Almost anyone outside the NBA's ivory tower in New York City would agree that fundamentals and teamwork have degenerated and fan loyalty has eroded since the league was famously revived in the early 1980s and propped up by Michael Jordan through most of the '90s. Dissatisfaction only increased last summer in Athens with the lackluster bronze medal showing by a U.S. Olympic team made up entirely of NBA players. But it didn't begin there. The game has been slipping since the early '90s, when the players who spearheaded the revival, such as Larry Bird and Magic Johnson, started hanging up their sneakers.
But look around. On seven teams the individuals making personnel decisions these days are the former players who helped breathe life back into the league 25 years ago. With a philosophy of selfless play and tenacious defense, Detroit Pistons president of basketball operations Joe Dumars retooled his old club over the last four seasons and made it into an NBA champion in 2003-04. And two of Dumars's hottest pursuers this year will be rivals from the '80s Boston Celtics--Bird and Kevin McHale. In his first year as the Indiana Pacers' president of basketball operations Bird helped the team reach the Eastern Conference finals; in nine seasons as the Minnesota Timberwolves' chief basketball executive McHale has lifted the once moribund franchise to within two wins of the NBA Finals.
General manager Kiki Vandeweghe has remade the Nuggets in the image of the run-and-gun team for whom he played in the '80s, and to impressive effect: Denver improved by a record 26 wins last season after adding 19year-old Carmelo Anthony. Executive director of basketball operations Danny Ainge will be trying to retrigger the fast break--Celtics-style--in Boston, where he has imported more shooters and hired a coach, Doc Rivers, who favors wide-open play. Until the arrival in New York last December of Dumars's former Pistons backcourt mate, the Knicks seemed to be stuck in neutral; since then Isiah Thomas, the team's president of basketball operations, has overhauled the roster and handed the keys to point guard Stephon Marbury. And Golden State executive vice president of basketball operations Chris Mullin, like Bird a first-generation Dream Teamer, faces the biggest challenge among the seven: trying to turn around the Warriors, who haven't made the playoffs since 1993-94.
All of these guys now wearing a suit (well, it's hard to catch McHale in a suit) entered the league between 1979 and '85. Three of the seven (Bird, McHale and Thomas) were honored in 1996 among the NBA's 50 greatest players, while Dumars (six times), Mullin (five), Vandeweghe (two) and Ainge (one) were All-Stars. (For good measure, two other players who didn't get as much acclaim during that era--Jim Paxson, whose rookie year was 1979--80, and brother John, who broke in four years later--run the Cleveland Cavaliers and the Chicago Bulls, respectively.) They all knew how to shoot, pass, defend, move without the ball, set screens, comport themselves, deal with fans and media, and demonstrate an acceptable level of humility for getting rich playing a kids' game. In other words, all the things that many of today's stars have either forgotten or never learned.
So just how do these seven view today's NBA? And because they are the men in charge, what are they doing to enhance the quality of the game? In separate conversations SI collected their replies to those and other questions.
Are you surprised that anyone in this group wound up in an NBA front office?
Thomas: Kevin is the one guy who wouldn't seem to need it. I remember once after we beat the Celtics in Boston Garden, there was Kevin, laughing and joking with his wife. It struck me then how much balance he had in his life. I envied him. But he was always highly intelligent about the game, and this is the job where you can show that.
Mullin: The common denominator is that we played cerebrally, and this is the best way to stay around the game and be able to think about it. You have to see the big picture, how decisions today impact your team down the road.
Vandeweghe: These guys weren't just smart. They were leaders on their teams. If this job is about one thing, it's about leading.
Bird (laughing): Danny was always one of those guys who thought he was smarter than Red [Auerbach], so you knew he'd be doing this.
McHale: After Danny got the job, he called me and asked for advice. I told him to be patient. He says O.K. Then he goes out and makes 65 trades before he takes a shower.
Ainge (laughing): What Kevin really said to me was, "I wouldn't take anybody on your team."
Why has the game turned ugly--no fast breaks, lousy shooting and little understanding of the fundamentals?
Thomas: The generation [of players and coaches] before us took the time to make sure we did things the right way, but our generation has failed these kids. We've been more interested in criticizing than helping. These kids aren't bad kids. But we've got to show them, lead them, and we haven't been doing that.
Bird: A big reason is that coaches control the game. The point guard is always looking to see what the coach wants him to run, and that stops the break. [Former Celtics coach] K.C. Jones used to call plays, but never when it was going to slow something down.
