Posted Dec 19 2011 7:27AM - Updated Dec 19 2011 3:54PM
It was a trade seven months in the making, and one that died three times on the operating table before being resuscitated. Before Chris Paul showed up on a podium at the Clippers' practice facility last week, he was a Knick in waiting, and a Laker for a minute, and up until Saturday, when Neil Olshey got the final e-mail confirming that the trade was final, Paul still wasn't completely sure where he was going.
Olshey was around in 2008 when the Clippers traded Cuttino Mobley to the Knicks, only to see New York counter that the heart condition Mobley had played with for years gave them pause -- unless L.A. wanted to sweeten the deal. (They finally waived Mobley's physical, though he never played for New York and sued the Knicks last month, claiming New York's doctors were inclined not to let him play.)
Moral: You never know. Especially if you're the Clippers.
But the deal went through, though many around the league are furious with the way the league, which owns the Hornets, injected itself into the trade talks, rejecting what appeared to be a done deal that would have made Paul a Laker. Forgive the Clippers if they can't work up a few tears that their crosstown-and NBA-royalty neighbors are ticked off they didn't get what they want. For once, the breaks went their way, and the conspiracy theorists can go pound salt.
No matter the machinations, at the end of the day, Olshey -- the Clippers' second-year vice president of basketball operations and general manager -- and Dell Demps, his second-year counterpart in New Orleans, had to figure out how to make a deal with one another. And they did.
The art of the NBA deal is a never-ending series of phone calls, texts, proposals and counterproposals. It's hard enough to get two teams to make a trade. Now, throw in the commissioner of the NBA acting as one team's general manager -- while trying to find a buyer for said team, with all of the contradictory issues that produces -- a glamour franchise desperate to get younger and continue winning championships also trying to make a deal, high-profile agents with their own agendas, getting up to speed on new rules that had a direct impact on the talks and a Twitterverse that creates conventional wisdom in a matter of seconds, allowing fans to create their own echo chamber, and the machinations of this particular deal became the stuff of novels.
But -- maybe for different reasons -- Olshey and Demps persevered. And the Clippers not only wound up with Paul, but with Caron Butler and Chauncey Billups to go with DeAndre Jordan and Mo Williams and, of course, Bad Blake.
"What I learned about Dell is he's no pushover," Olshey said Saturday night. "He's a pretty creative thinker. He had all kinds of deals going ... if you're going to go do a deal with him, make sure you know what it is you're exactly after. Because he's going to do it all the way through."
There have been numerous reports that Demps was neutered by the league at the last, cast aside as Stern, league president of basketball operations Joel Litvin and vice president of operations Stu Jackson took control of the negotiations. Demps and Stern have denied this, and both have cited a "miscommunciation" between the Hornets and the league that led New Orleans to initially believe the Lakers deal would get done. The Lakers, and Rockets, see it differently, of course, with each team making its feelings known through anonymous sources to its respective local media in the last week.
There are legit reasons to criticize how the NBA handled the deal and, how, regardless of its role, the public perception that Demps was powerless hurt him. It's also hard not to see why Demps may well have liked the initial deal that would have brought veterans like Luis Scola and Lamar Odom to New Orleans; altruism is fine and all, but Demps wouldn't be faulted if he wanted to try and hold onto his job (nor would Monty Williams, the Hornets' coach), and those players would certainly have a better chance of getting the Hornets to the playoffs than the young players and picks for whom the NBA was pushing.
"He's got to sell this asset (the team) and get value," a source involved in the discussions said last week. "In the short term, people may say he's shooting himself in the foot and not improving the value of the asset."
Demps didn't want to talk about any of that this weekend, though he would say that he and Olshey started talking at the pre-Draft camp in Chicago in June.
"We were friendly," Olshey said. "I wouldn't say we're friends. When Dell got into player personnel, we'd give each a ride to a game or sit next to each other at dinner. Dell was pro personnel before. He used to do a lot of the games. He was somebody you started seeing consistently on the road the last five years. I had never talked about a deal (with him) before. We're both neophyte GMs."
While other teams tried to convince the Hornets to send Paul their way, Olshey had to convince his owner, Donald Sterling.
For decades, Sterling has made money and fired people, all the way through Mike Dunleavy, the Clippers' former GM that Olshey replaced in 2010. And under Sterling's stewardship -- there were, of course, the sexual and housing discrimination lawsuits, the dismissals of employees like Bill Fitch and Dunleavy and the refusal to pay them until they went to court -- the Clippers remained a national joke. But ever since Olshey got the job, Sterling has given him the green light to make moves. He let Olshey trade Baron Davis and the Draft pick that wound up going first overall in June for Williams, clearing crucial cap space. But there was a lot more work to do. In early July, Olshey began composing a 20-page presentation for Sterling in which he laid out scenarios for three superstars -- Dwight Howard, Deron Williams or Paul -- and what it would take to get each one of them from their respective teams.
