Our look at four topics — players, issues, numbers, trends — that are impacting and, in some cases, changing the game.
First Quarter: NFL approach to NBA calendar
Just thinking aloud here …
The NFL has started to copy the NBA in some ways, most notably the players beginning to realize their power. It can’t be apples to apples, not with the power structure of the NFL heavily tilting toward the front offices and team owners, but we have seen marquee players take matters into their hands in ways that look like the NBA’s player empowerment era.
But what if the NBA took a page from the NFL’s book?
The first round of the NFL draft was Thursday night, and free agency was not scheduled to open in the coming days because it already happened. Teams already filled certain needs through free agency and didn’t have to wait on the draft, although the draft is used to plug holes.
That doesn’t happen in the NBA, but perhaps it should change. There was a proposal from the then-Houston Rockets front office, led by Daryl Morey, to reform the offseason in 2018. Have free agency begin in July as usual, but have the draft around July 10.
That would push Summer League back, which teams didn’t appear fond of back then, and even though the NBA is becoming a 24/7/365 operation, folks do like having their summers off.
A league source told Yahoo Sports about two-thirds of the teams were against it, with reasons ranging from the shock of change to yes, summer vacations. There are logistical reasons, calculating revenue from the Finals comes into play, which sets the salary cap so teams know how much money they’ll have to spend so it’s not just frivolous arguments against it.
But quietly, momentum is changing and two general managers told Yahoo Sports they believe it’s a 50-50 split across the league.
One is a strong proponent for it, the other would favor it but wouldn’t fight hard for the change. But imagine how teams would do things knowing that their big free agency signing was already in or out of the fold. Or merely being able to leverage draft picks to work out sign-and-trades with the draft around the corner.
“Teams couldn’t comprehend having to do free agency and then the draft, which in their mind was overwhelming,” the GM who’s strongly in favor of change said. “But the reality of it is that it’s the same amount of time. Change is hard for a lot of people.”
The salaries for the draft are already set, so it wouldn’t mess with teams’ free agency plans if things flipped. It could create more activity, though, since teams usually want to maximize cap space headed into the draft. For the flurry of trades we see on draft night, there could be more if the calendar changed.
“Last year with the pandemic, the climate was totally different, and I saw an uptick in terms of [teams] considering it,” he said. “It’s a prehistoric approach. Utilizing cap space, assets and team needs are backwards, it’s ridiculous.”
Another team executive points out the challenge for small-market teams that have to value the draft more than free agency because there aren’t the financial advantages — therefore amplifying the trade market for teams who are trying to create cap space in free agency and are willing to part ways with draft picks in the meantime.
As a whole, change is hard, and the league hasn’t applied pressure on the matter one way or the other. A senior league official told Yahoo there hasn’t been serious discussion about it recently.
“I am open to it, [although] one issue becomes the extension of the summer,” another general manager told Yahoo Sports. “I do like how football can fill free agent needs first and supplement their rosters with the draft second. I have logistical concerns. The calendar works in football’s favor.”
Could teams recruit free agents while working out potential draft picks? There’s been a natural order to the way things have been done in the NBA, but it doesn’t mean it can’t be changed in ways to create a new natural order.
The GMs reached by Yahoo Sports didn’t come down to a 50-50 split, they were more in favor of the NFL model by a decent margin. Either way, the tide is changing and you wonder if the NBA will bring this up to a vote at some point in the near future.
It would have to pass by at least a majority, although it could require a two-thirds or three-fourths margin depending on what else is on the docket. It’s something to watch over the next couple years.
Second Quarter: Was Jokic-Zion no-call correct?
A foul is a foul is a foul, right?
First quarter or fourth quarter, first minute or last minute, all the same?
New Orleans’ Zion Williamson getting whacked upside the head by Denver’s Nikola Jokic in the final seconds of the Nuggets-Pelicans game Wednesday caused a bit of a stir. It looked like Jokic blocked Williamson’s shot just as he made contact with the back of Williamson’s head, a no-call in the moment that secured Denver’s seventh win in eight games — keeping them in play for the third seed, a shocker in the wake of Jamal Murray’s ACL injury.
For New Orleans, it was yet another close loss that has it on the outside of the play-in tournament.
Pelicans coach Stan Van Gundy stopped short of going nuclear in the postgame, but everyone knew what he was thinking. Williamson handled it even better, saying he has to earn the respect of the officials.
"I do think strength gets punished in this league a lot more than quickness," Van Gundy said. "If you're able to go through contact a little bit, it's called differently. If you fall down every time you're hit or you flop, you get calls. That's just the way it is. It's not just Zion, that's just the way it is.”
Williamson could be as difficult to officiate as Shaquille O’Neal was, who seemingly got hacked on every play but swatted bigs and guards off like mosquitos. Williamson’s quickness and willingness to play inside in an increasingly perimeter-oriented game could be tough for officials to watch and see everything, especially if he doesn’t react demonstratively. Williamson gets to the line nearly nine times a game but if he’s fouled more, he should be at the line more is one of Van Gundy’s gripes.
Perhaps it was an MVP call (yes, Jokic is the MVP), with the ground-bound but precise Jokic getting the benefit of the doubt from the officials in a way that say, JaVale McGee would not.
The league’s two-minute report called it an incorrect no-call, saying Jokic made contact with Williamson’s wrist.
