That Was the Week That Was ...
It’s Over, Let it Go ...
We Had a Lot this Week and We’ve Nothing Left to Wait For
But Total Snow ...
-- That Was the Week That Was, BBC TV, Dec. 29, 1962
SUNDAY, FEB. 19
Let’s face it, the All-Star Game last Sunday was awful -- a 192-184 exhibition that was, even by the All-Star Game’s historically paltry standards for defense, painful to watch. The hometown guy, New Orleans Pelicans star Anthony Davis, got the MVP away from Oklahoma City Thunder star Russell Westbrook -- who at least put on an impressive display of 3-pointers and explosive drives -- with about 752 dunks in the second half.
Afterward, all anyone could talk about in the hallways of the Smoothie King Center was about how someone had to do something to make the game more palatable going forward. Meanwhile, the Sacramento Kings’ DeMarcus Cousins only played two minutes -- by design, according to Western Conference team coach Steve Kerr, because Cousins was a little beat up and asked for a light workload. Made sense.
But there were stirrings in the building. There had been increasingly loud chatter during All-Star weekend that the Kings were seriously considering trading Cousins, but that seemed impossible -- Sacramento had publicly gone out of its way to express not only support for Cousins, who leads the league in technical fouls, but its intentions to give Cousins that $209 million contract for which he was eligible under the new Designated Player Exception in the newly signed Collective Bargaining Agreement.
And, indeed, by the time most had left the arena, the Kings had finalized a deal to trade their All-Star center, along with Omri Casspi, to the Pelicans for rookie guard Buddy Hield, veteran Tyreke Evans, and first- and second-round picks in the 2017 Draft. It was stunning across the board -- stunning that the Kings had given up so quickly on Cousins as their franchise’s standard bearer, and stunning that they’d gotten so little for him.
On the other hand, the Kings’ willingness to settle instead of waiting it out was indicative of the franchise’s collective exasperation with Cousins -- who didn’t help his case by quickly racking up an 18th technical foul on the season two games into his tenure with the Pelicans, assuring a second one-game suspension from New Orleans’ next game. It did, in some ways, feel more like a divorce than a trade: take whatever you want; just get out.
MONDAY, FEB 20
Answers, sort of, came from Kings’ GM Vlade Divac in a news conference with reporters in Sacramento -- before which, the Kings put out a press release officially announcing the deal in which Divac said “Winning begins with culture and character matters,” a fairly clean kill shot to Cousins’ reputation.
Divac said that the Kings had a better offer for Cousins on the table two days before from an unnamed team, but that that team pulled the offer back before Sacramento could act on it. He intimated that Cousins’ agents were responsible, by warning the unnamed team that Cousins wouldn’t re-sign there when he became a free agent in 2018 (that team, like everyone else other than Sacramento, would not be able to offer Cousins the $209 million DPE. Only the team that drafts the player is allowed to use it on the player). He also said that he believed the offers for Cousins would get worse as Sacramento neared the trade deadline Thursday, not better.
Divac was crushed nationally for these explanations, as people noted that a) the actions of Cousins’ agents, if true, were fairly predictable, considering the most Cousins could get from any other team in the league was $180 million -- a loss of almost $30 million from what the Kings could offer him with the DPE, b) trade offers historically tend to improve as desperate teams see the looming trade deadline as the last best chance to improve their rosters before the playoffs, c) Divac never explained the team’s backtracking on either the leaked commitment to paying Cousins the $209 million or their pledge to his agents the day of the trade that they weren’t going to trade him.
Some have defended Divac by saying reporters may have misinterpreted what he said because English is not the Serbian-born Divac’s first language. I’ve been covering Divac since the Lakers drafted him in 1990. The story then was he learned English watching “The Flintstones”. It was a cute story as thin as phyllo dough. Divac’s English was fine then -- like many people who come to the States from another country, he just wasn’t comfortable yet speaking English conversationally, lest he make a mistake with a colloquialism -- and, almost three decades later, it’s fine now. That’s not what got Divac in hot water.
