Emmanuel Mudiay and Non-Traditional Paths to the NBA

Up until about a week and a half ago, I’d never heard of Emmanuel Mudiay. But when he decided to break from his intent to play college ball with the Southern Methodist University men’s basketball program and take his talents abroad, he joined a tiny group of young ballplayers who have eschewed conventional routes to hopefully reach the NBA.

Depending on who you ask, Mudiay falls somewhere in the top-5 players of the high school class of 2014. It was a bit of a coup for Larry Brown’s up-and-coming SMU program to snag him, but even more of a surprise to see the point guard decide to leave school and sign with Guangdong of the Chinese Basketball Association for $1.2 million.

Eligibility issues are cited as the primary reason for Mudiay’s departure from the states. Gary Parrish of CBS Sports wrote:

….the truth is that Mudiay was not yet through the NCAA’s Eligibility Center, and multiple sources told CBSSports.com that the odds of him being granted initial eligibility were slim, in part because of the past two years he spent at Prime Prep Academy in Texas.

Prime Prep has never been considered a safe route, mostly because it has, according to the NCAA, forever “been under an extended evaluation period to determine if it meets the academic requirements for NCAA cleared status.”

Translation: Attend Prime Prep at your own risk.

From an NBA and D-League view, it’s less important how Mudiay wound up in China, but that he did at all. Since the NBA and the NBPA agreed on raising the age limit to 19 during the 2005 collective bargaining agreement (the NBA preferred an age limit of 20, the union was against any limit, hence the compromise on 19), we’ve seen most pro prospects stick to the traditional route of playing in the NCAA for a year then declaring for the draft. But why is that? Foreign leagues have more to offer in terms of money (although it can be disputed that some college athletes are earning plenty of under-the-table money and perks), better competition, and, if one is able to take advantage of it, an opportunity to mature abroad and experience life in a foreign country.

But far from being a rich experience culturally or even a propelling step forward, trips abroad for players with NBA aspirations have been fraught with both obvious and unforeseen pitfalls. The most notable who took the road less traveled have been Brandon Jennings, Jeremy Tyler, and Latavious Williams who each attempted to carve their own path to the league with varying degrees of success. And each time we’ve seen a player bypass the NCAA, there’s a trendsetting expectation attached that this new, previously untrodden route will inevitably compete for the basketball talents of young Americans. To date that hasn’t happened and there’s nothing to indicate Mudiay’s move will be any different than those before him in terms of the impact it has on the preps-to-pros pipeline.

Jennings is the most well-known of the three and, like Mudiay, was at or near the top of his 2008 preps class before signing with the Italian team Lottomatica Roma. Between his contract with Lottomatica Roma and a sponsorship with Under Armour, the 19-year-old was making over $2 million while his deal also created the opportunity for his mother and half-brother to live with him. It wasn’t quite a European vacation though as Jennings explained to Ray Glier of The New York Times in January of 2009:

I’ve gotten paid on time once this year. They treat me like I’m a little kid. They don’t see me as a man. If you get on a good team, you might not play a lot. Some nights you’ll play a lot; some nights you won’t play at all. That’s just how it is.

And that less-than-glowing dispatch came from the kid who still managed to become a lottery pick. By all accounts, Jennings handled his experience with maturity and accepted his new role as a defensive player and distributor. But that his coldly sober description of his experience tempered expectations of Europe as a legitimate challenger to the NCAA for players. As he told Grantland in a 2012 interview:

Looking back, Jennings thinks he would’ve ended up a “in a Wildcat uniform” if he had to make the choice all over again. That being said, his year abroad informed his understanding of the world around him.

“I still do encourage kids to go to college at the end of the day. That’s just the way we actually live our life. [I went overseas] with the mindset of: ‘I’m here to learn. I’m here to learn how the professional life is supposed to be. Take in the coaching and just enjoy the ride.’”

One of Jeremy Tyler’s many stops, Tokyo

Jeremy Tyler one-upped Jennings by skipping his senior year in high school altogether and signing with Maccabi Haifa in Israel for $140,000, but he didn’t finish the season and returned to his native San Diego with a couple months remaining in his team’s season as an even greater cautionary tale than Jennings. His subsequent basketball existence has been nomadic and has seen stints with eight different pro teams – all by the age of 23. Tyler’s foray never seemed sustainable. As an 18-year-old who would’ve been a senior in high school, he relocated to a new country without any family or friends to accompany him and the resulting early departure wasn’t an unexpected outcome. Pete Thamel of The New York Times described Tyler’s experience back in 2009 in a piece that showed the young Californian as entitled and immature, unable and unprepared to take accountability for his actions or his career.