But isn’t the old adage, “hand is part of the ball?” Or is it “No blood, no foul?”
Depends on when you started playing or what side of town you grew up on, but one thing most agree with on all corners is nobody wants the officials to decide the games.
And despite what a few Twitter detectives believe, official X doesn’t hate your team and would rather not be the center of attention in a late-game situation.
The feeling from here is this: minimal incidental contact on a good defensive play should be rewarded, with the key word “minimal.” If a player is hit in the eye after getting his shot blocked on the follow through, it should probably be called.
And late in games, plays at the rim should come with a certain amount of acceptable contact.
Again, this isn’t the 90s. Nobody wants to go back to Charles Oakley and Xavier McDaniel leading with the elbow because someone dared travel to the paint.
But in a league that’s increasingly tilted toward the offense, it’s OK to give defenders a little leeway, especially at the rim, especially late in games.
Third Quarter: Kobe Bryant's Nike line ends
It wasn’t a fun sight to see the divorce between Nike and the estate of Kobe Bryant last week. After months of negotiations, the two sides couldn’t come to an agreement, with Vanessa Bryant wanting what appeared to be reasonable concessions from Nike on Kobe’s line.
Since Kobe Bryant’s death in early 2020, his retro shoe releases have exploded in ways that didn’t happen even at his height with Nike. Anyone who’s tried to get a pair of his shoes on Nike’s SNKRS app knows the pain of seeing a rejection for a raffle.
Vanessa Bryant has heard the complaints of his fans who find Nike’s inventory inaccessible and has asked for it to be more available on release day.
Whether it was that or the belief Vanessa Bryant wanted a lifetime deal on par with Michael Jordan, LeBron James and Cristiano Ronaldo, the negotiations broke off as Kobe Bryant’s deal expired.
It’s believed Nike will have two final releases from the Kobe line. Vanessa Bryant is free to speak with other shoe brands about a deal.
There have been more and more complaints about the accessibility of Nike signature releases in general as websites have been flooded through the pandemic and the apps have been taken over by bots — then jacking up the price of the shoes on the resale market.
While that’s a bigger problem Nike should fix, Vanessa Bryant's desire to have more shoes and apparel for more fans to buy doesn’t seem unreasonable and would seem to be an easy fix for Nike on paper.
More shoes and more apparel equals more money for the sneaker giant that already laps all competitors in the space.
NBA players seemed to clamor for more Bryant models, as more and more have worn his shoes over the past year to honor him. Those will not be easy conversations when the asks come next season and beyond as Nike will have to discontinue any production of the Kobe line.
You’d like to think the two sides could come to some reasonable conclusion to restart the relationship, but it’s hard to see that happening.
And nobody wins, either.
Fourth Quarter: What's going on with the Celtics?
Break up the Celtics!
No, really, is it time to break up the Celtics?
They’re tied with the Miami Heat, meaning the Eastern Conference finalists from the bubble are battling to not be in the play-in tournament a year later.
There are myriad reasons why the Celtics have underachieved this season — not excuses, but valid reasons.
Battling COVID-19, which hit the Celtics seemingly harder than other teams. Jayson Tatum revealed he still uses an inhaler as a result of his bout with the virus, along with new addition Evan Fournier not being able to find his footing due to recovering from COVID-19.
Kemba Walker hasn’t been himself, having undergone a stem cell injection in his left knee in the short offseason. Not playing back-to-backs, and shooting 41% and 35% from three are his lowest shooting numbers since 2014-15 — before his four straight All-Star appearances.
He’s been better (45% shooting in April), but his availability is still being monitored as the Celtics head to the playoffs.
It’s hard to pinpoint exactly why the Celtics are so inconsistent, when you consider they should be able to deal with some of the nagging injuries to guys like Marcus Smart. Tatum and Jaylen Brown have performed well, but are they great enough to lift all tides or do they need to be lifted by a greater force?
For the Celtics to be great, in a sense, their best players have to match up with the likes of Giannis Antetokounmpo, Joel Embiid, Kevin Durant and James Harden. This isn’t the Eastern Conference of a few years ago, when general manager Danny Ainge could swindle a team like the Brooklyn Nets for all of their draft picks, with his only worry being LeBron James in Miami or Cleveland.
But the Nets have recovered to pass the Celtics, along with Philadelphia and Milwaukee, largely due to Ainge’s unwillingness to part ways with a treasure trove of picks since he picked Tatum and Brown.
The picks haven’t worked out, and with Ainge’s success in big deals where he clearly came out the winner, it seems he refuses to make a deal unless he swindles his trade partner. As a result, they look like a team without a country, no identity and thin up front — which falls on Ainge and coach Brad Stevens.
It’s year eight for Stevens in Boston, which means only Erik Spoelstra in Miami has a longer tenure. Counting the Kyrie Irving experience in 2018-19, this is the second time in three years the Celtics have underachieved — and Stevens largely skated from criticism that time.
He’s a good coach, but it can’t just fall on the players here. Tatum and Brown not being supernovas can only fly so far, considering how they’ve developed since being drafted. But how this season is summarized and explained will be curious.
To paraphrase Jack Nicholson as Col. Jessup in “A Few Good Men”: “Who’s gonna do it? You, Danny Ainge? You, Brad Stevens?”
Who’ll take the lion’s share? Or will shipped out players be tacitly assigned the blame?
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