At any rate, the Kings were finally done with Cousins, but Cousins wasn’t done with Sacramento. Such a softy.
TUESDAY, FEB. 21
A woman fires her brother from the job their father gave him helping to run the family business, and hires a Hall of Famer to replace the brother. The Hall of Famer, in turn, hires Kobe Bryant’s agent to run one of the NBA’s two most historically important franchises … and everyone acts like it’s a big deal or something.
So that was the state of things when the Los Angeles Lakers announced they were cleaning house Tuesday, with Jeanie Buss finally dropping the hammer on her brother, Jim, the team’s longtime GM, Mitch Kupchak, and the team’s just as long PR director, John Black. Jeanie Buss, the team’s Executive Vice President and representative at the league’s Board of Governors meetings, made the call, with the Lakers facing a fourth straight season out of the playoffs and the team’s inability to attract difference-making free agents an increasingly public problem.
Jeanie Buss wasted little time formally giving Magic Johnson the reins, naming him the team’s President of Basketball Operations, substantially increasing the “advisor” role he’d been given a couple of weeks ago. Johnson has become a wildly successful businessman since his playing days ended, hoisting a second career on top of his first. That he’s never run a basketball team from the front office before makes him not at all different from Larry Bird or Michael Jordan or Isiah Thomas or Kevin McHale or any of the other superstars of his era that got a crack at it.
But the Lakers aren’t any other franchise.
Only the Boston Celtics rival them in terms of championships and Hall of Famers. No one rivals them -- even now -- in brand recognition. But the franchise was an afterthought for many modern players -- many of whom barely remembered the Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe days, much less Magic’s on-court reign. The Lakers couldn’t get audiences with Kevin Durant or LeBron James when they were free agents. They reached for the likes of Timofey Mozgov and Luol Deng in free agency last summer, and that use of the cap room that was finally freed up after Bryant’s $48 million contract came off the books may have been the last straw.
Jeanie Buss told the Lakers’ broadcast partner in an interview, “this was a very difficult decision. It was probably so hard for me to make that I probably waited too long. And for that, I apologize to Laker fans. But now, with clarity and direction, and after talking with Earvin, really knowing that a change was needed. And that’s why we’re here today…I wanted for the current front office to have their opportunity to show us what Laker basketball was going to be. And it just wasn’t going in a direction that was satisfactory for what this organization stands for.”
Johnson quickly took over, dealing veteran Lou Williams to the Rockets for Corey Brewer and a first-round pick. And the team quickly chose Rob Pelinka, the well-known and respected player agent for Bryant and other stars like James Harden, Andre Iguodala, Avery Bradley and Trevor Ariza, to be GM. The deal was done with Johnson’s blessing; Bryant being, like him, something of a favorite son in LakerLand. Even if Kobe wasn’t/isn’t going to be involved in the day-to-day operations of the team, his preference that Pelinka be involved was immediately clear.
That blessing caused a bit of sturm und drang among many African-American executives around the league, who had to sit on the sidelines while yet another player agent with no front office experience was given a chance to run a team -- in this case, one of the league’s marquee teams. It cut especially deep given Johnson’s standing in the African-American community not only as a businessman and role model, but as one that has given all manner of opportunities to entrepreneurs of color in his various endeavors, including his own companies.
Johnson was of course not obligated to hire an African-American to be his general manager, and the frustration wasn’t necessarily directed at Pelinka. But the lack of opportunity executives of color continue to have in a league that has been the most progressive among all the major sports in giving opportunities to minorities and women in many other league and team positions drew some ire. Black executives continue to feel marginalized, as teams increasingly go for GMs with analytic backgrounds or the agent route. And even then: if you’re looking for a high-profile agent with people skills to recruit stars, why doesn’t someone like Bill Duffy -- like Pelinka, a former college basketball player who built a sports agency that represents some of the NBA’s biggest stars (Andrew Wiggins, Mike Conley, Jr, Goran Dragic, Zach LaVine, Danny Green) -- ever get a call?
Still, one could argue that Jeanie Buss did hire a prominent African-American with no previous experience running a team to run hers -- Magic. That the woman who is the highest-ranking team executive in the NBA did so should count for something.