Where some may hope and expect to see a contrite Tyler admit his mistakes, instead we see a young man who, despite his struggles, found value in his experience (or perhaps remains too stubborn to admit a mistake) as he told Sherwood Strauss in 2013:

“There are guys in college that didn’t experience what I experienced,” he says. “There are certain ways of life that I lived. There are certain views that I see the importance in that people don’t see the importance in. That part of life that I got a chance to experience has definitely worked out for me. I know people who never been out of San Diego.”

Further expanding on his travels, he says, “You’re not going to play this game forever. I used basketball to get me (traveling). It’s probably not the most money in the world right now. It ain’t supposed to be ideal for everybody.”

Finally, we arrive at Mississippi native Latavious Williams who became the first player to go straight from high school, where he played in Starkville, Mississippi, to the D-League. The 6’8” forward didn’t have nearly the fanfare of Jennings or Tyler and by comparison his relatively conservative move to pursue the NBA appeared to be a much less difficult road than that of his international-traveling kindred spirits. Without the burden of a foreign land, an unfamiliar culture, and a new language, Williams was positioned for what appeared to be a much smoother transition than going abroad, albeit without the excitement and lucrative paychecks. Thamel, again of the NYT wrote in 2010:

He said he chose a job making $19,600 in the D-League rather than a low six-figure salary in China because he thought he would get better experience.

“It was a good decision,” Williams said. “I made the right choice. I feel like I learned a lot, and the coaches helped me be a better player over all.”

For Williams the structure of being in the states, surrounded by young men who spoke his language and understood the basics of being a working, tax-paying adult provided something that’s likely difficult to come by in a foreign country:

Williams received an education on and off the court. He learned from his roommate Marcus Lewis, a former Oral Roberts star, some life basics, like opening a bank account, using a credit card and cooking sweet chili chicken.

Latavious in Tulsa

Williams did manage to get drafted by the Heat (his rights were traded to Oklahoma City after), but of the aforementioned three players, he’s the one who hasn’t appeared in a single minute of NBA play. Muddying up the waters further, in 2011, when he would’ve been a junior in college, Williams signed with FIATC Joventut of the Spanish league and thus completed a route opposite of Jennings and Tyler. That he didn’t make the NBA is likely less a byproduct of his post-high school decision to go the D-League and more a reflection of his level of ability. He spent two full seasons with OKC’s D-League team, the Tulsa 66ers, and received plenty of opportunities. Whether it was the low wages of the D-League or just a lack of a clear path to the NBA pushed him overseas, he apparently saw a greater opportunity for success outside of the American system.

Repeatedly, we see the issue of maturity arise in cases of American teenagers going abroad to ply their craft while waiting for the NBA’s year-long barrier to pass. Meanwhile, players like Minnesota’s Robbie Hummel, Charlotte’s Chris Douglas-Roberts, and Detroit’s Kyle Singler each spent time after college developing their games overseas before latching onto NBA teams. The biggest difference between latter group of guys and Jennings & Company is age. Hummel, CDR and Singler each spent at least three years in college and had figured out the things Latavious Williams was learning – opening checking accounts, managing your downtime, understanding what does and doesn’t work for you as an individual. Williams’s path has more in common with the athlete who goes from the NCAA to a career in Europe than it does with Jennings and Tyler with the primary difference that Williams doesn’t have the experience or credentials of an institution of higher learning.

With new NBA Commissioner Adam Silver repeatedly pushing for increasing the age limit to enter the NBA from 19 to 20, it remains to be seen how this increase will impact the existing pipeline. Will more kids see two years as too long to wait for paydays and choose one of the myriad pro options? Or will the prospect of spending two long years away from home stamp out the option altogether?

Despite Williams missing out on the NBA dream, the D-League has proven to be a realistic option for Americans shut out of the college game as PJ Hairston revealed last year when he was kicked off the UNC team, but found a home in the D-League with the Texas Legends. In June, Hairston became the first D-League player selected in the first round of the NBA draft. His success and the continued evolution of the league in terms of number of teams, quality of play, and success of D-League players making it to the NBA will continue to elevate the profile and appeal America’s second best pro league. Most importantly, increased investment will hopefully result in better-paying salaries for D-League players as the $19,600 Williams made is far from a competitive wage. Rather, the dream of making it on an NBA team is the carrot dangled in front of its players.

What does all this mean for Emmanuel Mudiay and other kids like him? It’s hard to say. Inevitably, high school players will struggle with the NCAA’s always-evolving admission standards and be faced with difficult choices concerning their careers. And while the sample size is extremely small, the experiences of Jennings, Tyler, Williams, Hairston, and eventually Mudiay will shape the decisions these kids make. There are numerous options available to kids who don’t fit into the NCAA’s definition of a student-athlete and the hope is that these kids, along with their families, coaches, and role models, will make informed decisions.

