs a lesson: If fans are laughably out of the loop, there’s a problem. We all need to know what the insiders know, regularly and reliably. Before the betting is done.


TrueHoop subscribers get much more insight along these lines, for instance: