Player movement isn't what it used to be in the league after Milwaukee and San Antonio iron out deals with big names
POSTED: Jul 6, 2015 11:15 AM ET
Free Agent Fever: Greg Monroe
The guys discuss Greg Monroe teaming up with the Milwaukee Bucks.
Conventional thinking changes slowly -- until it changes all at once.
Twenty years ago, a Democratic president who was pretty liberal on many social issues (Bill Clinton) was so unnerved by the prospect of embracing unions between gay people that he backed the Defense of Marriage Act -- at the time, a decision that was considered good politics, backed by an overwhelming majority of Americans. Two weeks ago, the Supreme Court overturned bans nationwide against gay marriage. It wasn't shocking. The world changed that fast.
In a much less important arena, the NBA is moving, and fast.
The Milwaukee Bucks are now an "it" team in the NBA, a destination for a talented, young forward who looked at similar offers from Brew City and New York in the first days of his unrestricted free agency and said, yeah, I'll take Milwaukee.
That was a few days before LaMarcus Aldridge, the most coveted free agent in this year's class, after two meetings with the Los Angeles Lakers -- and after he cancelled a meeting with the New York Knicks -- chose to play for the NBA's most stable, consistent and successful franchise in the last 15 years: the San Antonio Spurs, who play in the league's fourth-smallest television market.
This is so very, very odd if you've been around more than 15 minutes.
The Bucks have had good teams, occasionally very good ones, like the Don Nelson-coached teams of the mid-1980s and the George Karl-coached teams of the late '90s and early 2000s. But the meat of both of those teams were players drafted by Milwaukee -- Marques Johnson, Sidney Moncrief and Paul Pressey in the '80s. The same was true for Glenn Robinson, Michael Redd and Ray Allen (okay, technically, Allen was a Draft-night trade in 1996 for Stephon Marbury). But they've rarely been the choice for free agents that weren't old or looking for one last payday.
But Greg Monroe, 25 and able to go wherever he wanted to take his talents, opted for the non-big lights of the non-big city off Lake Michigan. There could be no further proof that we are in a new NBA, one where the difference between cities has been laid as low as possible due to a number of factors, from Kevin Garnett to revenue sharing, Pat Riley to Howard Schultz, Savannah James to Basketball Reasons -- and not necessarily in that order.
It took us a while to get here. Grab a sandwich.
Small markets' struggle started long ago
For decades, teams like the Los Angeles Lakers, Boston Celtics and New York Knicks -- the biggest of the big-market, high-revenue teams -- simply picked the free agents they wanted to woo. Most of the time, they got them. The lure of playing in a big city for a marquee franchise swayed just about everyone. (For some reason, over the years, the Chicago Bulls rarely made big plays for big-name free agents, and when they did, it rarely paid off.)
Famously, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, after winning a championship in Milwaukee in 1971 and making The Finals in '74, asked to be traded from the Bucks after six seasons because he was not, as then Milwaukee general manager Wayne Embry -- basketball's first African-American GM -- recalled in his autobiography, "culturally satisfied" there.
Vintage NBA: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar
Jerry West, Magic Johnson, Peter Vecsey, Chet Walker, Nelson George, Julius Erving and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar reflect on Kareem's outstanding career.
Abdul-Jabbar wanted to be dealt either to the Knicks or the Lakers. The Bucks granted him his wish in 1975, sending him to Los Angeles for Junior Bridgeman, Dave Meyers, Elmore Smith, and Brian Winters. The following year, after the ABA folded, New York Nets forward Julius Erving spurned Embry's attempts to trade for him, accepting a deal to the Philadelphia 76ers instead.
"Because I had grown to love Milwaukee, I could not understand why some players would not give the city a chance," Embry wrote in the book "The Inside Game."
"I later learned ... that Erving, like most superstars, thought that playing in the big markets would bring more opportunities for commercial endorsements," Embry wrote. "This was another element in how we would manage in future years. We would now have to consider factors other than talent because agents and players wanted to maximize their earnings, and advertisers wanted these players in major markets."
That, indeed, was the operating principle of the NBA for much of the next three decades. Abdul-Jabbar's presence in L.A. laid the groundwork for the Showtime championship teams of the 1980s, when Magic Johnson and James Worthy came to town. They were great players, obviously, but Abdul-Jabbar was the anchor, the indispensable man. And it created a self-fulfilling prophecy; stars tended to want to play with other stars, and since most stars wanted to play in the biggest markets, those teams continued to be good, year after year, while teams in smaller markets struggled to attract the best players.
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There were exceptions. Utah drafted and retained future Hall of Famers John Stockton (1984) and Karl Malone ('85) in Salt Lake City for almost all of their respective careers (Malone played the 2003-04 season with the Lakers). But there were limits to the Jazz's lure, even when they were championship contenders in the 1990s. Derek Harper, then a high-level guard in Dallas, refused a trade to the Jazz in 1997, saying at the time: "there was a Utah deal, but you go live in Utah. Nothing against Utah or their team, but I don't want to live there."
The following season, Rony Seikaly refused to report to Utah after being traded there from Orlando, and the Jazz voided its trade with the Magic.
Stars could make very good money locally off the court -- Scottie Pippen was rumored to be pulling down eight figures annually doing local commercials in Chicago during the Bulls' heyday in the '90s. But the biggest, most consistent money for a star player came from national commercials -- which would almost always go to players in big markets.
But, slowly, events began taking shape that would, ultimately, get us where we are today.
