Over the last few days, TrueHoop subscribers have been sending in questions, a surprising number of which are about the Washington Wizards. Shoutout to everyone who subscribed, and sent in a question, whether we ended up using it or not. It took the best efforts of Judy Goodwin, Don Skwar, David Thorpe, and Henry Abbott to answer these.
Will the Knicks finally strike it rich this summer and land two big max players?
DAVID: It's certainly possible. No way anyone knows for sure. No players know for certain what they’ll do.
HENRY: It’s a game of predicting the mood and thinking of Kevin Durant. There is no expert at that. But we know this: James Dolan has his swagger amped up to 11, saying, for instance: “... they know that we are favored, they know that free agents want to come to us.” We are favored? This is an incredible admission that free-agent recruiting has been underway for some time, tampering rules be damned. Somebody told him something. Deven, he thinks he knows the answer to your question, and he has presumably actually been in the secret meetings.
Maybe I’m too cynical, but as an NBA-obsessed dude who has lived in or near New York since 1991, I struggle to imagine it matters whom they sign. Isiah Thomas, Stephon Marbury, Donnie Walsh, Amar’e Stoudemire, Carmelo Anthony, Mike D’Antoni, Phil Jackson, Kristaps Porzingis … maybe the Knicks add names like Kyrie and KD to the list of those who ultimately didn’t save the Knicks, or maybe they won’t.
Many of them were incredibly effective at their jobs elsewhere. But not working for Dolan. D’Antoni is a case study: He actually did save the Suns and Rockets. And when Carmelo and Amar’e were injured, they briefly ran his stuff in New York and we remember it as Linsanity. But when the stars came back, Amar’e and Carmelo rightly deduced that on this team holding the ball was OK, running D’Antoni’s offense was optional, Linsanity ended in a hurry. Now D’Antoni runs a team that scores about 10 percent more points per possession than the Knicks.
This is the essential pattern of the Dolan era: an addiction to the idea that some x-factor magic in the fingertips of Amar’e or Carmelo or this or that star is all that matters. (It’s a model that feels more like the music business to me, fitting for Dolan. He likes rock stars.) Maybe Patrick Ewing and some backup singers were once enough to contend. Not anymore. The league has progressed. Now you have to beat teams like the Warriors, Rockets, and Celtics who have big names AND a carefully designed team-centric approach to get the best out of players up and down the roster.
The Knicks have a history of getting high points-per-game stars who undermine that latter part. I’ll never forget a comment Thorpe made years ago, about the Melo and J.R. Smith Nuggets: When they lost, he suggested, every Nugget walked off the court believing they should have shot more. That’s no way to unearth and nurture the next Draymond Green, you know? Winning titles requires players who can win games for you—even when they don’t have hands on the ball.
Say the Knicks do end up with Durant. What would motivate him to leave the best team in history? Probably not an urge to explore what wins. If he’s in New York, he’s there to remind people he can get 50 whenever he wants. If he’s doing that, a dozen Kevin Knoxes never get to test the limits of their abilities. And that’s how the Knicks remain the Knicks, with or without stars.
What changes would you recommend to the league to address the problem we saw in Utah with fans crossing the line and verbally abusing players? Relatedly, would you recommend any changes or guidelines for the players to deal with abuse from fans that crosses the line?
DAVID: Teams will be far more proactive going forward. I’d bet commissioner Adam Silver and the owners see this as low-hanging fruit. An easy fix. In the event of an incident, I would instruct athletes to notify team security, who will know what the right steps are in every arena. The video cameras in those arenas should take care of the rest. This is a HUGE opportunity for the NBA to lead American sports leagues.
Judy Goodwin, by far the smartest TrueHoop staffer—hey, she’s a lawyer, so there’s that—weighs in.
JUDY: The NBA’s fan rules basically say that fans have to sit in their assigned seat, not be overly drunk, and can't "engage in fighting, throwing objects or attempting to enter the court." They also can't have "obscene or indecent messages on signs or clothing." So there’s no actual rule preventing them from heckling. However, there COULD be some more clear guidelines/rules from the NBA precluding comments from fans that are racially or sexually oriented, obscene, or threatening to anyone. Then the question will be whether they instruct security at these places to actually enforce it.