If European and Chinese leagues alongside the D-League wish to become a legitimate pit stop on the way to the NBA, they would all be wise to create a more adaptable environment where young players with limited experiences and developing maturity can assimilate more easily. Even the college players mentioned above who were over 20 when they arrived in Europe talked about the challenges of living in another country that ranged from lack of hot water to the isolation of being alone in a foreign land. Again, if these leagues want to present themselves as viable options, they need to provide an atmosphere closer to what Jennings’s Italian experience than Tyler’s Israeli experience. But there’s also a significant onus of responsibility on players and their support systems. If it’s a two-way street where profitability is the goal, it behooves all parties to create the most advantageous environment for the players.

Another option would be for the NBA and the Player’s Association to provide high school kids with unbiased, transparent guidance regarding their options. Understanding the differences between pro leagues, putting young men in touch with Brandon Jennings or Jeremy Tyler, offering a side-by-side comparison between the NCAA, the D-League, and foreign options with a goal of educating players without trying to sway them like agents, runners, coaches, or even family members can do, would be a great resource which would be unlikely to have a negative impact on the NBA besides ensuring its prospects are making intelligent decisions.

We all would’ve heard of Emmanuel Mudiay sooner or later, but going to China has accelerated the process and continued increase the magnifying glass on the seemingly never-ending preps-to-pros conversation. In the grander scheme, Mudiay’s decision blends into the larger panorama of this discussion, but from a personal perspective, the Congolese native will have his hands full adapting to a new a life while the rest of the basketball world looks on, viewing him as a guinea pig of sorts. I don’t view Mudiay’s decision as right or wrong, but rather a great big and bold adventure of a basketball explorer the outcome of which will help shape the preps-to-pros future, but not define it.

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Daryl Morey is not Francois Truffaut

Have you ever had to do something at your job you thought was a bad idea, but had to because your boss told you to? The other day I had to put interview transcripts into an unnecessarily detailed Excel table for analysis, an analysis that will take far longer than if I had just read through the transcripts. I gently tried convincing my boss another way was more efficient, but no dice. So I put those transcripts into the table, because that’s what you do when somebody else makes the decisions.

Since meaningful basketball isn’t happening, we spend most of July talking about general managers: who signed whom, whose roster still needs filling out, who found the final piece of the puzzle, who is tanking for a better shot at the 2015 lottery. But in evaluating these decisions, an understanding of power and context is often left by the wayside.

Basketball analytics has made strides in accounting for these things on the court. We understand that assist rate is an imperfect measure because one point guard plays with Ray Allen while another plays with bricklayers. We understand that Andre Drummond is already an immense player, and Detroit only won 29 games because of the players surrounding him. This logic isn’t applied to general managers, however.

By most accounts, the Sacramento Kings’ Pete D’Alessandro is a bright young general manager. He hasn’t been a GM long enough to know whether he is or will become one of the greats, but he has the potential. He is analytics savvy and thinks outside of the box, letting Grantland’s documentarians tag along as he crowd sourced analytics models to help the Kings in the 2014 draft. The most striking scene in the resulting documentary didn’t involve the analysts D’Alessandro found, but his interaction with Kings owner Vivek Ranadive during the draft. While in the draft room deciding on their pick, Ranadive asks the room, “Stauskas or Payton? For me Stauskas.” The Kings went on to pick Nik Stauskas.

Now, for all I know Pete D’Alessandro was the biggest proponent of picking Nik Stauskas and spent weeks convincing Ranadive of this. Maybe if D’Alessandro had actually wanted Elfrid Payton, he would’ve told Ranadive, “I think you’re wrong.” There could conversations off-camera where D’Alessandro advocates for Stauskas. But what I do know is that it is very difficult to disagree with your boss on important decisions, and sometimes the best career move is keeping your opinion to yourself.

A year from now nobody will remember this scene. If Stauskas turns out to be Jimmer Fredette 2.0, D’Alessandro might get fried. If Stauskas is actually the second coming if Mitch Richmond, D’Alessandro will get a contract extension. Such is life for a general manager, where their employment status can be determined by a player they might not even have wanted to select.

We see this happen so often, yet rarely recognize it as such. In this great Kevin Arnovitz piece from last season, Milwaukee Bucks GM John Hammond sticks to the company line and explains why the team will try and compete in 2013. But reading between the lines, you can practically hear Hammond shouting, “Of course I want to tank, of course I think our roster sucks, but Herb Kohl won’t let me!” Now, the fact that Hammond tried to build a winning roster that ultimately had the worst record in the league says something about his abilities, but the fact remains that certain team-building options are simply off the table for John Hammond. That should be taken into account when judging his performance versus, say, Sam Hinkie’s.

