How NBA All-Star Weekend lost its luster for GMs
All-Star Weekend isn't what it used to be. At one time it was the NBA's version of the stock exchange floor. Every general manager in the league would meet for the annual competition committee meeting, where conversations of potential deals would be launched or continued in the final days leading up to the trade deadline.
The competition committee no longer meets, and neither do many of the general managers. Ten to 15 of them are expected to be absent from New Orleans this weekend as the trade deadline heats up. The way they do their business is the result of advancements in technology and the younger demographics among them.
"You see a lot of offers texted now," said an Eastern Conference GM. "It's like, `Would you consider your this for our that?' If you don't know someone pretty well, you wouldn't do that; but if you know someone pretty well, there might be a lot of that."
Some GMs are either too old fashioned or cautious to put trade offers in writing, much less on a cell phone whose contents may be lost, hacked or in some other way made public. "I wouldn't text somebody a trade proposal because I wouldn't want any evidence of me offering a player," said a GM from the Western Conference. "Usually it's the younger guys. They're more comfortable with sending that stuff out; they're playing the odds, I guess."
One of those GMs knows he shouldn't be texting trade proposals, but he says he can't help himself. "There's definitely a danger, I agree," he said. "But if you call and they don't answer, you might send one. A lot of times you're looking for a simple answer -- 'Hey, we'll look at something like this' -- just so you're not wasting people's time."
One of the league's longer-serving executives has grown used to texting, having regretted it only once -- when a rival tried to turn their messaging into a legal document. "In his text he was saying, `You agreed to this and put it in writing,"' he said. "It made me mad that he was putting words in my mouth that way. We still did the deal, but after that one I got leery about going deep in texts. Still, it's such a common form of communication that we're all pretty comfortable with."
The long ago, more formal days of making appointments and meeting face to face has been supplanted by the instant gratification of mobile technology. Two rival executives who may be in neighboring hotels will just as soon talk trade by phone in New Orleans than to walk across the street and meet in person.
Sometimes they'll look for each other at the All-Star events, especially if one or more of their players are competing on the court. "We're all bunched together," said a GM of the seating arrangements in the arena. "The young ones that go usually have their kids with them, so you know you're going to see them at the game. The Tech Summit (an annual Friday morning discussion of technological advances in the league) is another big place to catch people."
I spoke to three GMs who won't bother to attend All-Star Weekend. Two of them will spend the weekend looking ahead to the draft, with the understanding that trade proposals can be pursued anywhere at any hour. "That's a really valuable time for college scouting, because the whole NBA world is shut down, your team is not playing games and there are always good college games that weekend," said a Western GM. "It's just not the way it used to be."
"I bet I'll have zero," said a GM of the appointments he makes to meet with rival executives. "Because, really, all these guys I've talked to in the last few weeks. It's easy to get them on the phone. If I need them, I would just call them."
Many trade conversations are brief; in general there isn't a lot of chit-chat. One GM is less inclined than ever to try to sell rivals on a trade. "There's not as much salesmanship," he said. "If someone starts trying to tell you, `My guy will be good for you as a rebounder,' everybody turns off their brain. Because, look, I know your guy, I've watched video and studied your guy, and what I don't know I'm not going to learn from you. The talks now are along the lines of: `We want to do this kind of thing, we thought this might work.' It's not, `My guy's a great guy and you'll love him."'
In the 1990s, he went on, there was more talking and hard-selling. "Scouting is wildly different from 20 years ago," he said. "Vlade Divac was drafted off one grainy tape and a couple reports. Today, you can study Jabari Parker off 10 high school tapes, and if you want to watch every play he's made at Duke, you can do that."
But others insist that the art of deal making isn't quite dead yet. "I think it still happens a little bit, depending on the person," said another GM. "You still have people trying to tell you what's wrong with your team and how this trade can help your team. Maybe not as much as in the past, but we all do it a little bit. I apologize when I do it; I say, 'I know you know your team better than I do, but here's this guy's strengths ...' I feel uncomfortable doing it, but I'm trying to sell the deal."
No one was complaining that the business of trade-talking has grown more efficient. What the GMs do regret, however, is what happens after a trade is made.
"What happens now is that you almost never get the chance to tell the player," said one GM. "What happens is the trade is agreed to, and within 10 minutes it leaks, and then it's out on Twitter and all the players figure it out. It's definitely not the old days when you would call a guy in, break the news softly and tell him why."
This weekend will lead up to the Thursday deadline in the same way that the opening two rounds of a golf tournament set up the big rush on Sunday. "A lot of conversations will get started," said a GM, "but nothing really gets done because you still have those three or four days leading up to the deadline once the All-Star Game is over. Things really start picking up on that Monday, I would say.
"One thing that stinks is there's so much media there at All-Star that rumors can dominate that weekend. If you had the trade deadline before All-Star Weekend, you would eliminate a lot of the crazy stuff that comes out during All-Star Weekend. But I also think the league likes all the rumors."