There's a pretty good, and pretty hilarious, guide to heckling here.
On the other side of the coin, in that Utah incident, Westbrook violated league rules for players, which state:
Players will respect and appreciate each and every fan.
Guests will be treated in a consistent, professional, and courteous manner by all arena and team personnel.
Unsurprisingly, the players and staff are held to a higher standard than the fans. Westbrook was fined $25,000 for “directing profanity and threatening language to a fan.”
HENRY: I’ll never understand this, but there are people at seemingly every NBA game who just LOVE yelling incredibly mean stuff at players. In the case of some weirdos, I believe that’s why they bought tickets. And they even say things like, “Well, I paid for this seat, so I get to do this.” NBA teams put a ton of effort and money into finding season-ticket holders. David and Judy'’s plan appeals to me, but only works if quite a few people get kicked out. That will require kissing real dollars goodbye. I’m not holding my breath that it’ll happen en masse immediately.
DAVID: Leave the hecklers who annoy players and remove those that insult them with language that no child should ever hear. Draw the line at racial/sexual/threatening, and make it an NBA rule not to engage in it. If “stink” is the most offensive word the fan yells, we’re good.
HENRY: Maybe this is because I live near Philly and New York, but they’d have to kick everyone out if we’re talking about obscene language. In Philly, infants drop F-bombs. Adam Silver curses! Coaches curse! Players curse! Referees curse! For most of it, I suspect, we don’t want uniformed personnel on the scene to change that.
Decency has always been tough to police. The existing rules sound reasonable, but as Judy points out, in the Utah example they make clear that only Westbrook was in the wrong. And it’s the fan we’d like to rein in. Maybe what Judy suggests in drawing the line on racial/sexual/threatening stuff will cover it, but still I’m worried about whose ears have to hear that, and then what judgment applies.
Maybe there’s a way to crowdsource it? If there’s something really easy I can do with my phone to let the team know the guy in that seat right there is crossing the line … well, at least in that case you’d have a way to direct security to people who are not just cursing but actually offending people.
How are we going to fix the Wizards?
1. Re-sign Tomas Satoransky.
2. Find a quality replacement for John Wall, whether he starts or not. Quality, not All-Star. Expecting Wall to do much next year after his debilitating surgery for a chronic Achilles left heel rupture is folly. And they don't want to waste Bradley Beal any longer. He’s grown into an All-NBA performer. Malcolm Brogdon and Darren Collison are candidates.
3. Replace the coach. I like Scott Brooks, but it just didn’t work with Wall, and there's little hope to think it will.
4. Maybe this should be No. 1: Let Ernie Grunfeld move into a senior consulting position.
HENRY: There is a case to be made to just hang around as a halfway decent team. (I say this as a Blazers fan.) The Mavericks did it for 10 years and eventually managed a title. So that’s the argument, I guess, for the Wall-and-Beal era.
Or that was the argument. I’ve seen enough to say that I don’t think this is ever going to work, especially with Wall’s terrible injury. The East is getting good, as David has written. Maybe a Wall-and-Beal team will one day beat the Sixers, Raptors, Bucks, Celtics, Nets, or Pacers in a playoff series. But now there are so many teams on that list. They’ll never beat three of them in a row and sneak into the Finals. Forget it.
And it’s not a cheap team. They’re like the Deron Williams Nets—expensively mediocre. I’d adopt the Nets’ long-term plan: trade everybody. Hire and recruit for culture, take the long view and worry about contending again only when you develop the ability to get the best out of young players the Lakers couldn’t figure out. ;)
Hi! Is there any way the Wizards are able to move John Wall's contract?
How do the Miami Heat get back into championship contention?
DAVID: They have improved almost monthly. Continued development from their young core plus an All-Star level player can get them to the playoffs next season and maybe win a series. That's a start. Justise Winslow, Josh Richardson, and Bam Adebayo need to make significant progress for the Heat to take the positive step after that.
HENRY: David lives in a world where All-Stars just materialize out of thin air. Florida is a magical place!
DAVID: And sunny, too!
Everybody's talking about Trae Young with the Hawks. Some are talking about the rest of the young core. How does the TH brain view the Hawks’ competitive position on the rebuild vs. the rest of the teams that will be in the high lottery (read: top 6 or 7). Are they on a better path than others?