In 1996, Garnett's seven-year, $125 million contract to stay with the Minnesota Timberwolves scared the ever-loving (bleep) out of NBA owners. For eight years -- until 2004, when Kobe Bryant signed a max deal for $136 million -- Garnett's contract was the largest in league history. (Bryant's record was smashed last Wednesday, when the Pelicans agreed to a $145 million max deal with Anthony Davis.)
That one of the smaller revenue-generating teams, Minnesota, did the deal with Garnett only scared them further. If Minnesota would spend that much to keep its superstar, what would the future hold? And it further strengthened the resolve of owners to stop the rise in player salaries, and sacrifice a season if need be. And the owners almost did so with the 1999 lockout.
The luxury tax and its impact on small markets
That increasing pressure from the small markets coincided with the rules changes that came as a result of the plodding, stultifying basketball played in the late '80s and early '90s by far too many teams -- with three players often isolated on the weak side, doing absolutely nothing, while teams ran two-man games. The Knicks, ironically, were among the most successful teams of the era, behind the Two Pats, Ewing and Riley, and New York's battering ram defense.
The new rules eliminated hand-checking, cleaned up play in the paint and helped introduce small ball into the game, making big men less important. As it was much easier to find good little men than good big ones, more teams had an opportunity to improve faster if they could find a dynamic ball handling guard. And thus teams like the then-New Orleans Hornets (in the NBA's smallest television market) could improve dramatically after drafting players like Chris Paul.
Small markets came about through franchise moves as well -- Vancouver to Memphis, Seattle to Oklahoma City -- the second of which was almost entirely due to how then-Sonics owner Howard Schultz botched his attempts to get Seattle a new arena. Schultz ultimately sold the team to Oklahoma City billionaire Clay Bennett, who swore to make every good effort to keep the Sonics in town. To the surprise of no one with an IQ over 17, Bennett moved the Sonics to Oklahoma in 2008, moving one of the league's up-and-coming stars, Kevin Durant, and a prized rookie, Russell Westbrook, from the country's 14th-largest television market to the country's 44th-largest television market.
And while owners started putting the brakes on player salaries in '99, they also introduced, for the first time, a luxury tax that would be implemented against teams that spent more than an agreed-upon threshold that was even greater than the salary cap. And that tax, or the threat of that tax, began to ultimately curb what had been one of the greatest advantages of high-revenue teams: spending their opponents into submission. (The luxury tax was also the first meaningful instance of revenue sharing among teams; those teams that didn't pay luxury tax in a given season split evenly the money from the tax-paying teams.)
The impact was immediate. Portland threw money around crazily at the turn of the century -- understandable when your owner is Paul Allen. There were the Blazers giving $80 million to Rasheed Wallace in 1997 -- 1997! -- and, in 1999, both assuming Scottie Pippen's $67 million from Houston and signing Damon Stoudamire for $80 million. The Blazers were the first team to blast through the luxury tax, responsible for $51.9 million of the league-wide $77 million teams paid in luxury taxes by 2003, a single-season tax payment record until the Nets' insane $90 million tax bill in 2014. But Portland didn't make one Finals during that era of wild spending.
In 2004, Portland's tax bill fell to $28.8 million. In 2005, the amount of Basketball Related Income was not large enough for any team to pay tax. But in the next three seasons, the Blazers fell below the tax threshold, and they've only paid a combined $8.1 million in luxury tax in the last decade. (As ever...Deeks.)
A handful of teams, though, were seemingly immune to caring about paying taxes: the Knicks, Lakers, Celtics and Dallas Mavericks, leading the league's smaller markets to speak out -- publicly -- for the first time about their frustrations about the financial disparity between markets.
In 2006, the Seattle Times published a letter from eight small-market teams -- including, ironically, Paul Allen -- to NBA Commissioner David Stern, airing their grievances. The letter read, in part: "If appropriately managed teams can't break even, let alone make a profit, we have an economic system that requires correction. The needed correction is serious revenue sharing, not just modest revenue assistance, and we urge you to address this issue on an urgent basis this year."
The league tried to implement the luxury tax with the 2005 CBA, but was held off by the union. Eventually, though, the league developed a much more comprehensive revenue sharing program in 2011 that tapped into one of the largest distinctions between small- and large-revenue teams: local television contracts. Each team now puts a fixed percentage of its local TV money into a pool, which is distributed along with other shared monies into a pool, and distributed evenly among the 30 teams.
In 2012-13, according to the Sports Business Journal, more than $200 million went into the revenue sharing pot, with the Lakers -- in the midst of a $3 billion local TV deal with Time Warner Cable -- paying out $45 million. The Knicks paid out $23 million; the Bulls paid $17 million. On the receiving end, the Hornets got $21 million and Milwaukee got $17 million, which is where we pick up the story.
Fits and starts of a new era in Milwaukee
In 2010, then-Bucks owner Herb Kohl borrowed $55 million from the NBA's credit facility. Kohl had lots of businesses so it's not a certainty that he used the money to shore up his basketball team. But Kohl had said for years that he was losing money on the team, which he bought in 1985.
In 2013, he hired the investment banker Allen and Co. to handle the sale of the team, and by 2014, Kohl had a deal, selling the Bucks to hedge fund tycoons Marc Lasry, Wes Edens and Jamie Dinan for $550 million. Suddenly, one of the league's few remaining family-owned teams was in the hands of billionaires, who had economic clout and who knew important people -- people that could get things done in the NBA.
Lasry had been a minority owner of the Brooklyn Nets before buying the Bucks. And he had been a financial advisor for Jason Kidd, as well as being friends both with Kidd and Kidd's player agent, Jeff Schwartz, one of the NBA's most powerful agents, who gets his star players where he wants them to go, and for what he wants them to be paid.
