A weekly dive into the NBA’s hottest topics.
Take One: Magic Johnson’s resignation is a sign that mystique isn’t what it used to be
In classic NBA fashion, a night that featured a Paul George game-winner, Dwyane Wade and Dirk Nowitzki’s final home games and a slate of matchups with playoff implications was overshadowed by the palace intrigue in Los Angeles, where Lakers legend and president of basketball operations Magic Johnson stepped down in stunning fashion.
His reasons suggest that Johnson now understands what small- and mid-market front offices have been hoping was true for some time: that mystique no longer holds up next to functionality.
Johnson is charismatic and convincing. He likes being liked, and he’s very good at it. He said it himself, as far as recruitment goes: “Get me in the room, and it’s over.” But he already wrangled the biggest fish in LeBron James, and the days of traditional recruitment might be over. On Yahoo Sports’ “Posted Up with Chris Haynes” podcast, Kevin Durant said he wouldn’t be taking any pitches, that team culture and a commitment to winning stand for themselves. Every season is its own pitch — Which teams get hurt? Which ones withstand them? Whose young players develop? Who handles drama well? — and no PowerPoint presentation or winning smile could mask the vagaries of the 2018-2019 Lakers.
Doc Rivers, another expert charmer, seemed to learn the same lesson two years ago when he stepped down from his dual role as general manager and head coach of the Los Angeles Clippers: the job is more nuts and bolts, and hard decisions, and it requires characteristics that usually aren’t associated with being well-liked.
“I was happier when I wasn’t the president,” Johnson said. “When you gotta make trades, you’re not happy. When you like people … I think [Lakers coach] Luke [Walton] is a good man, I like Luke a lot,” he trailed off, alluding to the idea he would have had to fire Walton if he kept his job. Of his relationship with owner Jeanie Buss, he said, “We never had an argument or a disagreement,” a necessary component to any effective, collaborative relationship. He apparently doesn’t like breakups either, since Buss found out about Johnson’s departure at the same time everyone else did.
So yeah, he could have handled his departure better. But credit to Johnson for realizing he was in a role he wasn’t suited for and doing something about it. If he really was as unhappy as he says he was — and with no financial motivation to be — he would have only hurt the Lakers, who will now have the opportunity to enter free agency with the infrastructure that aligns with what modern stars value.
Take Two: Kyle Korver and the importance of discomfort
On Monday, Kyle Korver wrote an article for The Players’ Tribune reflecting on the benefits of being a white NBA player, his own internalized racism and a journey that started with his emotionally botched response to the NYPD breaking his teammate Thabo Sefolosha’s leg and culminated when Russell Westbrook’s racially charged conversation with a fan at the Vivint Smart Home Arena sparked a conversation about black players feeling unsafe playing in Utah and other NBA arenas.
I keep thinking about the logic Korver employed when he reacted to Sefolosha’s broken leg (logic that he is now embarrassed by, it’s worth noting), because it probably explains why it took Korver so long to evolve.
“On the morning I found out that Thabo had been arrested, want to know what my first thought was? About my friend and teammate? My first thought was: What was Thabo doing out at a club on a back-to-back?? Yeah. Not, How’s he doing? Not, What happened during the arrest?? Not, Something seems off with this story. Nothing like that,” he wrote. “Before I knew the full story, and before I’d even had the chance to talk to Thabo … I sort of blamed Thabo. I thought, Well, if I’d been in Thabo’s shoes, out at a club late at night, the police wouldn’t have arrested me. Not unless I was doing something wrong.”
The assumption of meritocracy rests on an even more American, more latent and ingrained assumption of cause and effect: that actions have fair consequences and everyone has control over his or her fate. That false pretense is where racism lives and thrives. It’s, “He did X, which caused Y,’ not ‘He did X while being black, which caused Y.” Once you start being honest about racism, all kinds of foundational myths start unraveling, which is why it’s easier to pretend nothing about the plot is amiss.
That’s where Korver deserves credit: He leaned into what didn’t sit right with him. He kept saying he was embarrassed, and he finally examined why instead of pushing it to the side. He faced himself and then he faced the world, and where he landed was really just the start, highlighting why having productive conversations about combating racism is so hard: accountability is uncomfortable. Honesty is uncomfortable. But the more people like Korver speak out, the more people will realize that shame is an emotion worth examining. At the least, it puts more attention on those who choose willful silence.
Take Three: Marc Gasol unites the Raptors’ offense
On paper, the Raptors’ offense has not been any more formidable since trading for Marc Gasol. They scored 112.4 points per 100 possessions then, and are at 112.8 points per 100 possessions since. But there was a disjointed quality to their sets. Kyle Lowry and Kawhi Leonard took turns standing around while the other operated. Lowry liked to push the pace. Leonard was methodical. They were predictable, a smidge slow, beatable in the face of strong individual defenders.
Enter Gasol, a dribbling offensive nucleus who has the Raptors passing and playing like more than the sum of their parts. When he’s on the floor, the Raptors score 119.5 points per 100 possessions, every passing metric explodes, and they shoot more threes and convert at a higher clip. Gasol is like a varnish for every weapon: Pascal Siakam gets free for more layups, and Danny Green gets cleaner catches, while Leonard and Lowry brush defenders off Gasol’s burly frame — since his arrival, he leads the team in screen assists.
Before, the Raptors were unselfish by way of desire, but instinct has a way of rearing its ugly head when the pressure is on. Under duress, Leonard is comfortable pounding the ball and muscling his way to the hoop, and there are few shots Lowry enjoys more than a semi-contested haymaker. But Gasol is a passing vessel when passing gets hard, late in possessions when hesitation can allow a confused defense to reset and a quick decision can send them into chaotic fits.
Take Four: I don’t get a Coach of the Year vote but …
If I did, Nate McMillan would get mine for adapting on the fly after losing his star for the remainder of the season. In a role-defined league, few things are more difficult than conceiving of your personnel in a different light. And the Victor Oladipo-less Pacers look nothing like they used to — or like anyone else in the NBA for that matter.
They are pounding in the paint like it’s 1994, using the post as a legitimate point of attack, not merely a decoy or a counter, prioritizing post-ups on switches instead of taking off-dribble jumpers. After setting up formidable post-up threats like Domantas Sabonis, Myles Turner, Thaddeus Young and Wesley Matthews down low, the rest of the team thrives on anticipation, waiting for the opponent to turn his back and pouncing at the right moment. Cory Joseph, stocky enough to stick in the paint, has the privilege of taking the extra second before finding the perfect angle to dump off passes. Above all else, the Pacers really seem to believe in the positional serendipity of staying close to the basket. It’s a tried and true principle: go to the rim and good things will happen. I just never knew you could build an entire offense around it in 2019.
Take Five: Take a snapshot of this moment (if you’re enjoying it)
The NBA playoffs start this weekend, which means July is only a stone’s throw away. Player movement is expected to be rampant, between trades and 40 percent of players being free agents. Contenders could be dismantled, cellar-dwellers could rise to the top and the Warriors dynasty could be destroyed. The NBA as we know it will look very different in a few months, so if you have a favorite duo, savor them, and if you couldn’t care less about any of these teams, rejoice in the fact that you’ll have different options next year.
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