In doing so, Olshey was putting into practice what he'd learned in L.A.'s front office. He'd started in basketball coaching the camp circuits, then as a workout guy for agent Arn Tellem, helping develop players before the Draft. He worked his way up the food chain for the Clippers, from director of player personnel in 2003, to assistant coach to assistant general manager. Watching then-GM Elgin Baylor and, then, Dunleavy, work with their boss, Olshey learned a valuable lesson: always make sure Sterling is in the loop. He might say yes, he might say no, but what he didn't like was to be surprised. If you believed in a deal and could recommend it, he'd listen. Sterling gave the go-ahead to keep pursuing all three, but quickly, it became apparent that the best target was Paul.
As the lockout continued, Olshey and Demps kept talking to one another. The Hornets had given Paul and his agent, Leon Rose, permission to make deals with other teams, but there were really only three teams for whom Paul wanted to play -- the Knicks, Lakers or Clippers. (That didn't stop the Warriors from trying to get involved, and there were talks between Golden State and New Orleans, but Paul never made a commitment to staying in Golden State after the 2011-12 season.) It quickly became evident, though, that New York didn't have nearly enough valuable pieces to make a serious run at Paul; most of the Knicks' good assets went to Denver last season in the Carmelo Anthony deal. And even though the Knicks, according to a source involved in the discussions, would have dealt anyone other than Anthony for Paul -- including Amare Stoudemire, if need be -- the Hornets weren't interested. Nor was Paul interested in going to New York if it meant Stoudemire would pass him in the night down to New Orleans.
So, it became the Lakers and Clippers.
But, was Paul really serious about playing for the Clippers? Was he just using them as a stalking horse to make sure the Lakers paid up? The Clippers had been down this road before; they genuinely believed Kobe Bryant was coming their way in 2004 as a free agent, only to see him re-up with Jerry Buss' crew. They wanted assurances that he'd be around for at least two years, requiring him to "opt in" for the final year of his contract in 2012-13.
"We had talked early in the process," Olshey said. "I said to Dell, we can take this as far as we can take it. But I can't take Package A and rent him for 66 games. Package B is, he's coming, he's extending. I said I need to hear it from Chris. I'm not hearing it from Leon; I'm not hearing it from you; I'm not hearing it from Rich Paul (part of LRMR Marketing, the group of LeBron James's old friends that handles his marketing, among others, along with Paul). We got on the phone and talked for two hours. There's no way a guy knows that much about our roster and what we were doing if he wasn't invested. Chris got off the phone saying, 'That's where I want to be.' "
Olshey had his own issues outside of the Paul talks, all centering on how to avoid exactly what Demps was now going through with Paul. His own budding superstar, Blake Griffin, was entering his third season in Los Angeles, and in this new NBA era, that meant the Clippers were already on the clock. His options for 2012 and 2013 had already been picked up, but if Olshey didn't start surrounding him with more talent, Griffin would surely start looking around and the recruiting pitches would get harder to fight off. The Clippers needed a small forward that teams would defend more stoutly than they had last year's incumbent at the position, Ryan Gomes. The Clippers had three primary targets -- Tayshaun Prince, Grant Hill and Caron Butler -- and dealing Davis to Cleveland had created enough cap room to make a strong run at one of them.
Olshey knew someone would give an offer sheet to his young, improving center, DeAndre Jordan; he'd budgeted between $8 and $8.5 million per year for Jordan, but suspected the actual price would be higher, so a decision would have to be made on whether to match if the sheet came in higher. (He couldn't give Jordan a frontloaded deal like the Thunder had done with Nick Collison and Washington had with Andray Blatche, because that would have used up his cap room.) And L.A. would need a shooting guard if it had to put its own starter, Eric Gordon, in the deal for Paul.
When the lockout finally ended on the Saturday after Thanksgiving, the talks intensified. The Clippers' president, Andy Roeser, was in discussions with the league. The Rockets were available as a conduit, but they wanted a quality big man coming back, and Olshey certainly wasn't going to give them Griffin or Paul, and they weren't much interested in starting center Chris Kaman as the centerpiece of a deal. So Houston went to the Lakers, who were willing to move Pau Gasol if it brought them Paul. Demps spoke with or e-mailed his team president Hugh Weber four or five times a day, and was in constant communication with coach Monty Williams. It was a tricky, complicated dance for Demps; he not only was juggling three or four different deals, he had to gauge the trade value of the players he might get in the deal in case the Hornets decided to flip them for additional assets. And he had to communicate with the league office. Some days, the Hornets were ready to deal with the Clippers; other days, they leaned toward the Lakers.
The Lakers worked relentlessly toward a deal, and Demps told Olshey what he would need to send Paul to the Clippers -- Kaman, second-year forward Al-Farouq Aminu, Gordon, second-year point guard Eric Bledsoe and both of the Clippers' 2012 first-round picks, their own and Minnesota's, which was unprotected and a huge chip. Olshey said no; he wouldn't have much of a chance to entice Paul to stay past the season or make Griffin happy with a bunch of second-round picks. In addition, the Clippers still needed a three; Hill had narrowed his choices to San Antonio, New York or staying in Phoenix. And on Dec. 8, the Clippers were stunned when Prince decided to go back to Detroit; L.A. thought Prince would come back to his native L.A. and be ready to handle being a third option, given his history playing off of Billups and Rip Hamilton in Detroit.