When Kidd retired as a player, he hired a new agent to represent him for potential coaching jobs: Hal Biagas. He was a former attorney with the National Basketball Players Association who had changed careers in 2009 to represent players and coaches, first working for the powerful Wasserman Sports agency, whose basketball division was headed by the uber-powerful Arn Tellem, and then Schwartz's Excel Sports in 2012. But Schwartz, who also represented players Paul Pierce and Deron Williams in Brooklyn, was still a powerful voice in representing Kidd's interests.
The relationship between Lasry, Kidd and Schwartz -- the latter two close enough to the former to be invited to and attend Lasry's daughter's wedding in 2011 -- led to the out-of-nowhere hire of Kidd as coach of the Nets in 2013. It was a stunning ascension for a former player -- even a great one such as Kidd -- who had retired as a player just nine days before getting the job, a position that most who seek it never reach despite a lifetime's work.
That trio quickly went to work in 2014, after Kidd's roller-coaster first season with the Nets' coach, which began with turmoil and controversy but ultimately was righted, leading Brooklyn to a playoff spot and a dramatic first-round win over Toronto. Kidd showed he had legit coaching chops, going to a small lineup featuring Pierce at power forward, with Shaun Livingston and Williams playing together in the backcourt.
Kidd Spills His Soda
Jason Kidd spills his soda on the sideline and the game stops while the drink is cleaned up.
But Kidd and Nets management got sidetracked, and then derailed, over his desire to have more say in personnel matters. And in another stunning move last year, Schwartz asked for and was given permission to speak with the Bucks -- now freshly co-owned by Lasry -- about their coaching job. The only problem was, the job wasn't vacant. Larry Drew, a well-respected coach who'd waited more than a decade to get his first chance as a coach, with Atlanta in 2010, still had the gig.
But relationships trump all in the NBA. Drew was blown out, and Kidd took the job. The details were unsavory to say the least, but the Bucks now had a billionaire's row of owners, a young coach who was going places and one of the game's most powerful agents representing him all in place, leading the direction of where the franchise would go.
And Kidd, again, showed he had serious coaching talent, elevating the Bucks into one of the league's best defensive units -- even as Milwaukee had to deal with the sudden departure of Larry Sanders, the young center who decided he no longer wanted to play basketball despite having just signed a $44 million contract extension in 2013.
Kidd ushers in change
"What J-Kidd kind of instilled when I first came in was a system where we were going to play the right way," said forward Jared Dudley, who played in Milwaukee last season before being dealt to the Wizards last week. "Offensively, you were going to have freedom. But you were going to have to do everything exactly right on defense to have that freedom."
Kidd sicced his defensive coordinator, Sean Sweeney -- "Little Thibodeau," Dudley said of the young assistant coach and defensive savant, who will be a coach before long -- on anyone who slacked off at the defensive end. And Tim Grgurich, the best assistant coach maybe ever who is beloved by players for more than a decade for his desire only to make them better, was around all season though but was not officially on Kidd's staff.
All-Access: Bucks Practice
Take an All-Access look at Milwaukee Bucks head coach Jason Kidd at practice in London.
Dudley wasn't thrilled when he was traded from the Clippers last August. But he called people like Nets swingman Alan Anderson, who told him that while Kidd struggled at first, he had his coaching legs by midseason. In training camp, Dudley said, Kidd asked for a show of hands of who thought the Bucks would make the playoffs. When all the hands went up, Kidd assured them -- they would definitely make the playoffs.
"There was times where I got there at midnight to shoot," Dudley recalled Sunday. "And I wouldn't do it that often, maybe every three weeks. And they were there. Grg would sleep there. We would be playing cards, and they would come and say 'Jared, what were you thinking on this rotation?,' things like that. At the beginning of the season I was calling the defensive coverages, even though I wasn't supposed to. One day Jason came to me and said 'I don't want you to talk any more. At all. In a game you can do that, but in practice, they need to learn.' He forced Khris Middleton (to talk). He was clever in that way."
Kidd didn't play favorites. He was on Jabari Parker early and often in training camp to improve his defensive fundamentals. He said he would play everyone on the roster, and he did.
Kidd pushed to bring in Philly point guard Michael Carter-Williams, the 2013 Rookie of the Year (and whose agent is Schwartz) that the 76ers were willing to move. The Bucks acquired Carter-Williams at the trade deadline, making them an even longer team. Milwaukee struggled to make jumpers many nights, but the Bucks were young and ridiculously long, athletic and hard-working. They made the playoffs, and gave Chicago fits in the first round before succumbing in six games.
Milwaukee sheds its old role in NBA
Using the preceding 40 or so paragraphs as prologue, the league, and the Bucks, were now in much different places than they were decades ago.
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Lasry, Edens and Dinan injected life and purpose into the franchise, rallying local investors and engaging corporate sponsors. They raised $118 million from various investors in 2014, and have tried to sell the notion of the Bucks as a statewide entity rather than one that just serves as entertainment for the Milwaukee area.
They brought in a masseuse who traveled with the team. They hired Suki Hobson, an Australian "strength scientist" who trained Olympic athletes in her own practice and who is considered cutting edge in the performance community in treating ACL injuries. (In May, the Bucks hired her full-time as Senior Strength and Rehabilitation Specialist.) There were nutritionists and there are hopes for a new practice facility.
"They were definitely around," Dudley said. "They let J-Kidd and (General Manager) John Hammond control what were they were going to do ... but they were definitely hands on ... they were sincere, helping people with their finances. They want to help people as much as they can without stepping on the owner-player gap."