HENRY: There’s a team in Atlanta? Kidding! A question for David: You see what I said about the Wizards up there, starting over like the Nets did? Would you agree that the Hawks are basically already a few years down that path?
DAVID: I would, indeed. John Collins is a beast on both ends. Young is a singular offensive talent. If they get Zion Williamson, as I wrote last week, they’ll be playoff bound by 2021 and contenders by 2023. Those three players are elite talents. I like their coach, Lloyd Pierce, as well. Since the break, they’re a perfectly average team—a good sign. Williamson, Cam Reddish, R.J. Barrett, Ja Morant … there are at least four special talents in the draft, so they should end up with a star-potential guy. Zion is both a sure thing and the most upside-rich talent in the draft.
Finding a wing who can defend scoring point guards is a goal because Young is very small and slight. If he can score 20 a night, great. Then maybe this wing doesn’t have to be a plus defender (think Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum in Portland). It’s harder to find the 20 points-per-game scorer than it is a wing who can defend and shoot, so that’s a fair goal.
The 3-pointer being worth 1.5 times as many points as the 2-pointer was an unexploited inefficiency until recently and obviously is still being capitalized on in greater and great ways. What is your opinion of the next great inefficiency that will be successfully capitalized on—not even necessarily on the court, but in terms of optimizing team success overall? Is it going to be in management? Better coaching? More focus on emotional health bringing better results on the court?
DAVID: I’ll give you one on- and one off-court.
On-court, my long-time assistant Ryan Pannone, almost certainly a future NBA coach, is experimenting with the team he serves as the top assistant. His boss, Oded Kattash, is the national team head coach for Israel and the head coach for Hapoel Jerusalem. He had an idea to send five offensive players to the glass on all shots. I believe he got this idea from another team somewhere. Ryan has been tasked with teaching the schemes they employ. They work on "tagging" the guys who they think are a threat to race out if those guys get a defensive rebound. In a way, those offensive players are sealing those defenders from doing so. They claim all five go to the offensive glass (in the NBA, it's often one player at most), but in reality it's typically four. Actually, one or two would effectively prevent opponents from running out, which means they’re still in position to chase long rebounds. They’re trying this as a direct result of all those 3s we’re seeing. I suspect teams will start this here in a season or two.
Off-court, all signs point to the marriage of performance training and medical advancements. All athletes can get bigger, faster, and stronger while lowering the risk of injury. I constantly stress: no soft-tissue injuries. Our goal is to recognize when our athletes are in danger of pulling something. We try to be hyper aware of practice preparations and then how our players are moving. If we see anything odd in a player’s movement, we remove him from the drill. Pro teams are likely ten times better at this than I am. One insightful guy who lives near me has created a plan to relieve knee and ankle-joint pain while enhancing athletic performance. I'm so impressed that I have my son and any other athletes I come in contact with work with him. His innovative training design will have competitors soon enough. We want athletes to train smarter, gain better results, and get hurt less. As teams lose fewer rotation players to injuries, they’ll win more. It's pretty simple math.
HENRY: Some clever person will come up with a better system to defend against shooters spread all over the floor, and it will seem really unconventional.
DAVID: The Bucks do that now, my man. They are targeting better shooters for closeouts smartly. They give up more 3s per game (30th) than any team and are 18th in defensive field goal percentage from 3. So you’re wise to suggest more teams will take this approach. It demands excellent teaching and pre-game prep.
HENRY: I guess … I’m expecting things that have not yet been imagined! Crazy lineups or recruiting different kinds of players, five bigs, five smalls, something from Space Jam. That’s just how human history goes. There is always a next killer innovation. Right now a lot of smart minds are chewing on this problem.
My second thought: when a team can stop making bad choices chasing the hot hand, they’ll win more. We all know the drill. A player hits a long 3. Sometimes one is enough! The commentators click into place—Harden is feeling it! The defense amps up, picking him up a step over half court, four help defenders keeping an eye. If you use evidence to make choices, this is the perfect time for Harden to sail a pass to Eric Gordon for his easiest bucket of the night. But generally, Harden ends up taking an even tougher shot, even earlier in the clock, and shoots at worse than his normal rate.