L.A. had to move; Butler was the only three left on their board. They went above what they expected to get him -- three years for $24 million -- but they couldn't take the chance that he'd sign in New Jersey or Chicago or San Antonio.
And that same day, Dec. 8, the Board of Governors was meeting in New York to finalize the passage of the new collective bargaining agreement. The three-team deal between the Lakers, Rockets and Hornets was in place. Demps called Olshey, and told him: This is the last shot. This is what it's going to take. The "ask" was the same: all the Clippers' young players and picks. L.A. passed. Demps said he had another deal in place that he had to take -- the Lakers-Rockets deal, that would send Lamar Odom, Luis Scola, Kevin Martin, Goran Dragic and Houston's 2012 first-rounder for New York to New Orleans.
"I said 'I'm happy for you,' " Olshey recalled.
The Hornets had to move; they couldn't, in the words of one official involved in the talks, let Paul leave "and then the team goes to crap." The franchise had gotten commitments for 10,000 season tickets from the fan base -- a base that knew Paul wasn't likely to be around after this season. So the team had to put a representative product on the floor; a true rebuild would take three or four years. The bond between the team and the city is real; many of the team's employees lived through Hurricane Katrina like the rest of the city, and there is a genuine empathy for the people of the city and what they've endured.
But the league, equally empathetic, was evidently looking at a bigger picture; namely, would the Hornets be viable in three years with an aging and expensive core of Odom, Scola and Martin? And it would be naive to think the potential sale of the franchise wouldn't be positively affected -- that is, the team would go for a higher price -- if the roster were younger and cheaper? Stern stepped in. According to another source who was briefed on the talks, the parties waited for a call from the league on the night of Dec. 8 to finalize things, a call that never came. (This would jibe with the claim Stern made in his news conference last week that, while the Hornets thought a deal was imminent, there never was an "official" trade call between the parties and that a trade was never officially submitted. ) The source claims that Stern simply told the Hornets, "we're not doing that deal."
Stern insisted during his media availability last week that pressure from owners, including Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert and his now-infamous e-mail, who didn't want the Lakers to acquire Paul, did not factor in his decision to veto the initial trade.
"I assure all that, first, my decision was made long before I received that e-mail, and, second, I wouldn't have acted upon it even if I had received it, because my goal here was to determine what improved the Hornets," Stern said. "There's been some speculation that there was a reason why we didn't want -- I did not want to have Chris go to a team in a large market, because that somehow would have some impact on life under the collective bargaining agreement. All I can say there is that's not the responsiblity that I undertook as the person responsible for ultimately making decisions on transactions like this on behalf of the New Orleans Hornets."
The next day, Dec. 9, the league informed the Lakers and Hornets that in order to approve the deal, the NBA wanted different, young pieces coming from Los Angeles than the 32-year-old Odom -- the only significant piece that fit that bill would have been center Andrew Bynum -- and at least one more first-round pick to go with the first-rounder that Houston had already committed. The Lakers tried to piece the deal together again, but wouldn't include Bynum, who had to be held back in case the Lakers could, down the road, make a deal with the Orlando Magic for Dwight Howard. The league insisted. (In addition, a source says the sides couldn't agree on financial considerations.) On the 10th, the Lakers pulled out of the talks with the Hornets for Paul and sent Odom to the Mavericks for Dallas' 2012 first-rounder.
Suddenly, the Clippers were all alone in their pursuit of Paul. The rag-tag, vagabond Clippers had no serious opponents for one of the NBA's true superstars. That was crucial, because Rose, the powerful CAA agent, was determined to get his client where he wanted. And the only one of the three teams left was the Clippers. Rose became an important ally for Olshey and the Clippers, determined not to let the deal die.
The Clippers and Hornets re-engaged in discussions Dec. 9 and on Dec. 10, the talks got very, very serious. The Clippers thought they had a deal. So did the Hornets. The problem was, they were talking about different deals.
L.A. thought it had agreed to a deal for Kaman, Aminu, Gordon and the pick. The Hornets thought they agreed to a deal for those four players, as well as the Clippers' other first-rounder and Bledsoe. That's the risk when a half-dozen people are involved and they're all talking to each other; the league kept holding out for more. The problem was, the Clippers had already told Sterling they had a deal for the four pieces, not six. But the Hornets were now saying it was six. The deal died again.
But this time, they left the talks a little more encouraged. If the NBA was going to insist on young players for Paul, there were only a couple of teams, like Oklahoma City and Minnesota, that had the requisite number of pieces. And Paul wasn't interested in a long-term deal with either team, even the up-and-coming Thunder, and even though he had enjoyed his two years in Oklahoma City when the Hornets were relocated there after Katrina.
First, though, the Clippers had to deal with Jordan.
He signed a four-year, $43 million offer sheet from the Warriors on Dec. 10. Olshey's wife had arranged a party at their house that afternoon at 5 p.m.. At 4:20 p.m., a messenger delivered Jordan's offer sheet. Olshey went back to the office. And here, the Clippers caught a huge break.