The owners' biggest project, though, is the most difficult one -- a deal with the state for a public-private partnership to build a new arena to replace BMO Harris Bradley Center, one of the league's oldest buildings. If there's no deal in place by November of 2017 to build, the league can buy the team back from Lasry, Edens and Dinan -- and would obviously be free to re-sell it to anyone, including people from out of town who would move it -- even though Commissioner Adam Silver has repeatedly said he wants the Bucks to stay.
But in the interim, the Bucks needed to improve on the good works of Hammond -- who took an incredibly green but talented player named Giannis Antetokoumnpo with the 15th pick in the 2013 Draft -- and Kidd. They needed to re-sign restricted free agent Middleton (agent: Schwartz). And they needed/wanted still more length in the middle.
They took a long look at Tyson Chandler (agent: Schwartz), who'd won a championship with Kidd in Dallas in 2011. Chandler was a great teammate who, while not a great scorer, understood offenses in and out and was one of the league's better offensive rebounders.
But they quickly zeroed in on Monroe, who wanted to be in the paint again after ceding that space to Andre Drummond in Detroit.
Immediately, word got out -- out of New York, of course -- that Monroe picked the Bucks over the Knicks because the Knicks didn't offer Monroe a max contract, while Milwaukee did, explaining what otherwise would have been unexplainable to Gothamites.
With Greg, two things came out that were very important ... He wanted to go somewhere that there was stability. And in Detroit, he'd played there five years and had never been in a playoff game. Playing for a team that was ready to be in the playoffs was a major factor.
– Greg Monroe's agent, David Falk
For this to be true, the Knicks would have to be, as John Cleese put it in "A Fish Called Wanda", irretrievably stupid, as Monroe's agent is David Falk -- given the pet name "The Bird of Prey" many years ago by my friend Tony Kornheiser. (Former Georgetown coach John Thompson has sent just about every Georgetown player of consequence, like Monroe, to Falk for representation for the last three decades.)
Falk, who represented a guy I like to call Michael Jeffrey Jordan, doesn't take the meeting if you aren't offering the max. He doesn't negotiate. A lot of people don't like Falk, but you can never, ever, say he doesn't know what the number is, and who will give it to him.
Now, I know Knicks GM Phil Jackson a little, and Knicks president Steve Mills, a little. Mills went to Princeton. Jackson does the New York Times crossword puzzle in ink. The jury's out on whether they can build a basketball team together, but they're not stupid guys.
Falk said last week that the reports that New York didn't offer Monroe the max were "categorically untrue. All the teams offered the max, for any number of years. And we didn't pick teams to create leverage, because we didn't need any leverage."
Of course that's self-serving. But what would be Falk's motivation for lying? If the Knicks didn't offer the max he would simply bury them in the media for not stepping up to the plate. Falk is almost always going to have leverage -- no one is better at creating potential markets where they seemingly don't exist for his clients -- so he doesn't need to play nice with a team, whether doing business with them now or in the future.
"With Greg, two things came out that were very important," Falk said Friday. "In Detroit, he had been there five years and had five coaches. He wanted to go somewhere that there was stability. And in Detroit, he'd played there five years and had never been in a playoff game. Playing for a team that was ready to be in the playoffs was a major factor."
Falk told Monroe that the money would be the same no matter where he went. The Lakers, Knicks, Blazers and Bucks all lined up to make their pitches.
True parity at last?
Twenty years ago -- a decade ago -- Milwaukee would have had no chance in such a contest for Monroe. But times and relationships have changed. Monroe went to the Bucks knowing that they were an up-and-coming franchise. In an apples-to-apples comparison of everything -- management, style of play, coaching, future -- he thought Milwaukee was better for him than New York City.
"At the end of the day, (Monroe) felt that the special relationship that Jason has with Marc Lasry and Wes Edens, he's going to be there a long time," Falk said. "While he doesn't have the title, he has the same position as Pat Riley... he's going to make all the decisions. And he's going to be there for a long time because of the relationship with the owners. He's going to be there a long time."
The Bucks are not a contender yet. They're a .500 team that got bounced in the first round. But they've shed their skin. Milwaukee is cold in the winter, and always will be. But it's no longer an afterthought for players. And the NBA is now hoping that Salt Lake City, Memphis and Milwaukee are real destinations, and that competitive balance is actually attainable, not just words that are used by Commissioners during lockouts.
Are things as bleak as they seem with the Lakers?
You just spent a lot of time (see above) reading about how the NBA landscape has changed, and how mid-market and mid- to lower-revenue teams can now be competitive with the teams who dominated the NBA for a generation. But that doesn't do all to explain why the Lakers have been so unable to attract marquee free agents the last few years, Saturday's framework for a deal that will bring Indy's Roy Hibbert to town, and Sunday's verbal deals with Lou Williams and Brandon Bass notwithstanding.
(FWIW: Williams will help them. He gets hot quicker than anyone in the league. And Hibbert and Bass will be credible bigs for a team that desperately needed to improve up front.)
Just five years ago, the Lakers had won their 16th championship, the second most in league history. They had a seemingly impregnable duo of Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol up front, and Kobe Bryant was still capable of dominant performances.
Even after Bynum's knees and attitude started going south, the Lakers turned him into Dwight Howard in the summer of 2012, and turned Draft picks into Steve Nash. (That Sports Illustrated cover was in October, 2012. You know the one.) Very few around the league expected nothing less than the Lakers' return to contention, and tout suite.