DAVID: As for the hot hand, that phenomenon does exist, it’s just misunderstood. When you flip a coin, and it comes up heads two times, it doesn’t mean it’s bound to come up tails the next time. It’s still 50-50. The best shooters wisely stay supremely focused on every shot equally, and they don’t do “heat checks” often. Heat checks should be called “streak-enders.”
HENRY: Yes, the coin is 50/50 every time. NBA players who just hit a shot, though, are not. Whatever their normal percentage, after a make, the vast majority are then decidedly less likely to make the next. In that difference is the opportunity I’m talking about.
The hot hand is among the most studied things of all time, with many a study from Amos Tversky himself, the godfather of bias research. The BIG takeaway from all those studies is: People love to impose narratives. Show people results of a random coin and many will guess it was a loaded coin, because it will have streaks. But it’s just random. This thing, this hot hand, either does not exist, or is just incredibly rare. But we conjure the emotion of it in our heads every time someone hits a shot or two. There are all these instances of people remembering “that guy hit 10 shots in a row!” But if you go back and look, he made five of eight and the rest was fishing-story magic that happens in our heads.
This is where I think a team could really innovate. If you could move the ball around without trusting in magic … you could have a real strategic advantage over every team I’ve ever seen.
See the players running around? Those are dynamic numbers of those players’ real historic shooting percentages when they are that open from those spots. My suggestion: choose the best shots based on their shooting skills as demonstrated over the last year or three, instead of the last minute or three.
Sports have all these big tough men, on the court and in the stands, but they get really precious about this hotness thing, like it’s a little puppy that needs to be protected, kept warm, and nurtured. Let’s say Trae Young is due for a rest, but then hits three in a row. If they sub him out at the next dead ball, the whole arena is like OHHH, they killed the puppy.
There is no puppy. Or, to be honest, there has been a little tiny bit of evidence it exists. BUT, and this is a huge but … if it exists or not doesn’t change the fact that it’s lousy as strategy. At the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference just a couple of weeks ago, I ran into Sandy Weil, one of the authors of the key paper on this point. And he confirmed that nothing has changed to affect this basic conclusion. Belief in the reality of the hot hand makes teams make bad choices, and bad choices hurt, whether or not the hot hand in fact exists.
Bigfoot might exist or not, I don’t know. But what’s real is: He’s not coming to your barbecue. Invite him all you want, dude’ll no-show.
DAVID: Trust me, we agree more than we don’t. “Hot hand” is the guy who is able to best lock in, shot after shot, removing emotion. He isn’t hot. He’s just himself. I don’t believe in streak shooters. Everyone goes on streaks. Bad shooters have fewer good streaks and shorter ones. Good shooters have the opposite. The difference between the coin and the 50 percent career shooter is emotion. The robot-like shooter will be able to get to 50 percent after the worst start of his career, staying true to his form and selection process.
How do players (especially not children of pros) keep their kids grounded?
HENRY: [Side note: Impressively niche concern!]
DAVID: The common denominator for making it in the NBA is work ethic and discipline. NBA players work tirelessly. When I'm coaching young pros, I have to remind them not to get bored making shots. With NBA vets, I don't need to say a thing. These men work so damned hard on their game and their bodies. Relentless work, day after day, all year long, and they have done so for years.
Nearly a decade ago, I had Corey Brewer coming to town to work. He arrived a day or two before I expected him. Just showed up one morning. I asked where he was staying, and he said, "Some old hotel nearby; it had a good price and was clean." Corey was a lottery pick and a two-time national champ in college, a McDonald's All-American before that. But he spent his whole life not knowing what real money was. A few years of making it big had no chance of changing who he was. He has two boys now, and we’ve talked about them quite a bit. His story is like the majority of NBA players: They’re making more money than their parents did. They’re using similar principles their parents used, successfully, on them.
The second story is about Amar’e Stoudemire in Jerusalem. Coach Ryan Pannone said he’s a dream to coach. Watches lots of film. Treats everyone with grace. Rides commercial planes, sometimes multiple connecting flights, without one complaint. Amar’e had a tough childhood. Tough. I know because he grew up near me. He hasn't forgotten who he is, just like most of these guys. They work hard, are dedicated to their craft, treat people well wherever they go. Exactly what we, as parents who aren’t pro athletes, try to set up as a model for our kids.