They knew the Warriors were planning to sign Jordan to a sheet, and there was never any doubt they would match -- Jordan is close with Griffin and his explosive talents at both ends of the court were too valuable to ever consider letting him go. But Golden State waited a couple of days -- a couple of important days -- before officially conveying the offer.
If the Warriors had given Jordan the offer sheet on the first day they were allowed (Dec. 8) the Clippers would have matched the sheet. But in doing so, they would have used up all of their available cap room and wouldn't have had anything to offer Chauncey Billups. The Warriors waited because they were still hopeful they could make a deal for free-agent center Tyson Chandler, but Chandler wound up agreeing to terms with the Knicks that weekend on a four-year, $60 million deal. But that deal couldn't be made official until New York amnestied Billups -- which happened on Sunday.
Billups and his agent, Andy Miller, had made it clear they didn't want anybody to claim him out of the amnesty pool once he was cut by the Knicks. If Billups cleared waivers he'd be free to go wherever he wanted, and everyone in the NBA universe knew he wanted to go to the Heat. But Olshey saw an opportunity. He still had cap room -- he didn't have to match the sheet on Jordan until Wednesday. He would need a guard if Gordon was going to be in the deal for Paul. But if he got Paul, it would be easier to convince Billups that it was worth his while to come to L.A.
"The one positive in all of this is it's not like it's your father's Oldsmobile," Olshey said. "It's not like it's three years ago and we were hijacking a guy to a 19-win team. If we were the team from a year ago, I might have given in. But you can't tell me, coming in to play with the roster we have, and being a starter, and Chauncey can now play the ball more with the ball out of his hands, we might extend his career two or three years. It was not comfortable, sitting with Chauncey. It was not a comfortable thing. Moving Eric Gordon, our second best player, the confidence we could move him to get Chris had a lot to do with Chauncey being here."
Billups would clear waivers at 3 p.m. Los Angeles time. At 2:53, the Clippers claimed him with a winning bid of $2,000,032. (The 32, signfiying Griffin's uniform number, was Roeser's idea.)
On Tuesday afternoon, the Clippers gathered their players in the film room at the team's practice facility in Playa Del Rey. Management told them the team was moving on from Paul. They had to try, he told them; Paul was a Hall of Fame-caliber player. But the deal was dead. You are, he told them, the guys we're going to war with.
But Tuesday night, the Hornets (on behalf of themselves, or with the league's prompting; we'll probably never know) called back. They wanted to take one more pass at it. Roeser contnued talks with Litvin, but the Clippers made it clear: one first-round pick, not both, and either Gordon or Bledsoe, not both. They would have one opportunity to convince Sterling that this was worth doing; Sterling isn't interested in process. When they went to Sterling, it would be to set up a trade call, not to continue haggling. There couldn't be any more negotiating. If the Clippers had to start the season with Billups and Gordon in the backcourt, and Butler, Griffin and Kaman up front, with Williams and Jordan coming off the bench, they could live with that. And they could sell that to their fans.
It was yes or no time.
On Wednesday, New Orleans, with the league concurring, said yes.
The Clippers would send Gordon, Aminu, Kaman and Minnesota's number one to the Hornets for Paul and two second-round picks. In five days, Los Angeles had signed Butler, claimed Billups, matched Jordan's offer sheet and traded for Paul. It was a transformation, but proof positive that, again, if you draft the right guys (Jordan was a second-round pick in 2008), trade for the right guys and trade the right guys away (remember the Clippers cleared all that room by dealing Zach Randolph to Memphis in 2009. Now, that was done to clear room to try and sign James in 2010, but nonetheless, the room was there), sign the right guys and pay everyone the right amount of money, you can build a contending team.
Making a final judgment on this trade before we know what the Minnesota pick turns into, or what Aminu becomes, or whether the Hornets will keep all those assets or flip them for more assets, would be ridiculous.
The Hornets can sell their future to their fans and a streamlined payroll to an owner who will keep the team in New Orleans, and if stinking on the court for a couple of years is the price to ensure there will be games in New Orleans Arena a decade from now, the league obviously thought that was worth doing. (You hope that when and if the Hornets are sold, the Commish makes it clear he wants the current management and coaching staffs in New Orleans to be retained as a condition of sale.)
Even though the Clippers are just about sold out of season tickets after this glorious spasm of activity, and even though Williams vows he'll be Sixth Man of the Year, there is no guarantee that things will work out, at least immediately, for the Clippers the way they seem clear on paper. Paul does have knees that are a concern for others around the league, and he's only made a commitment through the 2012-13 season. And Butler's less than a year removed from a ruptured right patellar tendon. And Jordan is now a starter, expected to be consistent every night. And Billups is only under contract for this season. And ...
"Blake has an extension (available) six months from now," Olshey said Saturday, his new world, officially, seconds old. "And I'd like him to sign it."