Barkley on Hibbert to Lakers
Charles Barkley joins GameTime to discuss the Lakers adding center Roy Hibbert.
But nothing has gone right since.
The Lakers are a proud franchise and one of the two greatest in league history (Boston being the other). Their employees are smart and they work just as hard today as they did 10 years ago, when they had Bryant in his prime. GM Mitch Kupchak is respected by everyone in the league. He is honest and fair and does not play favorites, or try to fleece people in deals.
But whatever they're trying in free agency isn't working.
They couldn't get LeBron James to take a serious look at them in 2010, or in 2014. They had a good meeting with Carmelo Anthony last year, but no one credibly argued they had a real shot at him, and he re-signed in New York (admittedly, for a lot more money). They got nowhere with Chris Bosh, who almost signed in Houston last summer before returning to a max contract in Miami. Dwyane Wade was very close to going to Chicago in 2010, but decided to stay home and help create the SuperFriends.
And last week, they couldn't get the deal done with LaMarcus Aldridge (San Antonio), DeAndre Jordan (Dallas) or Greg Monroe (Milwaukee).
It is much too facile to say players just don't want to play with Bryant, who was at the first meeting the Lakers had last week with LaMarcus Aldridge. People in the meeting have adamant: Bryant was not an issue in the meeting with Aldridge.
Obviously, Bryant and Howard didn't get along, and Howard didn't want to play with him, leaving money on the table to go to Houston in 2013. But that's just one relationship. There is now a cottage industry dedicated to the notion that Bryant's personality, his insistence on shots and whatever else comes to mind are all too toxic for any player to tolerate -- as if Bryant is the only high-volume shooter in the NBA.
Free agents aren't coming to L.A. because they don't want to play with Bryant. They're not coming to L.A. because the Lakers are a bad team, and Bryant can no longer make them a contender through his talent and will. And like every other bad team, the Lakers can't credibly explain to free agents how they plan to get better, and with which players they'll do so.
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This doesn't make the Lakers an outlier. In 1998, the Bulls were coming off of their sixth championship in eight seasons. They had all kinds of ideas how they'd quickly rebuild after Michael Jordan retired and Phil Jackson walked away. They'd hire a hot college coach, Tim Floyd, and they'd have millions in cap room to sign Tracy McGrady and Grant Hill as free agents, or trade for teenage big man Jermaine O'Neal. With the fourth and seventh picks overall in the first round of the 2000 Draft as well, they'd be right back in business.
Except McGrady and Hill signed with Orlando, and O'Neal got traded from Portland to Indiana for Dale Davis. Like the Lakers, the Bulls got meetings with all the top free agents. And they couldn't get anyone of significance to sign, either. Those picks in 2000? Marcus Fizer and Jamal Crawford.
Rebuffed for proven talent, Chicago reached for two teenagers in the 2001 Draft -- Tyson Chandler and Eddy Curry -- to build around. It never happened. Chandler became a champion and a terrific defensive center, but it happened a decade later, in Dallas. Curry was traded to New York in 2005 after he'd played four seasons in Chicago; he was diagnosed with an irregular heartbeat and he and the Bulls clashed on whether he'd be willing to take a DNA test which would determine if he was genetically disposed to having a heart condition.
So what Los Angeles faces isn't new. It's just new for Los Angeles.
(It's the same deal with the Knicks, who have to deal with outsized expectations. If Generic NBA team, coming off a 17-win season, added Kristaps Porzingis and Jerian Grant in the Draft, then signed Robin Lopez, Arron Afflalo, Derrick Williams and Kyle O'Quinn in free agency, we'd say that was a pretty good -- not great, but pretty good -- offseason. But because it's New York, some -- not all -- fans and media there have dismissed the Knicks' activity as failure. Let me say this again. The Knicks won 17 games last season. Exactly who do you expect to be the first star player on the ground to sign up? It's hard to see Kevin Durant, Joakim Noah or Al Horford coming aboard next year, either.)
In the Lakers' first meeting last week with Aldridge, the cream of this year's free agent crop, basketball was mentioned tangentially. Coach Byron Scott was at the meeting, and spoke, but didn't say much. The Lakers left a lot of their pitch to front office people working with Time Warner Cable, which broadcasts the Lakers' games locally, and AEG, which built Staples Center. They may be good and smart people, and they surely had good marketing ideas for Aldridge, but they're not in the locker room or the practice court.
Jeanie Buss, the Lakers' Executive Vice President, spoke, and as ever, she was pleasant and smart and charming in explaining what it means to her family to remain stewards of the team after the death of patriarch Jerry Buss in 2013. But there was so little basketball mentioned that the Lakers had to schedule a second meeting with Aldridge with Kupchak and Scott where they could detail exactly what he would do on the court.
By contrast, the other teams pursuing Aldridge had their coaches front and center during the meetings, leaving no doubt what their plans were for Aldridge.
Eventually, though, the Lakers are going to hit paydirt. Bryant's in the final year of his contract, and his $24 million salary will be added to the incredible cap room the team will have next summer to again seek a difference maker. The only players certain to be under contract for 2016-17 at present are Nick Young ($5.4 million), rookie D'Angelo Russell, whose rookie deal for next season should be around $5.2 million, fellow rookie Larry Nance, Jr., Williams and second-year forward Julius Randle ($3.2 million).
With Hibbert, essentially, in a one-season tryout, a return to health by Bryant and Randle after missing most of last season with injuries, quick development from Russell and productivity from Williams, Bass and second-year guard Jordan Clarkson, the Lakers could be much improved over last season.