Any day now, Kevin Love will be traded. Or not. The Golden State Warriors want Love, but aren’t willing to trade Klay Thompson for him. It seems that head coach Steve Kerr and valued consultant Jerry West want to keep Thompson, while owner Joe Lacob highly values David Lee, the guy Love would replace. If the Warriors hang on to Thompson and he develops into the best shooting guard in the league, should we credit Myers for not making the trade? Who should be blamed if Kevin Love submits an MVP season while the Warriors flame out in the first round, again?

It isn’t impossible to tease out front office power structures, but it is very difficult and even then an owner can simply overrule his people and do something nuts. Writers and fans alike are better off dropping general-manager-as-auteur posturing, and instead focus on evaluating the organization. The Sacramento Kings front office had a disastrous draft, not Pete D’Alessandro. The Golden State Warriors junta is smart for not trading Klay Thompson, not Bob Myers. The Milwaukee Bucks pursued a poor development strategy, not John Hammond.

If you have ever complained that your boss made a dumb decision, realize general managers’ bosses sometimes do too.

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Your Annotated Smartphone Bathroom Reader for Tuesday, July 22nd, 2014.

With summer league finished, it’s nothing but the offseason for a few months.

Warriors Won’t Overlook Defense in Kevin Love Talks
Sam Amick
USA Today

Obviously, most of the discourse this summer has focused on the eventual landing spot for Kevin Love, who is reportedly on his way out of Minnesota, for better or worse. Though Cleveland looks increasingly like the final destination for the talented forward, my beloved Golden State Warriors remain in the mix. The hang up, of course, has been the Warriors’ refusal to trade shooting guard Klay Thompson, who must be included in any potential deal to the Timberwolves. Although Warriors fans have openly criticized the team for not pulling the trigger on a deal, Sam Amick explains there are pretty good reasons why. According to Amick, the hold up isn’t really about how good the Warriors might be with Love, but rather, how good the team is defensively when Thompson is on the floor. Amick shows how Thompson fits into the Warriors defense, which was ranked third in the league last season, and how losing him might derail the cause that ousted coach Mark Jackson began in earnest in 2012. This piece serves as a primer to the K-Love talks, but also as a set of cliff notes to better understand how Thompson fits in with the Warriors larger plans, and why Steve Kerr might be reluctant to lose him, even if he could get one of the best power forwards in the game in the process.

Burning Men: Sorting out the Real Thing and the Mirage at Vegas Summer League

Over time, I’ve come to realize that summer league serves as something of a watershed moment for everyone who’s not an NBA player. For many, this seems to be their first experience covering the game directly, as well as meeting colleagues that they’ve admired, and perhaps gotten to know over social media. As such (and as a person who was not at the event), I find myself sifting through pieces, and sorting them into “Useful” and “Bro Memories” piles. Without a doubt, Netw3rk’s piece gets into the “Useful” pile, because it provides an engaging, engrossing look into every single interrogative element of summer league. Netw3rk delves into all of the Five W’s (who, what, etc), and paints a picture of a hoopla that doesn’t seem unlike a Hunter S. Thompson novel, filled with angst, hope, defeat and, of course, anxious men of all shapes, sizes, colors and creeds. The free-form piece that is produced from this painting is a useful guide for what, exactly, summer league is, and why it matters (or doesn’t). This was, in my opinion, the strongest piece from LVSL; an event I have very mixed feelings about in the first place.

Two Critiques of Daryl Morey
William Bohl
Hardwood Paroxysm

It has been very interesting to watch the larger basketblogosphere wring their hands and furrow their brows over the current status of Daryl Morey, the enigmatic, overanalyzed general manager of the Houston Rockets. As is fairly well known at this point, Morey, a seminal figure in the advanced analytics movement (William Bohl, the author of the piece we are discussing, labels him “the face” of said movement), hasn’t had that great of a summer on the free agency market. His poor run has brought some of his other failures to light, and from that, something of a groundswell of criticism has emerged. Unsurprisingly, a counter-narrative celebrating his strengths and successes has formed to combat the criticism. Now, we’re all flustered. Luckily, we’ve got Mr. Bohl here to offer his opinion, and it is a fine one. Bohl — gasp! — argues that there’s no right or wrong way to look at what Morey is, or even if he’s done a “good” or “bad” job. In his estimation, Morey’s done a fine job putting a team together that can compete in the modern NBA. Instead, Bohl asserts that Morey has failed at his ability to manage his own image, and in many ways, temper his own aura. Boh feels that the core that Morey assembled this summer could probably past mustard in the West. However, “if the mission fails, it’ll be clear to everyone why it did, and there will be no shortage of those reveling in their demise,” he writes. “Such is the price of being run by a genius, and being called one; failures are amplified, and constant success is expected. The rough weekends are remembered. The good ones are not.” Lots of fine pieces have been written about Morey over the past few days, but this one was my favorite.

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Maloof is a State of Mind.