Haven't had a chance to get to this with all the craziness of the past three weeks, but there are a few new rules this season. Nothing major, but stuff you should keep in mind:
• Timeouts will be allowed for teams whose strategies could be effected by an instant replay call during the last two minutes of regulation and overtime. For example, Team A may be tied with 30 seconds left in the game after its opponent, Team B, makes a shot, only to find that it's actually a point behind if replay determines the opponents' shot was a 3-pointer instead of a two. Team A can then ask for a timeout.
• Replay during 20-second timeouts will only be allowed after the last mandatory timeout of a half (the under three minute timeout in the second and fourth quarters).
• Player substitutions during a free throw attempt can only occur before the final free throw, unless the free throw follows a flagrant or technical foul.
• "Disconcertion" refers to attempts to distract a player shooting a free throw, like when fans hold up those spinning circles behind the baseline in front of the shooter, or when players on the bench throw up towels at the moment an opponent releases the ball. Another tactic teams use is when their players step into the lane just as an opponent lets the free throw go on the foul line. That will no longer be allowed; if the lead official (whose responsibility this now is) determines an opposing player attempted to disconcert, and the free throw shooter missed the free throw, the referee will award another free throw to the shooter.
• The 24-second clock will now show tenths of seconds in the final five seconds of the shot clock, and will only display 24 seconds for a tenth of a second instead of a full second, as it did previously.
• Because the final five seconds of the shot clock will have tenths of seconds displayed, there must be at least three-tenths of a second remaining on the shot clock for an attempted shot -- an alley-oop or a tip-in -- to be allowed.
• Three-tenths of a second must now be taken off of the shot clock whenever an inbounded ball is tipped out of bounds by a defender.
• Because the 24-second clock will now only display "24" for only a tenth of a second, instead of a full second as it did before, an eight-second violation will be called only when the shot clock hits 15 seconds, instead of 16 as it did before.
• Players jumping into defenders: An offensive foul will be called on a shooter who initiates contact with a defender by jumping into him to draw a foul. However, no foul will be called if there is incidental contact between players when the offensive player makes contact with the defender.
• "Take" fouls: If a defender deliberately takes a foul on a ballhandler in order to stop play, such as to stop a fast break or to stop the clock, no continuation will be allowed unless the offensive player has already started his shooting motion toward the basket -- except when the quarter or game is about to end. For example, a player who's starting to shoot a halfcourt shot at the buzzer of a quarter that is deliberately fouled will get three free throws if he's started the shooting motion.
• "Rip-through" fouls: The side-to-side, then up, move that Tim Duncan, and, more recently, Kevin Durant have perfected to draw shooting fouls will no longer be rewarded with free throws. If there's contact on the side-to-side move, the foul will be called on the defender, but the offensive player will no longer be able to continue the move with the upturn and attempted shot. The play is dead on the initial contact.
• A player whose toes are on the line when he begins a three-point shot will still be awarded a three-pointer if his toes or feet clear the three-point line by the time he releases the ball.
1) Dallas (1 last week): Under-the-radar signing of Delonte West is going to help a lot; solid third guard who can handle both backcourt spots and will almost certainly spot start.
2) Miami (2): Extension for Spoelstra should quell talk of Riles getting back on the bench ... for a month or so.
3) Chicago (3): While you can't argue that getting Rip Hamilton is an upgrade over Keith Bogans, letting Bogans go a week before Christmas so that the Bulls don't have to pick up his full season guarantee still stinks.
4) L.A. Lakers (4): Troy Murphy latest addition to the bench; reserves (Barnes, Blake, Ebanks) will be huge for L.A. this season.
5) Oklahoma City (5): Another quiet pickup ithis week in second-year forward Lazar Hayward that could pay off down the road for Sam Presti and Company.
6) Memphis (6): Grizz may have lost Darrell Arthur for the season with an achilles' injury. That would be devastating; he was a huge, productive guy for them down the stretch and in the playoffs last season.
7) Boston (7): Rookie E'Twaun Moore might have to step in and provide some quality minutes early.
8) San Antonio (8): It cannot be a warm and fuzzy locker room in San Antonio these days.
9) Atlanta (9): Terrific read in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution on Sunday about the problems the Hawks have attracting free agents to play there. (I'm fairly certain the free agent train stopped in the 404 the day last summer the Hawks committed $124 million to Joe Johnson. There are other deals, like Al Horford's $60 million, that add to the tally, but JJ's contract is the one that just makes it impossible for the Hawks to be a player for anyone else.)
10) Orlando (10): D12 gets a warm ovation at Saturday's scrimmage/fanfest.
11) Philadelphia (15): Sixers look like they didn't take the lockout off; they were razor-sharp in smashing the Wizards in D.C. on Friday.
12) New York (11): Given that the Knicks amnestied Chauncey Billups more than a week ago, losing veteran point guard Anthony Carter to the Raptors last week could be a big blow down the road.
13) Portland (12): Jamal Crawford worried that he wouldn't be a great fit with Nate McMillan, but chose the Blazers anyway. With Ray Felton and Wes Matthews, Portland will have an explosive three-guard rotation -- for this year, anyway -- as it starts to replace Brandon Roy.