HENRY: David invited me to dinner years ago with Courtney Lee. The lockout was looming, and I asked Courtney if he was worried about losing his paycheck. He was still on his rookie deal. He said he was not worried, because [paraphrasing] he lived like a dude with an entry-level accounting job. He had never made much by NBA standards, but he had essentially saved enough to live through 10 lockouts. Indeed, he had driven us to dinner in what I think was a Chevy SUV of some kind. Dinner was at TGI Friday’s in the parking lot of some deserted mall and I’m pretty sure we split the bill.
NBA players make news when they’re crazy irresponsible, which happens sometimes. But the super responsible players are there, too, in big numbers.
Your question was about children, though. My worry with NBA players as parents is a little different: they’re gone all the time! There are a lot of reasons for the NBA to shorten the schedule. Players-as-parents is one.
Hey TrueHoop, I'm curious about agents and the kind of power they actually yield in negotiating trades in the NBA. Seems like they have more control than we know. But it also seems like one or two agents hold the majority of the power. How influential are they outside the public eye?
DAVID: They have no power. It's a myth they like to put forth. Now, some are great negotiators, to be sure, and they can run circles around poor-negotiating GMs. The players have the power, and it's proportional to their overall talent. Also, there are a number of powerful agents in terms of talent they represent. None control much of anything. If any of them did, we'd see LeBron in the playoffs this year next to Anthony Davis.
HENRY: David’s answer is Exhibit A that at TrueHoop we are not using our platform to butter up sources.
I've always been a huge fan of Coach Thorpe and think his “Royal Jelly” theory is one of the more fascinating topics to listen to him discuss. How about a ranking of franchises with respect to that? The Royal Jelly Rankings!
DAVID: Thank you!!
Some background: Female bees are born identical. Royal Jelly is what they feed some baby bees to make them into queens. I use that natural phenomenon to explain player development.
Some players, like LeBron James or Russell Westbrook would probably succeed no matter their environment. Some other players aren’t cut out for the NBA at all. But in between are all these players who could blossom into stars, or not, and a lot of that depends on getting the right setting, the right coach, and most importantly playing time and the opportunity to learn. Or, if you will, the right “royal jelly.”
It can be tempting to think players are inherently really good, or not. But the truth is that a lot of what they become is up to their team. If Steph Curry played for a coach who hated the 3-ball, would he have become this Curry? What if James Harden hadn’t been given the space to perform in Houston as he has and was instead earmarked to be a sixth-man permanently?
Who is good at it? I look for unnatural development, because most players get at least a little better naturally over a few years. I'd put them in tiers:
HENRY: David, the Blazer fan in me is dying to know where they stand. Related: please watch Zach Collins against the Pelicans the other day.
DAVID: I think they’re fine, average. The team overall helps guys stay on track. I don’t see anything special happening, though. I saw young Mr. Collins. He likes to dunk everything, which is a good starting point. I also saw Julius Randle go for 45 in that game. I’m sure the Lakers never saw that from him.
HENRY: Great point. Bringing it all full-circle. I’ll tell you what else happened in that game: Randle believed in the hot hand. He wore a mic for the local broadcast, and when they showed the little clips, he tended to say different forms of “get me the ball.” He was amazing! But maybe some of those seven 3s (he missed five) came at moments when teammates had better looks. If they’d moved the ball normally, the Pelicans might not have been outscored by nine while Randle was out there, having his career high.
Is there something of an ending or resolution you've come to in the Prokhorov investigation? Or is it ongoing?
HENRY: Short answer: yes! I hope you will enjoy the journey, but there will be an ending. It won’t be next week, though, for three reasons:
Oligarch stories are complex, thick with names that are hard to learn for American readers. The layers and overlaps, which are now touching Donald Trump, Robert Mueller, the N.R.A. and so many key American institutions, you kind of need a Ph.D. to make good guesses about what is going on there. (One book I’ve been relying on is “the Bible” for CIA Analysts.) I will do my best to keep it from getting too involved, but the real story we are trying to tell is fairly sprawling.