But the Lakers will have to make their biggest improvements internally, far from the cameras. They have to decide if they're going to join the Brave New NBA World of 3-pointers, small ball and analytics -- Russell could fit right into that kind of style of play, which should provide some hope for Lakers fans. And they have to know how to sell their post-Kobe world to the free agents of the future, and who will lead them there.
Would you mind if I showed you The Art of the Pitch? From Jane Ann Craig:
A bit snarky -- There was a definite irony amid all the LaMarcus Aldridge recruitment that sources of July 4th entertainment in San Antonio included the Ringling Brothers/Barnum & Bailey Circus performing in the Freeman Coliseum (adjacent to the under-renovation AT&T Center) and the rock band Wide Spread Panic playing in a downtown theater.
We're just not used to this free agency stuff in San Antonio and the terms "circus" and "panic" have been seen and heard frequently.
Aldridge interviewed with so many teams that he can look forward to being loudly booed all around the league this season, no matter what he decides.
Brent Barry On Aldridge To San Antonio
Brent Barry discusses LaMarcus Aldridge joining the San Antonio Spurs.
Well, that's true, Jane (or, Jane Ann; apologies for whichever is wrong): it was not standard operating procedure in San Antonio. The Spurs don't normally go a-courtin', at least not domestically. Coach Gregg Popovich and GM R.C. Buford have often traveled to Europe and other places to show their interest in players. But it worked out, didn't it? Cousin LaMarcus will be persona non grata in each of the seven cities he didn't choose. But he'll be on a really good team and be making a lot of loot. He'll deal.
The long and the short of it. From Shawn Thompson:
With the salary cap going up so much next year, why would anyone want to sign a multi-year contract this summer? If you look at the number of free agents versus the projected cap space, there should be a lot of marginal players who can cash in when there isn't enough top-level talent to give all that new found money to.
Players are at different places in their lives, Shawn. A superstar like LeBron James knows he's going to get at least two more huge contracts in his career, so taking short deals now to make sure he's positioned to cash in when the salary cap explodes to more than $100 million in 2017 is the sensible play. But others may get just one bite of the apple. It's easy to tell a guy to wait a year or two, but everyone in the league is one ACL tear from disaster. Certainly a guy like Wesley Mathews, coming off an Achilles' tear, isn't going to take any chances.
For him, Bird is a four-letter word. From Steven E. Clemons:
Why does [Larry] Bird continue to get a pass despite his poor performance as a GM? He is insulting to media, disloyal to players, has put the team in its current pathetic state, and surrounds himself with yes-men. He's no doubt a great player and HOFer but if the Pacers are to ever actually compete for a championship, it will be without Bird and his sidekick Frank "Jim O'Brien Jr" Vogel. As a lifelong Pacer fan and longtime season ticket holder it's time to close the door on the Bird era in Indy.
Free Agent Fever: Ellis To Indiana
The GameTime crew discuss Monta Ellis playing along side Paul George in Indiana.
I can only address this from afar, Steven. I don't work in Indy and I don't talk to Bird all that often. He doesn't speak with many reporters, period -- with the exception of some of the Boston writers he liked from his playing days there, including the incomparable Jackie MacMullen. I've never had a problem with him, though. When I've interviewed him, I've always found him to be honest and thoughtful. He shocked me one day when he said Allen Iverson was one of his favorite players to watch, because AI played so hard. And one time, when I asked him why the Pacers always ran plays for Reggie Miller at the ends of games, he said, 'because Reggie's earned the right to take that shot.' Not because of the dozens of clutch shots Miller had made during games, but because of the thousands of shots he took in practice, and before practice, and after practice -- music to the ears of a gym rat like Bird. And, I would hardly call Indiana's current state pathetic. They made consecutive Eastern Conference finals in 2013 and '14. That group went as far as it could, but it couldn't beat the SuperFriends. It was still a very, very good team. And with Monta Ellis in tow, and Paul George hopefully back to form next season, they could be very good again very quickly.
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$1,400,000,000 -- Estimated amount of new contracts committed to by NBA teams on the first (ital.)day(endital) of free agency last Wednesday. Remember: the cap isn't even going up significantly until 2016, when it is estimated to rise from $67 million next season to $89 million, and in 2017, when current estimates push the cap past the $100 million mark.
4 -- Teams in the renewed Utah Summer League -- San Antonio, Philadelphia, Boston and Utah -- that begin play today in Salt Lake City. The old Rocky Mountain Revue ran from 1984 to 2008 before being discontinued by the Jazz in 2009.
97 -- Days since Kevin Durant's season-ending foot graft surgery. Durant was a surprise visitor at the first day of the Orlando Summer League on Saturday, and said he's on track for being cleared to return to the court for full basketball related activities next month.
1) World Cup Champions. In style. Congrats to the women's team for a dominant victory over Japan in the championship game.
Free Agent Fever: Wesley Matthews
TNT's David Aldridge and AZCentral.com's Paul Coro speak on Wesley Matthews signing with Dallas.
2) Jeff Austin is Wesley Matthews' agent and one of the few good guys in a business of snakes. He did a pretty fair job by his client, who was coming off of a torn Achilles' into free agency, by getting him $57 million from Dallas.
3) For all the jokes I make about the Sixers never actually acquiring players who actually are going to play the following season, Sam Hinkie continues to be utterly transparent and consistent: he will always, always go for more talent and Draft picks whenever he can get them. Getting guard Nik Stauskas last week as the centerpiece of a deal with Sacramento is but the latest example. The Kings got cap room, which they used on Rajon Rondo, Kosta Koufos and Marco Belinelli. Hinkie got the young talent in Stauskas, who presumably will get a chance at the starting point guard spot in Philly next season. Hinkie is doing it methodically, deliberately, maddeningly slowly for Sixers fans. But he is making the team more talented every year. Someday, I think, it will pay off.