14) Denver (15): Nuggets did very well getting Rudy Fernandez and Corey Brewer for next to nothing, and convincing Nene to stay. Made up for a lot of the loss of personnel to China during the lockout.
15) L.A. Clippers (NR): The Week that Was was, to put it mildly, a franchise-shifter. The Clippers still have to prove themselves on the court, and it wouldn't surprise if it took all of this season, and into next season, before it all comes together. There are a lot of new parts, chemistry and roles to be established. But the franchise that has been the NBA's biggest joke for three decades finally has a real and distinct future.
Seriously, how do you get through this schedule this season?
You can talk about how hard this season is going to be on players in the abstract, but when you actually see a team's itinerary in print, it's jarring. We were shown the Hawks' schedule on Thursday as part of our preseason seminar down at Turner. This is the week of Monday, Jan. 2 to Monday, Jan. 9:
Monday Jan. 2 at Miami
Tuesday Jan. 3 at Chicago
Thursday Jan. 5 vs. Miami
Friday Jan. 6 at Charlotte
Saturday, Jan. 7 vs. Chicago
Monday Jan. 9 at New Jersey
Holy Highlight Factory, Batman.
"We have to play the hand that's dealt us," Hawks coach Larry Drew said Sunday night.
You start with the SuperFriends, on the road. That game, if you're lucky, ends a little after 10 Miami time. If you're fortunate, you're wheels up by midnight. Then a nice 3-hour flight up to Chicago. (Of course, you gain an hour flying to the midwest. Stop complaining.) You get in a little after 2, and, maybe, you get to your hotel in Chicago a little after 3. There will be no shootaround because you played the night before; maybe a meeting in the athletic trainer's room, or a ballroom. Then, the MVP is waiting for you with his 62-win squad Tuesday night. You're done at 10 local again, but you lose an hour flying two hours back to Atlanta, so -- again, if you're lucky -- you get back home by 4.
No practice Wednesday. Thursday morning you have a shootaround, followed by a return engagement with LeBron and Company, who will, no doubt, have a legion of fans supporting them in your building. Then back on a plane for a quick (1 hour) flight to Charlotte. Maybe you get there by 1 a.m. Friday. Again, no shootaround. You get to chase Kemba Walker and Friends around for 48 more minutes, then back on another plane home, where D-Rose is again waiting for you Saturday night. At least you get to sleep in your own bed. Then up Sunday, and maybe you get a film session in before you get on another plane, to New Jersey. This time, it's D-Will waiting for you, at his place.
This is madness. But it's equally distributed madness. You look on any team's schedule, you'll see a similar stretch.
"You have to mentally prepare yourself for a schedule like that," Drew said.
With Joe Johnson, Josh Smith, Al Horford, Marvin Williams and second-year guard Jeff Teague all returning -- incumbent point guard Kirk Hinrich is out with a shoulder injury, though Drew is hopeful he'll be back before the initial timeline of February or even March -- the Hawks started training camp ahead of many other teams with lots of rookies or new faces on the roster scheduled to play major minutes. So Drew spent the first few days of camp giving his players many more mental reps than burning them out doing a lot of sprints and drills.
"For us, being somewhat of a veteran ballclub, with the core of our guys back, there wasn't a whole lot of teaching that had to be done in our training camp," Drew said. "We had to get the new guys pretty familiar to what we do -- Tracy (McGrady) and Vladimir (Radmanovic), (Jerry) Stackhouse and some of the young guys. We had to really get them acclimated to what we did. Not really knowing how much basketball guys played in the summer and the lockout, I did not want to go in there and treat it like a normal training camp. I thought it was important to gradually get into it.
"Once we start the regular season, we're going to be shot out of a cannon. Either you're ready or you're not. I didn't want to go into the regular season with guys worn down from training camp, or guys hurt from training camp. Being a veteran ballclub, we had to start this thing as healthy as we could, but mentally be aware with what was in front of us. It's nothing but a test for us. It lies right there in front of us. I've thrown the challenge out to the guys to see how you respond to a schedule like that. The challenge is going to be how we endure, the back to backs, the criss-cross traveling. I told them from day one, even before they stepped on the floor, they're going to have to take care of themselves more properly than they have in any season."
Drew says he will monitor his rotation players' minutes and go deeper into his bench. The Hawks had 19 players in camp at the start, and many of the players who don't make the NBA roster going forward will be kept close, either in the Developmental League or otherwise, in case they're needed. The likelihood is they will be.
"Certainly there's a high possibility, or probability, that more players will be called up this season," Drew said. "Whether they make it or not, it's going to be important to maintain a relationship with these guys, where they go, and with our D-League team. There's a chance that some of those guys will be called back up."
And, like other coaches I've talked to, Drew says he may well sit a starter or two on the third night of a back-to-back-to-back, no matter what the Hawks' situation is at the moment. Drew was with the Lakers in '99, coming out of the last lockout, and recalled guys who were operating on fumes by the third night. He will try not to extend his starters the first two nights of those three games in a row, and see what they have left for night three. So a guy like McGrady, for example, may play some minutes in a two-guard front handling the ball more on a third night--if he hasn't been spent the previous two nights.