When reports began to surface that the Sacramento Kings were pursuing Detroit Pistons forward Josh Smith – the mercurial, handsomely-paid forward who has endured trade rumors for most of his waking career, and who continually seems to be fighting against himself to determine what, exactly, his precise skillset is — I threw my arms up in the air, and grinned widely. “Maloof is a state of mind!” I said to anyone who would listen, dancing impishly about the room, tweeting hate with reckless abaondon. “Maloof is a state of mind! Maloof is a state of mind!” Luckily, I was in my own abode, all alone with my ear-piercing blasphemy. A more respectful fan would probably offer hard stares and tightly pressed lips were they to hear my gleeful exultation over yet another head-scratcher from the powers that be in the 916. It’s not Maloof, you dummy, their faces would say, contorted with ugliness and annoyance. It’s Vivek Ranadive. It’s a brand new era. 

On paper, it’s hard to disagree with that overly-defensive straw man (of my own creation), feeling strangely defensive about a professional basketball team. Vivek Ranadive, the team’s majority owner, isn’t a Maloof, glistening unnaturally in the sun, a screen-printed t-shirt stretched to the limit across an expansive midsection. Neither is Pete D’Alessandro, the team’s GM, nor is Michael Malone, the team’s head coach. This is an old hat with a new head, trying to show how to properly wear a bowler that had been neglected for years, long overdue for a jaunty stroll in the sun. Yet, they go about wearing that old hat in a strange new way, conjuring images of a more abusive stewardship, complete with $6000 combo meals from Carl’s Jr., and drafts more focused on making headlines than finding true cornerstones. In addition to their pursuit of Josh Smith — and the three years, $40.5 million dollars left on his contract — the Kings opted to pay free agent point guard Darren Collison three years, $16 million to become their starter, and sent Isaiah Thomas (who was slated for a payday after a 20-and-6 season for a bad team) to a division rival. They drafted Michigan combo guard Nik Stauskas, even though they drafted their shooting guard of the future in Ben McLemore last year. They let it be known that they wanted to keep brick-laying small forward Rudy Gay around for the long-term. And perhaps most importantly, their arena is being held up by a citizen’s action group, threatening financial losses for the team’s owners, and conjuring doubt among many outside of Sacramento that this thing is actually going to get done, and that this situation — broken and shattered for nearly a decade — will be made whole, finally, once again. It is this stumble-trip of an offseason that allows me to chortle that “Maloof is a state of mind,” even though the pieces, players, and prospects are purportedly much different than before.

Now, stating doom and gloom in July is admittedly premature, and dare I say, rather un-Diss-like. Summer league isn’t even over yet, and regular season rosters are months away from being finalized. Moreover, linking a learning-on-the-job new ownership group to a stodgy-and-distant old ownership group is an analytic pitfall, seeing as how fortunes can change relatively quickly, and feet can be crammed violently into once-proud mouths. Ranadive’s old compatriots in Oakland, Golden State Warriors owners Joe Lacob and Peter Guber, can attest to this firsthand, and indeed, Vivek seems to be modeling their plan towards sustainable competitiveness. Certainly, the cacophonous boos issued by Warriors fans shortly after the Monta Ellis-Andrew Bogut swap imply that sometimes it’s best to wait and see what happens, rather than react in the heat of the moment. A more invested fan would likely advise patience, and offer some time-tested euphemisms to explain away the suck. Rome wasn’t built in a day, they might muse, or perhaps even more sternly inform me that patience is a virtue, you asshole. The point would be the same: give this team, this ownership group, and this front office some time, and things might get better.

But alas, it is the continuing puzzlement emanating from California’s lovely capitol city that allows me to elevate the Maloofs — and by extension, a certain quality of “Maloofness” present in everything and every person in the Kings organization — to a different astral plane altogether, and label them as a state of mind. For a state of mind isn’t simply held by the organization. Rather, it is shared by everyone who interacts with the organization, from the players on the court, to the fans in the seats, to the critics ALLCAPS-ing pithy internet critiques on blogs and social media sites. Simply put, it’s the idea that the team doesn’t actually have the wherewithal to make the damn thing work, to make the pieces finally fit together. It’s the perception that a group of individuals are not enough to change a general ethos attached to a particular person, place or thing, and that that proper noun in question is doomed to repeat the mistakes it made in the past, albeit in different forms or fashions. When a backup point guard is signed as a starter, and another projected backup combo guard is drafted — even though the team already had a backup-as-a-starter guard who is more talented than the one they just signed, and already had a backup who looked pretty good last season — the link is easy to make. When the team pursues players that no one else wanted, and who sat on a trading block for nearly three calendar years because no team could fully convince themselves that they actually wanted this guy, the link is easy to make. And, sadly, when an arena fails to go up as quickly as promised, and grumbling over “citizen action groups” and “projected financial losses” begins to make their way into the headlines, memories of penny-pinching, restive municipal politics and backroom haggling present themselves unpleasantly, once again. Indeed, in those moments, Maloof is a state of mind, hovering like thick fog over a vast agricultural landscape.