WEDNESDAY, FEB. 22
Trying to keep up with the Ujiris, the Washington Wizards sacrifice their 2017 first-round pick to expunge Andrew Nicholson’s ill-fitting contract from their books and bring in much-needed bench pop by getting Bojan Bogdanovich from the Brooklyn Nets. It’s the latest manifestation of the arms race by the Gang of Three – the Boston Celtics, Toronto Raptors and Washington -- that have risen in the Eastern Conference as the most likely challengers to the Cleveland Cavaliers in the playoffs.
It may well be Fools’ Gold chasing after Cleveland, but it’s still encouraging to see teams making moves in order to get better this season, rather than punting the rest of 2016-17 because they think a pursuit of the Cavs is futile and a waste of future resources.
That pursuit comes into stark relief Wednesday night. A rumor gains centripetal force that the Celtics and Indiana Pacers are deep in discussions on a potential trade that will send Paul George to Boston. The deal is said to be very, very close. There wouldn’t be a bigger game-changer among any of the contending teams throughout the league than the Celtics adding the four-time All-Star and Olympian.
Plans are made. Dinner reservations are cancelled.
This happens all the time in the last 72 hours before the trade deadline. Every rumor, including the ones you never hear about, has to be vetted. Most turn out like this: no truth to it, or at least not enough truth to go on air or online. You are always weighing bits of information in your head: who would benefit if this became public? Is this a ploy by one of the teams to put pressure on the rest of the league to ante up? Or another team that may want Boston out of the way to go after someone else?
In this case, for example: it surely wouldn’t hurt the Celtics to let everyone know they’re about to pull the trigger on a George deal; anyone else looking to deal with Boston would have to improve whatever standing offers they have on the table, and pronto. (This is why offers frequently get better nearer the deadline, not worse.)
There are surely discussions between Boston and Indiana, but no one believes that the Pacers will make a decision deeper into the evening -- Larry Bird is viewed by many as a morning person who prefers to shut it down businesswise after sundown.
THURSDAY, FEB. 23
Deadline Day turns out to be mostly a dud.
Even though George and the Chicago Bulls’ Jimmy Butler are on the block, neither Indiana nor Chicago moves their star. The Atlanta Hawks jumped in Thursday, offering multiple first-round picks and players to the Pacers for George, but was rebuffed. The Minnesota Timberwoves hold out for Mindaugas Kuzminskas in addition to Derrick Rose. The Knicks say no. Toronto further fortifies itself on defense, picking up P.J. Tucker from the Phoenix Suns. But none of the other real contenders in either conference makes a significant deal.
That’s why Cleveland was the No. 1 big winner at the trade deadline. Cleveland, which did nothing. The Cavs didn’t have to.
They can afford to wait everyone out, for they have LeBron and no one else does. Cleveland’s at the top of every player’s wish list, so the Cavs know that there will be players who will want to come there who will be bought out or waived after the deadline. And so it came, with Deron Williams making it known he’ll sign with the Cavs today after clearing waivers over the weekend. Andrew Bogut, who’ll be bought out by the Philadelphia 76ers after being traded there in a package for Nerlens Noel, may well follow.
Speaking of which, the 76ers finished No. 2 on trade deadline day. No, Justin Anderson or the Mavericks’ 2017 first, both of which came along with Bogut, don’t tip the scales that much. The Sixers are here because they can swap first-round picks in June with Sacramento, one of the residual perks from the 2015 deal that sent Nik Stauskas and others to Philly so that the Kings could clear cap space to sign Rajon Rondo, among others. The Cousins trade is almost certain to send the Kings spiraling out of the playoff race in the West, thus making their pick that much more attractive and valuable for the 76ers.
Toronto was No. 3, using a spare first-rounder picked up from Milwaukee for Greivis Vasquez in 2015 to pry Serge Ibaka from Orlando -- a potential difference-maker in a playoff series. He will allow coach Dwane Casey to play small and switch just about everything, while also providing rim protection on defense and floor spacing on offense.
That was last week, though.
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