One point of agreement among several GMs was this: They don't expect a major star to be traded in the week ahead. A lot of role players figure to be dealt for sure. "But I don't really see it with major pieces," said an Eastern GM. "I was sitting with my staff this week, and we were looking across the board at what major, significant piece could be moved? And apart from someone like (Pau) Gasol, we couldn't come up with one."
LeBron James vows to belong on basketball's version of Mt. Rushmore. The other three alongside him, according to James in answer to a question, would be Michael Jordan, Larry Bird and Magic Johnson. The problem with this is James' failure to include Bill Russell. This is like saying the real Mt. Rushmore should not include George Washington. Russell is the founding father of the NBA's standards and values. Everything that the NBA is, everything that the best players aim to become, was established by Russell: The demand that great players win championships for their team, that defense is as important as offense, that African-American players be treated with respect equal to that of white players. Russell set forth all of those principles, at tremendous personal cost, and all of the players forever after have benefited from what he did while aspiring and falling short of his standard as both champion and activist. For all of this to be ignored by someone who claims to be an historian of the game -- James wears Russell's No. 6 -- is disappointing, and probably the result of James being caught off-guard by the question.
Maurice Cheeks fired. The feeling within the league was that the Pistons would ultimately go after Lionel Hollins, not only because he was able to win by pairing two big men -- Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph -- in Memphis in much the same way as Andre Drummond and Greg Monroe must find a way to play effectively together in Detroit; but also because Hollins is something of an opposite to Cheeks, who treated his players like grown-ups and expected them to work responsibly. Hollins will be more direct and demanding, which appears to be necessary for this undisciplined team.
If the Pistons don't land Hollins, then sticking with John Loyer isn't a bad backup plan. Loyer is more than the typical interim: He is known throughout the NBA as a head-coach in the making, along the lines of Steve Clifford in Charlotte.
Sixers lose back-to-back by a combined 88 points. They've been playing on the margin all season, and it's probably no coincidence that this collapse happened on the edge of next week's trade deadline. Spencer Hawes may be moved, but it's going to be difficult to trade his $8.9 million salary of Thaddeus Young (who has an additional two years on his deal) -- and even harder to find a taker for Evan Turner, who will be a restricted free agent and is represented by the ever-demanding David Falk. "Who is going to trade for Turner?" asked one GM. "You'd be trading for him knowing you might not be able to keep him unless you give Falk big money."
Steve Nash and Kobe Bryant don't give up. Nash has returned and Bryant keeps promising to join him. And this is how it should be: The Lakers charge enormous ticket prices and command huge fees for media rights and sponsorships. In the long run it is more important for them to exhibit integrity during this hard time than it is to surrender in order to earn a few more combinations in the lottery.
Cavs move forward with David Griffin. Doesn't the well-respected interim GM have to make a trade within the next week? Or else why was GM Chris Grant fired?
Mike Woodson remains in charge of the Knicks, for now. He is still coaching the Knicks because that's how Carmelo Anthony wants it.
Larry Sanders sidelined indefinitely. Believe it or not, the Bucks are trying to win. In two or three years they may have a good team around current rookie Giannis Antetokounmpo, their high pick in the upcoming draft, John Henson and Sanders. But there are still two long months that must be endured.
The 7-foot rookie center was invited to play in the Rising Stars Challenge game at All-Star Weekend in New Orleans. Olynyk, a 22-year-old Canadian, is averaging 6.9 points and 4.7 rebounds with the Celtics.
1. He was born and raised in Toronto. "I've been playing basketball as long as I can remember, because when I was growing up my dad was a coach and my mom was a referee. So I was born into a basketball family, and I really had no choice, I guess.
"My dad was really good for me. I was just lucky to have him, because he has that wealth of knowledge and basketball sense, and he helped me every day whenever I wanted it. I had unlimited access to a huge basketball mind, which was unbelievable. He loved the game so much and he had so much knowledge about it, so much experience, that it really made me want to play and succeed in basketball -- probably to make him proud.
"We would go to games that my dad would coach more often than games my mom would referee. She helped me when she watched me play: She'd say, `Yeah, you did travel,' or `That was a good call.' She let me know when I did stuff wrong.
"She scorekept for the Raptors as well. I always watched the Raptors when I was little; sometimes I'd go to the games when I could every now and then, but I watched them every night on TV when they were on, or I'd listen to them on the radio going to sleep. I loved them."
2. He was in seventh grade when he moved with his family across the country to Kamloops, B.C. "It's kind of tough just because the of time of your life, halfway through middle school, but I think it was for the best. It worked out because my mom-and-dad's families all live out west.
"When we moved out west I was pretty good for my age. I would have, not lulls, but times when I wouldn't be so good; I would make improvements, then fall back, make improvements. But that's how life goes."
He had been a 6-3 point guard before he gained seven inches during his junior year of high school. He signed with Gonzaga, which was a seven-hour drive from home. "It's definitely a tough decision when you decide what you're going to do for the next four years of your life. But Gonzaga seemed like the best option academically, logistically and from an athletic standpoint. They're a really great program year in, year out, you can't really debate that."