While making a bad team good is far from an exact science, there are some general features that can be observed, and taken into account when considering other case studies focused on the same goals. For the purpose of this conversation, observing the Memphis Grizzlies — a team of similar stature playing in the same conference — is a useful exercise. A 2010 TrueHoop interview with Aaron Barzilai, the current director of analytics with the Philadelphia 76ers who at the time was a quantitative analyst for the Grizzlies, lends some clues into how a bad team in a small market can become good. The answer isn’t revolutionary; it’s common sense. Barzilai states that getting good is “a combination of everyone improving, and the team [playing] well as a unit” as well as an understanding that the team has to “play [their] starters a lot.” Over time, “the strengths complement one another,” and the team becomes good enough to compete. “I don’t know if we’re quite elite yet, but definitely in the top half of the League,” Barzilai says about the 2010 Grizz, who ended up finishing just short of the playoffs, but who haven’t missed the postseason since, and have qualified for a Western Conference Finals — their first in franchise history — in 2013.

However, it’s important to remember that while common sense fortified the creature, its creation was a strange mix of luck, skill, patience and shrewdness. The Grizzlies had to wait for Mike Conley and Marc Gasol to develop. They had to invest (for a short time) in a coach like Lionel Hollins to construct a system of accountability and skill acquisition. They had to convince key role players like Tony Allen to come aboard. And perhaps most importantly, they had to acquire Zach Randolph when his stock was low, and create an environment for him to be successful. They did these things, and now they are who they are. The late Robert Heisley — at that point, mostly lambasted for trading Pau Gasol for seemingly nothing — went from zero to hero among NBA circles, and with him went his Grizzlies. And though it is certainly too early to tell — Smoove is still a Piston, after all — the shooting from a frontline featuring Rudy Gay, DeMarcus Cousins and Josh Smith doesn’t carry the same gravitas as their counterparts in Memphis, nor the same potential upside.

At this point, the question seems to be: can the same thing that happened in Memphis with the Grizzlies in Sacramento with the Kings? Can the gritty magic of the Grizz be replicated in California’s Central Valley, where orchards lay lazily across the landscape, and the sun beats down unkindly upon government servants and migrant workers alike? Can DeMarcus Cousins take another step upwards, get out of his own head, and become a Z-Bo figure for his city; a rallying point who exemplifies what, exactly, Kings basketball is, and what it will always be, from 1985 to forever? Can Michael Malone buck the trend among most first-time head coaches, and show enough progress to stick around with the team for the longterm? Can the front office figure out what to do with its positional logjams, and turn superfluous pieces into legitimate assets. Can Sacramento become a place to empower and teach, and become a legitimate destination where coveted free agents choose to sign? Can the ghosts of the Maloofs finally leave the land, and leave to haunt some other terrified polity, to ruin their own state of mind?

As rumors linking them to Josh Smith — scowling, drifting, and chucking his way to an unfortunate “overpaid and overrated” label — it’s hard to see how to break this troubling state of mind, held strangely by the team, their fans, and everyone trying to figure out what, exactly, is going on there.

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Extreme Player Movement is the NBA’s Fantasy Football

One of the contributors to the chokehold the NFL has as America’s favorite sport is fantasy football. Give or take a couple of million depending upon the source, somewhere around 30 MILLION people play fantasy football. The combination of almost all game broadcasts being available over-the-air and tens of millions of fans having some sort of stake in nearly every one of them has led to a ratings bonanza and a television contracts worth $7 billion annually. There’s even a (pretty good!) television show about fantasy football. It is tightly integrated within the sport, with NFL.com hosting leagues and hiring fantasy reporters, and broadcasts frequently mentioning the sport.

Rightfully so, fantasy basketball isn’t nearly as popular. Rosters need to be updated multiple times a week and the season runs for almost six months, whereas in fantasy football rosters are only updated weekly for four months. The various scoring systems are all complex, requiring you to know players’ field goal, free throw and three-point percentages, as well as a host of other statistics, whereas in fantasy football you just need to know who scores touchdowns and gets a bunch of yards. Fantasy football is a fun game requiring a small time commitment that anybody can understand. Fantasy basketball is…not.

But what the NBA has stumbled upon, somewhat accidentally I think, is the real life version of fantasy sports with its free agency and draft period. The Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA), signed in 2011, limits the lengths of contracts, meaning good players are on the market more frequently. A combination of this, the CBA’s harsh penalties for teams that exceed the salary cap, and a smarter crop of executives means more teams are carving out the requisite cap space to try and make a splash in free agency. Stars and their sidekicks are also seemingly willing to take below rate contracts, meaning even more teams are in the market to pay for their services. There are more teams with more money chasing a larger and deeper pool of players.