"We certainly have some guys that fall into that category," Drew said. "As far as some of our younger guys, there's a possibility that could happen...I've already alerted my guys to that. Even a starter. I'm going to try to really be mindful not to load them up on the first two. They feel like they're Hercules. They think they can play four or five in a row. But we have to be smart."
But you get a free Shake Weight with every subscription! From Michael Stelle:
Last year I bought League Pass and paid around £95 ($165) for regular season (I bought the playoffs as well). Now I know you were joking a few weeks ago when you said about all the things the league could possibly do to make it up to us but I expected at least something cheaper this year. I genuinely felt slapped in the face when I found out that that I would be charged the exact same price for less product (4 installments of $46.95). Like we've lost two months of the season and we're still paying the same amount, absolutely ridiculous. I live in Ireland and thus have to sit up as late as 5-6 in the morning to watch the end of games. I could just as easy leave the game and live my life normally without the NBA but I do love watching. Just wondering what they're reasoning is behind this? Unbelievable that the players are getting there salaries pro-rated but they can't even pro-rate the League Pass. I'll probably buy it like a sheep but I'm a freaking angry sheep!
I actually wasn't joking about any of it, Michael. The damage the league willfully did to its product and its relationship with its hardcore and casual fans was such that I believed -- and still do -- that extraordinary measures needed to be taken to make amends. But League Pass is front and center important to me, because my folks at Turner -- NBA Digital -- run it, just as they run NBA TV and NBA.com. (It is a partnership with the league, but the decision makers are out of Atlanta, at Turner, which is why I continue to correct people who insist I work for the league, when I do not.) Anyway, you aren't the only person who wrote in anger, asking how the NBA could be so callous to charge the same price this season for 20 percent fewer games than last season.
Except, it isn't true.
What seems to have happened is that there was confusion about pricing because people didn't realize you get two weeks of League Pass for free. People may have read that when the lockout ended and thought the same prices were in effect. That was incorrect. Others may have extrapolated prices based on when the regular season starts and not taken into account that the first two weeks of the season are free on League Pass.
Anyway, here are the numbers, and here is the page for League Pass:
• League Pass costs $169 this year. It cost $189 last year. That is a 10.6 percent reduction from last season. The price has been adjusted to reflect the fact that there are fewer games available this season;
• This year's League Pass package now includes NBA Mobile, which sold last year for an additional $50. Mobile lets you watch League Pass games not only on television, but on your computer and mobile phone. Basically, if you have a screen to watch, you can watch NBA games. You can watch four games at once. You can watch picture-in-picture. It's really cool;
• League Pass is free for everyone through Jan. 8. Normally, the free preview period is one week. Now, it's two.
I also went to Christina Miller, the senior vice president and GM of NBA Digital. One of my bosses. She runs it and said:
"Fans can get the most comprehensive access to all of this season's NBA action with the NBA League Pass priced at $169. The all-inclusive subscription includes the mobile package (a $50.00 value) providing any time, any where live game viewing availability across multiple platforms. In addition to an extended two-week free preview period, the NBA League Pass offers more value at a discounted rate providing fans with unprecedented access to their favorite teams and players."
Alas, Michael, I think the prices are indeed different for international viewers, but that package is not handled by us; we only handle the domestic package. I will endeavor to find out for you and all the others around our orb who watch the NBA in this way, next week.
What is the cost of freedom? From Leon Brill:
Billups is right -- when getting amnestied, one deserves the right to sign a new contract with the team BUT MUST FORFEIT A FIXED PERCENTAGE OF SALARY. This way it is fair for the team and the player. But the way its done now, guys with large contracts will be amnestied and have to sign with a team they don't feel they can fit in. Just a thought.
If you do it that way you defeat the whole purpose of amnesty, Leon. The idea was to not allow the top teams to just be able to cherry-pick good players who are cut for a veteran's minimum; all things being equal, the player is going to choose the Heat or Lakers or Knicks (as Billups wanted to do, and Baron Davis did in reportedly agreeing to sign wiith the Knicks Sunday). Amnesty tilts the field toward non-taxpayers by giving them the first crack. I like the rule.
Sometimes, they understand exactly what you're trying to say. From Richard Friedlander:
I loved your piece about your former teacher Professor French at American University. I liked that Professor French taught you how to think- not what to think. For people who have been lucky enough to have had such a teacher, thinking becomes almost a sport. It becomes not about who is right or wrong, not "winning" or "losing" but about kicking ideas around and seeing where they lead- the fun is the "chase" : the winning is the synthesis.
Don't get me wrong; I do, often, want to "win" a debate, Richard. But most of the time, it is as you say -- the pursuit of an idea to its logical end. While I suspect Valerie was on the liberal side, Richard, that was never the point of her teaching. It was, as you say, a "sport" of sorts to try and get underclasssmen to realize how to organize their brains in the best way -- like learning how to get the most into a carry-on suitcase. She was an incredible tour guide, and I will miss her.
Send your questions, comments, criticisms and Golden Globes nominations that George Clooney didn't get to firstname.lastname@example.org. If your e-mail is sufficiently intelligent, thought-provoking, funny or snarky, we just might publish it!
