While his rivals were preparing for the draft last month, Denver Nuggets VP of basketball operations
"I wanted to look at the other guys' playbook,'' Warkentien said. "Often in my chair you have to joust with attorneys and agents that have negotiation training, and they're professionally educated. I don't think a whole lot of us sitting in NBA front offices have that kind of training in negotiations. You have experience but you don't have training."
Enrolled with him were judges and attorneys from around the world who had come to Harvard to sharpen their oratorical knives. They must have been surprised to meet Warkentien, a former UNLV assistant to
Without a first-round pick to prepare for, he could afford to spend a few days in early June away from the Nuggets offices. (Though on draft-day the Nuggets acquired the No. 18 pick, which they spent on North Carolina point guard
"The conversations weren't about side pick-and-rolls. If I was daydreaming for five minutes and I would try to pick it up in the middle of the conversation, I was lost.
"What did I get out of it? For every four things they presented, three of them were things you already knew from experience. You'd hear a guy say something and you'd think, I get that -- I can use that in the future. Then there were the other things where I would be thinking, wow, I never thought about that. I'd say 25 percent of the material was new for a layman like myself.''
"I got this from [
The experts at Harvard crystallized that point of view. Instead of fine-tuning your own argument, predict the reasoning of your opponent. "And then find all of the commonalities," Warkentien said. Because if you can find points of agreement, then you have a chance of pulling the opponent to your side of the table.
"They talked a lot about this," he said. "They tell you to find the 'predictable surprises' -- that was something new for me. Like when you're in the negotiations and the other guy says something you never thought of and you don't know how to respond."
The best advocates hijack the opponent's argument. "You've got to find out what the other guy's interests are," Warkentien said. "They teach you to ask a lot of questions. 'I understand why you might want that, but I don't understand why you would deserve it.' Make him explain where he's coming from and that may give you stuff to build your own argument."
How does this apply to the NBA? "More and more so now you have multi-party negotiations," he said. "On your end it's yourself, the coach, the owner, so right there you have people with multiple interests in the negotiation. And then on the other side it's the player, his agent, his wife, perhaps somebody from his entourage and on down the line. You've got to somehow bring everybody into the ballpark."
The workshop students were divided into teams. Warkentien's team had to argue its side of the case, and then it had to argue on behalf of the opponent's side. "And then you had to turn your back to each other and argue it as if you were on the phone," he said. "It's a lot harder and slower over the phone, which is why whenever you can you have to get face-to-face."
By spending a week in a foreign environment, he realized that the best professionals in all fields are forever working to improve themselves. "You'd have a negotiating partner, and the guy I was with was a judge from Thailand," he said. "That was no fun. He was smart. He had experience and training. But how do you get better in tennis? You play against better players. That's the only way.
"A lot of them were attorneys from big corporations, and 60 percent of the class was internationally-based. These governments of Malaysia, Philippines, Thailand, Australia, the Netherlands -- they were sending their negotiators over here to learn. I'm not ashamed to say I got tattooed a few times. But I liked being the UNLV guy at Harvard. I brought them some diversity.
"Our sports world has some macho and bravado to it, and that's probably not helpful in a negotiation. It's like playing hard at golf. Having that bravado and coming in with great passion and emotion isn't going to do it, and emotion isn't helpful. Think about when you were having that argument with the wife and you got all angry: How helpful was the emotion?"
And yet in those 11 years they won 84 percent of their games as well as the 1990 national championship.
While his basketball role models -- Tarkanian and Whitsitt -- were controversial figures, Warkentien was struck by their versatility. "Jerry, when he was the coach at Long Beach State (1968-73), he played slow with a tight 1-2-2 zone," Warkentien said. "When he got to Vegas, that wasn't going to work. He went to pressing and running and trying score 100. He did what he had to do.
"Then you look at Bob, who had a totally different situation in Seattle with (owner)
"One thing that's lost on everybody is what Bob did in Portland -- he had a completely different set of marching orders than anybody ever gets. The window on the
The lesson here is to take what the game gives you.
"There's only a handful of places that can be like Duke, and everybody else has to scramble," he said. "Think about the very best coaches in college or the pros: They don't have just one way of doing things. If you come in with one way of defending the post -- defending behind, three-quarter, or fronting -- sooner or later the good coach will beat you if you only have that one way. They'll figure it out. You've got to have different ways to do it."
Which comes back around to the need for flexibility in negotiations, based on an understanding of the opponent and his arguments.
"If two guys are talking, and then the one guy stands up on the chair and looks down on the other guy, guess what? The other guy doesn't like it," Warkentien said. "They talked about the chair a lot. Often we (GMs) speak with such authority that it's like we're standing up on a chair. You need to get down off the chair. You could be up there telling the player, 'I'm going to give you an extra $1 million,' and he won't care. He won't hear what you're saying because all he notices is that you're up on the chair looking down on him."
And whatever you do, don't say 'but.'
"They taught us you should try to eliminate the word 'but' from your argument,' he said. "When you say, 'I hear what you're telling me, but ...' what you're really saying is, 'Go to hell.' That word -- 'but' -- comes across as if everything the other guy has just said doesn't matter."
As Warkentien looks back on this highly successful year, he sees situations he might have handled better based on the newfound perspective of his week at Harvard. And he also sees results that make him proud, like the improvement of
"J.R. and George weren't the best," he said of the young guard's relationship with coach
"Then when George was getting frustrated with J.R. and he would complain to me about it, I could say: 'George, you and J.R. have a common goal. You have bonuses in your contract, too. You have the hammer on J.R. You and J.R. need to be business partners.'"
Smith played a career-best 2,245 minutes and averaged 15.2 points. He helped Karl win 54 games and advance through two rounds after going 3-16 over the previous four postseasons.
They're essentially adding
Villanueva is a 24-year-old forward who averaged 16.2 points in 26.9 minutes last season. If he builds on that performance, he'll be a good value. Gordon hasn't peaked, and if he builds on his five years with Chicago, he'll be worth his money. Consider this the beginning of a roster turnover. Will the Pistons return to the elite? It depends on the deals to come. All I know is that over the previous decade the Pistons made several moves similar to these two and what followed was six consecutive trips to the conference finals.
Maybe I wasn't listening closely enough, but I didn't hear much hype for the Pacers last year. And then when a rebuilding team loses a 19-point scorer in
Then there are a number of young NBA veterans, including
The NBA continues to support the venture, holding its owners meeting in Vegas in conjunction with summer league. "It's turned into the NBA's version of the winter meetings,'' LeGarie said. "Now the issue for us is to make sure we have enough seating for the owners.'' Courtside seating, he means.
In one sense, the Pistons became an easier team to coach when Rasheed Wallace left. But there will be many nights when Kuester will struggle to paste over the defensive void created by Wallace's departure. Kuester has inherited a perimeter team lacking size up front, and he knows better than anyone that there aren't many gimmicky schemes that will provide results consistently against the likes of