The result of this confluence is that the NBA has dominated the last three months of the sports calendar. It has always dominated May and part of June because of the Conference and NBA Finals, but the Donald Sterling saga and dynamite first round in the Western Conference meant that period began even earlier, and the draft and free agency has led most sports websites for the last month without a game even being played. Encouraging for the NBA, none of the factors that led to this can’t be repeated next year and into perpetuity.

In fact, this will be repeated, at least for the next few offseasons. LeBron James signed a two-year contract with an opt-out next year. Kevin Durant will be a free agent in 2016, and his hometown Washington Wizards just hired his high school coach, supposedly to soften the ground for an attempt to sign him. With the influx of a tsunami of television money in either 2016 or 2017 coming down the pipe, this isn’t going to slow down anytime soon.

Even better, the intensity of offseason movement isn’t something that the NFL, the NBA’s biggest competitor for eyeballs throughout the first three months of the season, can match, because player movement just isn’t as important in the NFL.

There are only around 450 NBA players, and only five from one team on the court at a given time, compared to the 1696 and 11 of the NFL. Even the best football player’s only play half the game, and with the possible exception of quarterbacks, no one player can influence the game nearly as much as an NBA player. The worst team in the NFL could sign the best quarterback and still probably wouldn’t make the playoffs; LeBron James just went to one of the worst teams in the NBA and they’re the odds-on favorite to win the 2015 NBA Finals.

The NFL also has more mechanisms (like the franchise tag) to hang onto the best players. You only see them occasionally pop up in free agency and almost never in trades, whereas within the last year or two nearly every single one of the biggest basketball stars has been traded or a free agent. This feeding frenzy that interests and gives hope to 29 fanbases across the country (sorry Philadelphia) isn’t something that is repeatable in the NFL without a serious overhaul of how the sport works.

For years I have wanted the NBA to either start attacking the NFL head-to-head and trying to siphon off fans, or to bow out of the competition altogether. But in creating a system that leads to a consistently bananas, month-long news cycle, the NBA has managed to bolster its popularity without having to decide how to compete with the NFL just yet.

The league would be wise not to screw this up if the CBA does indeed come up for negotiation in 2017. Given its history, however, I’m not holding my breath.

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Your Annotated Smartphone Bathroom Reader for Tuesday, July 15th, 2014.

Last two posts on the Diss are bathroom readers? Yep, must be July.

Dream Role
Kate Fagan

I was watching the Clippers play summer league the other day, and was surprised to see a woman on the bench, working with the coaching staff, drawing up plays and getting into Delonte West’s ear. This piqued my interest; who was this woman whom I had never seen before? This woman is Natalie Nakasi, who has spent the last year of her life working as a do-it-all intern for the Los Angeles Clippers. In this longer piece, we learn that there’s much more to Nakasi than just her dream — to coach in the NBA — and that her story is a fascinating, engrossing one. Nakasi, a former Division I basketball player for UCLA, has made her mark as one of the hardest-working young coaches in the NBA, after having coached overseas, and having turned down several jobs that would brand her as a “women’s coach.” Seeing where she came from is fascinating, and given her acumen, it only seems like a matter of time before she latches on permanently with a coaching staff. I enjoyed learning more about this prospective NBA coach, and hope that she shatters one of the strongest glass ceilings in American professional sports.

Splitting the Basketball Atom
Seth Partnow
Nylon Calculus

Now that the Hardwood Paroxysm Network (HP Network) has filled the void that the TrueHoop Network used to occupy, I’m getting used to old faces writing in new places, under a new(ish) banner. I was not surprised to see Seth Partnow join in on the act. Partnow — who is known in basketblogging circles as a writer who is as sharp as he is prolific — delivers a real whammy of an introductory piece for Nylon Calculus, the HP Network’s site based on analytics and advanced stats. In his opening piece, Partnow goes long(form), and provides the reader with a comprehensive overview of where basketball scientists stand in their quest to metaphorically split the basketball atom, and really delve into the building blocks of how the game happens on a nightly basis. Partnow’s analysis is full of stuff to chew on, including the various forms of technology being employed to better understand the game, and the ways that technology is used by its creators, as well as its clients. In the analysis, a central theme emerges (at least for me, a guy who doesn’t know too much about stats): that while technology has made leaps and bounds, the humans that use it are just as, well, human as they’ve ever been, in that they know this stuff is useful, but they’re not really sure what for yet. This provided an interesting look into where we stand in terms of breaking down the game into its smallest parts — even though I think that pursuit is, in the end, meaningless.