4) Of course Becky Hammon is going to coach the Spurs' summer league team in Vegas. It is a very Spursian thing to do.
5) Glad you're back, Greg Anthony.
6) The new General Manager of the Sacramento Kings, on Saturday evening, helped navigate my way home from the Foo Fighters concert. You haven't lived until you hear Vlade Divac, on the Waze traffic app, tell you: "red light camera coming up -- don't get caught flopping!" I was not aware until Saturday that this was a thing.
1) Last December, I wrote that someone who knew the Clippers well told me that players on that team didn't get along with each other. And that item was dismissed and pooh-poohed by the Clippers and some of the locals that cover them. Now that DeAndre Jordan has left for Dallas, it comes out that he and Chris Paul didn't get along with each other, and that that was a factor in Jordan's decision to leave. Presented without further comment.
Free Agent Fever: DeAndre Jordan
Steve Smith takes a look at how the Clippers will rebound after losing the rebounding and defense brought by DeAndre Jordan.
2) Tough week for the Blazers, no matter the predictable spin that LaMarcus Aldridge wasn't all that great a teammate (who, again, was that guy who played the last three months of the season with torn ligaments in his thumb?) and that Portland now has oodles of cap room. GM Neil Olshey is a smart guy, but the most overrated thing in the world is cap space. You know what's underrated? All-Stars. Portland will be okay with Damian Lillard under contract and running the show, but the Blazers won't be a contender again until they can make a free agent splash the same way San Antonio just did.
3) RIP, Jackson Vroman. Remember speaking with him a few times when he was in New Orleans with what were then called the Hornets. Can't claim to have known him well, but I know enough to know that dying at 34 is an awful tragedy. God speed and blessings to his family.
4) If it's the Fourth of July weekend, I will not be watching grown people stuff food into their mouths in an exhibition of gluttony and horror while there are children in this country and around the world who go to bed hungry. There is nothing entertaining or endearing about such a spectacle, and we should find another "tradition" which isn't so disgusting.
5) I'm sure NASCAR had a reason for starting its Coke Zero 400 race, delayed by rain all day Sunday, at 11:42 p.m. Sunday night. But what reason could there possibly be for all those people still sitting in the stands, at 2:30 a.m. Monday morning, watching those cars go round and round?
Trades are part of the NBA. Players know the deal. Almost all of them, at some point, get dealt, for any number of reasons. And Luke Ridnour is no different. At 34, he knows he's closer to the end of his career than the beginning, and that veterans tend to bounce around some. But what's happened to him in the last couple of weeks is ridiculous, something out of a Samantha Brown travelogue.
Since June 25, Ridnour has been traded four times, which has to be some kind of record. The reason, of course, has nothing to do with Ridnour's abilities -- he's proven to be a solid rotation player throughout his 12 NBA seasons, most with Seattle, Milwaukee and Minnesota. The reason is his non-guaranteed contract for next season. Teams can waive Ridnour and keep his $2.75 million salary for next season off their books if they cut him by July 10. So teams are moving him while they can for whatever they can get before that date. It's the modern NBA, where contracts, rather than players, are often coveted by teams.
Other players have been part of similar rapid movement. Quentin Richardson was dealt four times in the summer of 2009 -- from the Knicks to the Grizzlies (for Darko Milicic), from the Grizzlies to the Clippers (for Zach Randolph), from the Clippers to the Timberwolves (for Sebastian Telfair, Mark Madsen and Craig Smith) and from the Timberwolves to the Heat (for Mark Blount). But that was over a seven-week stretch in the summer, not 10 days. (Richardson was magnanimous about it, telling Dime Magazine, "...with the way the economy is, I don't really have any of those problems. If me not knowing what team I'm going to is my biggest problem, that's nothing. A lot of people worldwide are a lot worse off.")
Now, it's Ridnour who's been on the move. On June 25, the night of the Draft, he was traded from the Magic, which needed to clear cap room for a run at Paul Millsap, to Memphis, for the rights to 2013 Draft pick Janis Timma. But the Grizzlies had no intention of keeping Ridnour; they'd merely acquired him to flip him, which they did the same day he was traded to them, sending him to Charlotte for veteran forward Matt Barnes. But Ridnour was not in the Hornets' plans, either; they already had a deal in the works to send Ridnour to Oklahoma City for guard Jeremy Lamb, which was finalized the next day. This would be a long stay for Ridnour; he was in OKC for five days before the Thunder sent him on his way to Toronto, in essence, for a $2.85 million trade exception (okay, OKC got the rights to Tomislav Dubcic, too).
Ridnour remains, for now, a member of the Raptors. But, of course, the Raptors gave Cory Joseph a four-year, $30 million commitment for a deal Sunday night. One suspects that Ridnour is renting, not buying, for the foreseeable future.
Me: Where have you been holed up during all of this?
Luke Ridnour: I've just been outside of Seattle. I've just been at home. It really hasn't been that crazy, just because you're not going to any of those places. It's not like you're going and checking out the town and all of that, getting traded. I knew with my contract, there was a chance I would get traded once or twice. It's been a little more than anyone expected. But where I'm at, if this was four or five years ago, it might have affected me a little more. But I'm not that bothered right now. I don't even know if I'm going to play next year or not. But it's been kind of funny. I'm just taking it for what it is.