Ainge: The turnover among coaches is such that they're concerned about winning right away. So they control possessions and tempo, and that takes away from the fun and entertainment.
Dumars: After Michael [Jordan] dominated in the '90s, people started to believe that you could win by getting the one superstar. That took away from the concept of team ball. With all due respect to Kevin Garnett, Shaq, Kobe and whoever else, Michael was a once-in-a-lifetime phenomenon, like Wayne Gretzky. Why build your team and your league on a once-in-a-lifetime phenomenon?
McHale: We've gotten into a very selfish stage in the NBA. Look at the Olympic team. Those guys are physically gifted, but that was one of the worst teams you could put out there. We have overindividualized the game, partly because of marketing. The games used to be billed as Celtics-Lakers, Lakers-Nuggets, Sixers-Knicks. I remember the first time I saw an ad that said, It's Michael Jordan versus the somebodies. I thought, Whoa! One guy is playing five?
It's to the point where if we would have a three-point contest, a dunk contest and then allot time for the players to shake every hand in the arena, that would be a glorious day for the NBA.
Do you get frustrated watching today's players?
Vandeweghe: I love these kids playing the game now. I think they're great kids, and sometimes they get a bad rap.
Bird: You can't afford to look at the negative. I always look for guys who, even though they might play an individual game, can fit into a team. Can they turn their games around? If you help them with their shots, will they get better? You look for players who want to work hard. We have some on our team. And we have some of the other kind too.
Mullin: I'm not as critical as a lot of other people, because I prefer to think about players like Peja Stojakovic, who can shoot the ball and play fundamentally. There's just not an abundance of them. I guess the most surprising thing is how many accomplished European players there are. They're doing the things Americans used to do.
Ainge: I think today's players are every bit as hardworking as the players of my generation. They're just younger and not as ready to come into the league.
McHale: When I first got this job, a coach or a scout would tell me, "This guy plays hard." I would look at them and say, "Isn't playing hard a given?" Well, it's not a given anymore. Playing hard is considered a skill, just like running and jumping. Somewhere along the line we forgot about skills like shooting, passing and court vision.
Will the championship won last season by the Pistons, a true team rather than a collection of individuals, have a lasting effect?
Dumars: Anytime a team wins the ultimate prize and does it differently, it opens up a new way for people to think. You'll see teams get away from the two-stars-and-a-supporting-cast approach, and that may bring back the idea of playing the game the right way.
Bird: It has to come from the best players. LeBron James and guys like him have to want to change the game for the better, get back to fundamentals and team play. What Detroit did last year was really important.
Ainge: We played in an era when we used to discuss with the coach how we were going to defend a certain player or attack a certain defense. But now the players are so young, they don't have that kind of basketball sense. It doesn't mean they're dumb; it just means they're young. So the coach ends up not trusting them, and we're back to playing "coach-style" basketball.
Mullin: Get a group of guys who feel comfortable with each other and want to win. I think Memphis has it too. So did the Argentineans [who won Olympic gold in Athens]. Maybe we all believed that was the best way, but Detroit's championship gave people hope that it can be done that way.
Thomas: If society changes, then basketball will change. I really think they're tied together. They were for us. Basketball was life skills. You played the right way because that was the right thing to do. Coaches taught you the right way because they were, in effect, teaching you the game of life.
Dumars: Fundamentals can come back, but we--the NBA--have to lead the way. Pro sports teams influence a lot of people, and if kids really look at the type of teams that win, they are usually teams with great chemistry and great fundamentals and not necessarily ones with the superstar. The Tampa Bay Lightning in the NHL. The New England Patriots in the NFL. The Florida Marlins in baseball. And the Pistons were that type of team.
Here's the challenge to this generation of coaches out there working with kids: When you have those one or two players who are better than everyone else, will you be willing to coach them exactly like you coach the rest of the team? The elite kids at the youth level are not being coached the way they should.
All of you know a little something about playing, so do you get involved in instruction? If you do, does your coach mind?
Vandeweghe: I definitely wanted my team to get back to playing the way we did in the '80s--fast-break basketball, lots of movement, a fun game to play, a fun game to watch. That was my philosophy, and I made sure the coaches knew it. It's the reason I brought in Doug Moe [the former Nuggets coach and motion-offense advocate who was rehired as a consultant].