21 -- Sets of back-to-back games this season by the Bobcats and Rockets, the most in the league.
7,927 -- Announced crowd at Friday night's exhibition opener in Detroit against Cleveland. The actual number of fans at The Palace may have been slightly lower.
12 -- Years since the Timberwolves had an exhibition game crowd as large as Saturday's announced 15,013 at Target Center against Milwaukee, according to the Minneapolis Star Tribune.
1) Less than a week to opening day. The league has taken a beating this offseason -- rightfully so, in many cases. One thing the Commish used to always say was the NBA does best when the focus is on the court. Still the case.
2) Can't tell you how enjoyable it was to spend the day in Atlanta last Thursday with the whole Turner crew at our preseason seminar. The quality of the talent and of the people from top to bottom makes me realize how lucky I am to be part of the best group in television. And now...Shaq!
3) If you don't think the new CBA has had an impact already, look at the money the Kings are throwing around -- $31 million for Marcus Thornton, $12 million for an already-amnestied Travis Outlaw -- in order to get up to 80 percent of the cap this season, as teams are now required to do under the new rules. That's good for middle-class players like Thornton and Outlaw, and it puts a better product on the court in a small market. Some of us said raising the floor was just as important to ensuring "competitive balance" as raising the taxes of the luxury tax-paying teams.
4) I would normally never bet against The Prokhorov on anything, but he's going up against a guy with a career electoral record of 7,392-0. The league, by the way, says it has no problem with an NBA owner also running a country, citing as an example of multi-tasking Sen. Herb Kohl, the Bucks' owner. Of course, Sen. Kohl represents a state with approximately 5.6 million constituents, geographically close to the center of the United States. The Prokhorov is looking to run a country of about 141 million people that is 23 hours by plane from Olympic Tower.
5) I would like to think, no matter your feelings on the war in Iraq, the announcement that the last American troops left that country last week would give us all a sense of relief that no more U.S. troops would lose their lives or be grievously wounded there. We have been there more than nine years and more than 4,000 U.S. servicemen and women gave their lives. That is never, ever in vain. One would hope we will always be careful about sending our children to fight and use that power judiciously, rarely and decisively. And good luck and Godspeed to the Iraqi people, who have lost a lot more than we have during the conduct of the war.
1) I know we live in a society where we are supposed to revel in the misfortunes of others. It is the lifeblood of TMZ and it was what made News of the World so popular. But I ask in all sincerity: why all the joy that Kobe and Vanessa Bryant are getting divorced? Regardless of why it's happening, why does it make you feel better that they weren't able to make a go of it? There are children involved. And there is nothing that's going to be pleasant about those children's lives being disrupted. It's not about being a prude (or, as someone hilariously referred to me on Twitter, a Kobe apologist; you really haven't been paying attention, have you sir?); I just genuinely don't understand why there was so much yukking it up on Friday at someone else's unhappiness. I have friends who have gone through divorces. There's nothing funny about them. They just cause everyone involved pain.
2) Very sorry to hear that Jeff Green will undergo surgery to fix an aortic aneurism today and miss the season. But thank God that physical unearthed his condition. He can make the $9 million back. Get well wishes to a really good young man.
3) Well, it didn't take long for the bunsen burners to be turned up full blast on Vinny Del Negro. (BTW, I was told, sotto voce, that one out-of-work former NBA coach called the Clippers on Wednesday night, when the CP3 trade finally was consummated, just to ... you know ... say hello.)
4) Haven't heard much in the last few days about that lawsuit CP3 was planning to file against the NBA. Strange how that turned out.
"I didn't feel right going to sleep and that's what saved me, I didn't go to sleep. Most people play through it, like Armen (Gilliam) did and Pistol Pete (Maravich) and Hank Gathers. They play through that fatigue or whatever is going on. I was maybe a little different from them. Some people go to sleep and never wake up."
-- Former Suns player Cedric Ceballos, to the Arizona Republic, detailing the day he had a series of "small" heart attacks while playing pickup basketball. The 42-year-old opted to go to the hospital when he felt discomfort, where doctors made the diagnosis. He's expected to recover, but his pickup playing days are over.
"There are a lot of people working in a positive vein this time, where before, there was a lot of negativity. But everybody is on board. So we're optimistic guys. We want to get it done here in Sacramento."
-- Kings co-owner Joe Maloof, expressing confidence to the Sacramento Bee that the team may, at long last, be able to reach an agreement with the city of Sacramento to help build a new arena that would keep the team in Sacramento after this season. Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson met with NBA Commissioner David Stern in New York Friday.
"I'm not anti-player. As a businessman, I want everybody to be happy. I do feel players should assume more risk, especially when (owners now) assume all the risk. There are no non-guaranteed contracts."
-- Michael Jordan, to the Charlotte Observer, explaining how he has evolved from his pro-player, anti-owner stance during the 1999 lockout -- when, Jordan told the paper, most teams made money -- to his pro-owner stance during the last lockout.
The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Turner Broadcasting.
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