In an unusual move, Olynyk redshirted during his junior year. "There were two good players playing ahead of me - Rob Sacre (now with the Lakers) and Elias Harris (now playing professionally in Germany) - and if I redshirted, it was going to leave me with two years to make an impact on that program. I wasn't happy with my career up to that point. I thought taking that year to be able to build my game and my body mentally and physically would be huge for me. I vastly improved in a lot of respects."
3. The highly-skilled Olynyk averaged 17.8 points as a redshirted junior and was first team Academic All-America before being drafted No. 13 by the Celtics, who traded up to acquire him. "It's been awesome. I have no complaints whatsoever. The franchise is second to none. Its tradition is excellence and winning ways. The city has been unbelievable, the people are welcoming, they've got great food and all that kind of stuff. There's not much more you can ask for in a place.
He was looking forward to the Rising Stars Game Friday. "I've never been to New Orleans before, and it will also be my first time at All-Star Weekend. Just to be part of it and the experience of being able to compete against some of the top young guys in this league will be a great time."
Quote of the Week
"I just don't want to do it." -- LeBron James
The four-time MVP, two-time NBA champion and twice Olympic gold medalist was explaining (or declining to explain) why he has refused to participate in the Slam Dunk Contest at All-Star Weekend.
The truth is that he should not compete in it. It is not worthy of him. It would have been like asking the late Philip Seymour Hoffman to star in one of the "Grown Ups" movies. Good for 23-year-old Paul George in his fourth NBA season: He should compete and enjoy himself. For LeBron, however, it would not be dignified.
An NBA advance scout on the MVP race between LeBron James and Kevin Durant:
"I'd say it's Durant, for two reasons. First, because LeBron has that Michael Jordan deal, where everybody knows he's the best player but he's won it enough. Then the way I look at it is, if you were to take LeBron off the Heat, they would still have (Dwyane) Wade and (Chris) Bosh and they'd probably make the playoffs -- with a homecourt seed - in the East. But if you take Durant off OKC, they're maybe the eighth seed with Westbrook, and without him as currently constructed they don't make the playoffs.
"Durant is the most valuable player to his team that's playing at the highest level right now.
"What LeBron is doing (in pursuit of a fourth straight NBA Finals) is hard. You have to play so many games all the time -- more than 100, while everyone else is playing closer to 82 -- and you've been doing it for three straight years, and the other teams are coming at you with their best shot, and you're the focus of their scouting report every night. That's a lot to ask out of anybody. And then you've got D-Wade hurt for so many games where he's not playing. You don't have the greatest talent around you other than when all three guys (Wade, Bosh and Ray Allen) are healthy. If you were to take the rest of that team and put those guys on different teams, you'd be able to see that they weren't as good as they look in Miami, whether its Chris Andersen or Norris Cole or whoever it is. The mental and physical demands that LeBron has had to meet are unique.
"I think he's playing as well as he ever has. As he's gott older, he's gotten smarter and more efficient. And hes made everybody on his team better. LeBron does a great job of engaging players nos. 10, 11, 12 and 13 on the team; he's kind of the opposite of Kobe (Bryant) in that respect.
"Durant's impact is different. He's playing at such a high level that the other players, I think, feel obligated to play better -- just to play on that same court with him at the same time. He's improved his passing and his willingness to pass. But he's also kind of like Michael was in some respects, in that he only gives you one or two chances, and then he's going to say, I know I can make 50% of these shots, or 45% of these threes, and I'm not going to waste turnovers by giving it to someone else.
"He's got (Serge) Ibaka, who he seems to trust to pass him the ball. He seems to trust Reggie Jackson for the most part. Other than that he's playing at such a high level offensively, where if you go out to guard him he can just step back and shoot it. He's more engaged defensively this year than any other year. It wasn't like he backed down before when he guarded LeBron or Carmelo (Anthony) for long stretches in the past, but lately he's been giving the best effort I've seen him give defensively."
If this were pickup basketball, I asked the scout, who would be picked first?
"If it's pickup basketball, it's LeBron. And whoever gets to pick second will be happy with Durant."
In short, he said, James remains the better player. But Durant is having the superior year.
The All-Productive All-Star Team
The players on this team have accounted for the highest-scoring games in All-Star history. Two of them -- MVP contenders LeBron James and Kevin Durant -- will be reuniting Sunday in New Orleans.
C -- Wilt Chamberlain, 42 points (1962)
F -- Kevin Garnett, 37 (2003)
F -- Rick Barry, 38 (1967)
G -- Michael Jordan, 40 (1988)
G -- Kobe Bryant, 37 (2011)
F -- Tom Chambers, 34 (1987)
F -- Kevin Durant, 36 (2012)
F -- LeBron James, 36 (2012)
F -- George Gervin, 34 (1980)
F -- Julius Erving, 34 (1984)
G -- Allen Iverson, 35 (2003)
G -- Tracy McGrady, 36 (2006)