Dumars: I think we have to get involved. The other day I saw one of my guards get hung up on a screen. So after practice I pulled him aside and showed him how to get around it. Now, I would never stop practice. That line has to be kept clear. But I think Larry Brown expects me to talk to the players about basketball.
Thomas: I most definitely get involved. And I'll talk to Lenny [Wilkens] too, if I see something I don't like. But I would never stop practice to do either.
Bird: I definitely talk to the players. Maybe it was easy for me because I was a coach. Last year, for example, I had them put a camera on Ronnie [Artest] the whole game. Then I told him to take the tape home and watch how much he's standing around. "You've got to be moving without the ball, making back cuts, setting picks," I told him. He came back and told me, "Man, I see what you mean. And I thought I really worked hard in that game. I didn't do anything."
McHale: I watch a guy play five NBA games, and I have a real good handle on what he can do in our league. Maybe two games. We have to get involved in the basketball stuff. It's what we're good at. I don't go around stopping practice as a rule, but, yeah, I might do it. Especially if I hear Flip [Saunders] emphasize something, then the players go out and screw it up on the first repetition. That kind of thing drives me nuts.
Bird: One thing I won't do is tell Rick [Carlisle] how to coach this team. I have all the faith in the world in him. Would I like to see us run more? Probably. And I might say to him, "Rick, you should go over to Europe to watch some ball. The game goes so much faster. Not many timeouts. They don't set up, they don't look over for a play call every second." But I wouldn't tell him to run more, and I wouldn't stop practice to say something.
[A few minutes later, Carlisle ambled by. "Hi, a------," Bird said.]
What else within the organization do you get involved in? Are you hands-on G.M.'s?
Vandeweghe: Very hands-on, involved in every aspect of the business: ticket sales, p.r. campaigns, putting together marketing strategy. I even like the salary-cap issues.
McHale: I don't believe that the mascot and the dancing girls win games or excite the fans, so I don't get involved in that part of the business. I think you can get in trouble by micromanaging. The most important nonplaying person in your organization is your coach. He deals with the players, who are the most important people, every day. You pick the coach--and you better make the right choice--then you're secondary to him in terms of being the face of the franchise.
Thomas: I'm involved in everything from the shoes we wear, how the coaches dress, what time we wake up, what we eat. If it says basketball, my fingerprints are on it. The other night I spent a lot of time talking about how we're supposed to stand during the national anthem--how we're not going to be chewing gum, how we're not going to be rocking back and forth, how we're not going to have our hands in our pockets.
As one of my coaches, Bob Knight, told me, "This is not a democracy; it's a dictatorship." That's what it is here.
Bird: The business stuff doesn't interest me as much as the basketball. Do I know the salary cap from top to bottom? No, but who does? I'm lucky. I have Donnie [Pacers CEO Donnie Walsh] to lean on for that stuff.
Dumars: I feel the greatest responsibility in two areas: managing the cap to have the flexibility to make moves, and creating a culture of winning. How do you do that? By having my thumb on the pulse of everything. By constantly talking to the players and the coaches. By letting everybody know what will be tolerated and what won't. You have to set the tone when you're on this job.
What's the toughest thing about the job?
Ainge: The pressure to win and to put together a cohesive team. All in all, though, I find it easier to balance my life as a G.M. than I did as a coach. If something's bugging me now, I can get away for a while, go watch Duke--North Carolina or BYU--Southern Cal. When you're a coach, you have to watch your team all the time.
McHale: Dealing with unrealistic agents. It's like if I went to a court and tried to tell a lawyer his business when he's been doing it for 25 years. He'd just look at me and say, "What are you talking about?" The things I hear from agents are unbelievable. They'll say, "My guy can do this and he can do that." And I look at them and say, "Really? Well, I know something about basketball, and I've watched him for two years, and I haven't seen any of it."
Mullin: I'm still finding out, but it seems that something pops up every day, you never get ahead, and you're always waiting for the next situation. As a player, you finish a game and you're done for the night. Now [as an executive VP], when the game's over, my job is just beginning.
Dumars: Trying to figure out what young guys are going to be like in a few years. You can see the talent, do the background checks, but you don't know what they will turn into when they get the money and the accolades.
Thomas: You can never get away from the job. I'm in it 24/7/365. I would think it's the same for the other guys--except maybe Kevin.
McHale: My wife says I'm getting more obsessive and more upset by the little things as I get older. That's not a good sign.