No, not at all. I got a text every once in a while asking if I wanted an update. And I'd say 'nah, I'm good.'
– Luke Ridnour, on whether he followed all the trades he's been involved in
Me: Knowing your contract was non-guaranteed, when the season ended, did you and Jim (Tanner, his agent) have conversations about what would probably happen? What did you think was likely in terms of a possible trade?
LR: Yeah, we weren't even talking too much about that. We were just talking about if I wanted to keep playing, and what teams might be of interest, and how I wanted to handle free agency, 'cause the whole it was, okay, we're going to be a free agent. So getting traded, I honestly didn't even think about it -- until, like, the third time. I thought it was kind of funny.
Me: Did you even try to keep track of all of the paper transactions?
LR: No, not at all. I got a text every once in a while asking if I wanted an update. And I'd say 'nah, I'm good.'
Me: Any part of you that is bothered by it?
LR: Not really, no. I think, like I said, where I'm at in my career, I was thinking about whether I wanted to play, anyway. It wasn't anything that was really crossing my mind, in terms of getting traded or moved. I mean, I understand the contract and where it's at, what's going on, the business side of it. It makes it pretty easy, whether I play or not. So we'll see what happens.
Me: Did any of them pique your interest -- like, 'whoa, wait a minute, I might want to stay in OKC?'
LR: I mean, not really. I didn't even let it get that far, to be honest with you. 'Cause I knew what was going on. So I never thought, oh, maybe I might be there. I didn't even grab onto that.
Me: You were a player rep in the past. Would you ever go to the union and see if the trade rules could possibly be amended? Maybe you could only trade a contract once in an offseason?
LR: I think there should be something, because...well, I understand the business side of it, too. It works for both teams. I think there's always stuff that you can work on, that the union can.
Me: What will your process be in deciding whether you'll try and play next season?
LR: I'm just kind of going through that right now with my family -- if I want to move everybody again, and getting them in schools, and where it would be. I don't know. We'll see. I haven't decided yet.
Me: If you do decide to play, what do you think you still offer to teams?
LR: Professionalism, and you know what you're going to get every day, working hard, and I'm on the court. You're going to get consistency in what I do, and I can run a team. I can still do all that stuff, and I still enjoy playing. But I'm going to go with family first. So we'll see what happens.
Me: Did you try to explain all of this to your kids?
[My wife] would show me some random funny pictures, like my face across the United States, or a jacket with all the (team) logos on it and my face on it. ... I mean, it was pretty funny there for a while ... that's what made it comical. It was just the contract getting bounced around.
– Raptors guard Luke Ridnour
LR: Well, they're young. My twins are four, my oldest is six, and now we've got a newborn. So they don't really get it.
Me: What did your wife think?
LR: She would show me some random funny pictures, like my face across the United States, or a jacket with all the (team) logos on it and my face on it. There's some funny ones out there. And she was getting a crackup out of it, too. I mean, it was pretty funny there for a while ... that's what made it comical. It was just the contract getting bounced around.
Me: Heard from any teammates -- although I guess it's hard to know who your actual teammates are at the moment?
LR: I've heard from a few, yeah. Collison, Nick Collison (his former Sonics teammate), he was pumped when I went to OKC. But I told him it probably wasn't going to happen, and he was kind of bummed.
Me: As a player, everyone wants to know they're valued. In some strange way, do you get a kick out of this, knowing that you're valued in this odd way?
LR: For whatever reason, I guess so. I mean, to be honest, I was just thinking I'd be a free agent and see what's out there. It's just been funny, the way that things have happened. Teams are still getting something for me in return. But, I mean, I understand it's a business.
Me: Do you remember the first time you were traded?
LR: When I was, my fifth year in the league, I got traded from Seattle to Milwaukee. That was my first. I mean, it's kind of a weird feeling, 'cause you're kind of mad, but then you're kind of happy, because you know somebody wants you. But at the same time, you're mad that the team's trading you. Fortunately, for me, I mean, I've been traded three times. I count three real trades. The other ones, I don't count. And each one of them has been a blessing, and worked for the best.
-- Former NBA player Al Harrington (@cheddahcheese7), Friday, 1:43 p.m., as word came down that DeAndre Jordan was going to leave the Clippers and accept a four-year, $80 million deal with the Mavericks, questioning whether Dallas Coach Rick Carlisle will make Jordan a more integral part of the Mavericks attack than Jordan was with the Clippers. Harrington played for Carlisle when both were with the Pacers in 2003-04.
"As I'm sure you can respect, my decision was a very personal one but not one I took lightly. Although I will be wearing a different uniform the next time I come back to Portland, please know that I will always hold my time in a Blazers uniform near and dear to my heart."
-- LaMarcus Aldridge, in an open letter to Portland Trail Blazers fans Saturday night published by The Oregonian, after he opted to leave the franchise for which he'd played since 2006 to accept a four-year, $80 million contract offer from San Antonio.
"I don't think we have any issues. I think we're fine. I think we're two basketball players that want to win games. That's where I'll leave it at. I think we just wanna win, bring a championship the city, to the organization. I think that's our job. And I think we're gonna do whatever it takes to make that happen. I have a lot of respect for the guy."
"The first would be Steve Jobs. I've always been fascinated with Steve Jobs. I've watched all these documentaries on how he went from starting a company to getting kicked off to starting another company to getting begged to come back to the other one. I want to know his process on things. Next, Abraham Lincoln. I love history and he's obviously an interesting person. And the third one? Normally I would say Michael Jordan, but now I can just call him on the phone."
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