Who Actually Got the LeBron James Scoop?
Kevin Draper

Yes, a familiar face, at a not-so-familiar-place. The Diss’ co-editor “Detective” Kevin Draper gets his reportage on with Deadspin, and does what he does best: provide an autopsy explaining who, exactly, broke the LeBron James story. Draper’s investigation takes us to an unlikely face: Chris Sheridan, the former ESPN news-breaker, who has fallen largely out of the spotlight in recent years. In the end, Sheridan got to the right place first, but how much of it was legit, and how much of it was guessing? “Chris Sheridan got the end result right, in other words, but along the way he got enough wrong that you have to wonder about the reporting process,” writes Draper. It’s that “along the way” that Draper is so good at illustrating, showing how this great big “Sources Say” sun in the sky keeps us all moving around it. Congrats to Detective Draper, this is a very good read.

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Your Annotated Smartphone Bathroom Reader for Thursday, July 10th, 2014.

Going off the grid until next week. If LeBron goes back to Cleveland, send a search party so they can alert me.

Inside Basketball
Colin McGowan
Sports on Earth

Three years into this basketball writing thing, I’ve finally learned that July is something of a pitfall for basketbloggers. This is the season of wild guesses and outlandish speculation, and as such, grounded pieces of work are few and far between. Part of this is excusable — this is the NBA’s silly season, after all — but it does raise questions about the best way to approach the silly putty nature of the offseason. I found Colin McGowan’s piece in Sports on Earth to be both a refreshing change of pace, and a resource for different perspectives on the draft, free agency, and other minor events of the offseason that create this atmosphere of sponginess. McGowan asserts that imagination is the driving engine of the offseason, and that both NBA teams and NBA fans use the time to let their minds run wild. “Tautologically, the only truly useful report about where LeBron is set to sign will be the one that confirms where he is set to sign. Anything else is noise, but noise fills in the gaps between not knowing and knowing,” writes McGowan, but then he adds an important caveat: “The 24/7 news cycle is supposed to drive us crazy, but if you are single-minded — if you have an imagination like an on-rails shooter — it’s something that tides you over.” Spot on, and the reason I both love-and-hate July with fiery passion.

How NBA Free Agency Became the Most Thrilling Part of the Season
Bethlehem Shoals

In McGowan’s piece (annotated above), he writes some kind and thoughtful words about Bethlehem Shoals, and how his style of writing could be a positive change in a field of analysis that’s high on imagination, but lacking a cohesive voice:

When a talent like LeBron is on the open market, [Henry] Abbot claims, we all get to use our imaginations. And presumably, an insider stimulates our imaginations. But if it’s imagination fans want, Bethlehem Shoals — who effortfully projects his anxieties and beliefs onto players — would be a more successful writer than Adrian Wojnarowski, who just moves them around like plastic Risk figurines. However, there is no such thing as a DarkoBomb.

Ask and you shall receive, in a sense. Shoals, who contributes to GQ, provides the reader (and keep in mind, these are likely casual fans, at best) with an overview of where the NBA stands at this current moment: waiting to see what LeBron James is going to do. Shoals’s point is not necessarily a new one — that NBA free agency is different because of the sheer power the players hold in making-or-breaking a team for 3-5 seasons — but it is expressed with that trademark elegance that Shoals first started sharing with readers nearly a decade ago. “Next to this kind of watershed, a draft seems positively barbaric, a gimme to the owners who might not be up to the real challenges they face today in their jobs,” Shoals writes. “LeBron may be the standard-bearer—he’s the one who instantly makes a team a contender and can more or less dictate his terms—but this summer, every free agent of note has a little bit of this swagger.” Not only can Shoals educate casual fans, but he can make even the most tired, jaded fans stop scanning The Same Free Agency Piece You’ve Read 1000 Times Prior, and just read. The article provides a strange into basketblogging’s past, in a way, but also a different sort of piece of work for the present, and one that could only be written by Bethlehem Shoals.

I See You, Rasual Butler
Stephen Coston
DerMarr Johnson’s Socks

Stephen Coston is a favorite around the Diss. He occasionally contributes to our humble little site, and we like that. But we also respect him a lot because he, like ourselves, steadfastly believes in the power of independent blogging. His first site, NBA 24/7 365, was a go-to for NBA fans for years. His new project, DerMarr Johnson’s Socks, provides a soundtrack for what has to be the most eclectic collection of NBA tchotchkes on God’s green Earth. Coston has every single NBA thing ever made, it seems, and a story to tell about all of them. I particularly enjoyed this piece about Rasual Butler. Coston seems to dwell on players that average viewers would gloss over, and as such, his missive on Rasual Butler — a bit player in the NBA who has drifted in-and-out of the league over the last decade — matches his general outlook on the NBA. Coston’s lens for understanding the game is the memorabilia, with an emphasis on memory. I love what Coston brings to the table, and you should too.

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