I learned from the William Wesley investigation years ago that if you publish things over time, interesting sources appear along the way to help, which has already been happening. There’s some merit in dragging it out a little.
To give you a sense of length, the other way I considered publishing all this was in a book!
I'd love to read some reporting about the occurrence of homophobic incidents (easiest example is multiple players' use of slurs against refs, Rondo most notably) and domestic abuse cases involving NBA players, and how the league responded to those incidents. Basically, why hasn't homophobia and cases of domestic abuse created any amount of scandal in the NBA as it has in other leagues and industries?
Relatedly, I'd love to hear some thoughts on Derrick Rose's public resurgence this year with regards to his court case. I don't know enough to have any strong opinion, but I know enough to feel uncomfortable with embracing his image as the symbol of a triumphant and vindictive comeback.
HENRY: Taylor, when I started covering the league in the early 1990s it was alarming how often you’d hear, for instance, the word “gay” used as an insult. I’m not here to tell you that never happens anymore, but I would say it has been changing at warp speed lately. And I’d also separate what the league and media have done from what causes scandal. That second thing requires large numbers of fans.
TrueHoop editor Don Skwar did some homework on how these things have been handled.
Kobe Bryant was probably the most celebrated league star to be hit with a fine—$100,000 in April 2011—for a gay slur toward a referee. Then-commissioner David Stern was praised by the LGBT community for his swift denunciation. The league launched a “Don’t Say Gay” campaign.
The league fined Amar’e Stoudemire $50,000 the following year for offensive and derogatory anti-gay language in a Twitter message to a critical fan.
In 2013, Roy Hibbert was levied a $75,000 fine for his homophobic remark during a postgame press conference.
In December 2015, when Rondo played for Sacramento he used a vile, anti-gay remark toward ref Bill Kennedy. Commissioner Adam Silver took more than a week before he suspended Rondo for one game. A few days later, Kennedy came out of the closet to Yahoo! Sports.
While no company can declare it’s devoid of any homophobic issues, Commissioner Silver did dance on a float in the Gay Pride Parade in New York.
The NFL famously botched its handling of the dreadful Ray Rice domestic violence incident, suspending Rice for just two games. Not too long after that, in November 2014, the Hornets’ Jeffery Taylor pleaded guilty to misdemeanor domestic violence assault, and Adam Silver suspended him without pay for 24 games.
By July 2017, the league and the NBA Players Association had worked out a new policy in the new collective bargaining agreement, which ESPN’s Zach Lowe wrote about comprehensively. In his article, Lowe writes: “The new CBA, which takes effect in July, confirms the NBA's authority to conduct investigations and impose penalties for acts of domestic violence—subject to challenge from the players' union—before the resolution of any criminal case. It also creates a more comprehensive overall preventative policy that includes counseling for players and their families; training seminars; and a hotline players and their families can call at any time.”
In February, 2018, Sports Illustrated uncovered multiple allegations of inappropriate sexual conduct and predatory sexual behavior within the Dallas Mavericks organization. While this wasn’t “domestic violence” it was certainly sexual misconduct. A blow to the league’s public image, it prompted Silver to commission an independent investigation that substantiated SI’s report last September. Among other directives as a result of the NBA’s report, Mavericks owner Mark Cuban agreed to donate $10 million to organizations that promote women in leadership roles and combat domestic violence.
Also worth noting is the recent case where a woman accused Corey Maggette of raping her in 1999, while they were at Duke. Maggette was removed from his job as commentator for Fox Sports West’s Clipper games when the story first broke last month and, according to a Deadspin report, has not returned since.
As to your second question, it’s almost always the case that on-court success trumps all, at least until a trial is complete. And the sad truth is that, too often, sports media either shy away from athletes’ unsavory issues off the playing field or praise their accomplishments on the field (or court) and downplay what is being adjudicated or even what already HAS been adjudicated.
Kizito Madu wrote a piece on this that’s worth reading and is something that’s at the heart of what we hope to do at TrueHoop. Madu asks us to, “stop being concerned with preserving a sanitized image of an athlete” and have “honest conversations about athletes like Rose. More importantly, and hopefully, we can signal to victims that what happened to them mattered.”
Thank you for subscribing to TrueHoop! Coming later this week: David Thorpe has been studying the Warriors, and has learned some things.