Punishing Drake and Forging New Frontiers in the NBA’s Culture Wars.

It’s a snoozer of a headline, and one that would only make noise in the dead middle of the offseason: that the NBA had fined Drake — yes, that Drake — for tampering. The events that transpired contain all of the markers of offseason non-news: a tongue-in-cheek recruitment attempt by Drake, performing at a concert in Toronto, for Kevin Durant, who was attending the concert for leisure, to play for his hometown team the Toronto Raptors, that met the ire of the NBA. The NBA leveled a $25,000 fine against the team, which employs Drake (without salary) as a “global ambassador”, but offered a strange out (which they have since denied ever making): remove Drake’s very ambiguous title, and the fine would be waived. The Raptors put their foot down, refused to defrock their highly-visible brand ambassador, paid the fine, and moved on with their respective days. And with that complete, there might not be anything new here to consider. Surely there are bigger NBA stories, and bigger world news stories, to focus on besides the NBA’s grumblings about recruiting players under contract, given that a clear definition of tampering hasn’t really been parsed out since LeBron left the Cavaliers for the Heat in 2010 under questionable circumstances. Discussing anything else might distract us from larger points, should they even exist in this story.

Yet, there is something strangely compelling in this fight between the NBA — an entity whose primary function is to represent 29 other wealthy owners, who maintain the league’s franchises in various cities on the North American continent — and the Toronto Raptors, the lone international representative among the greater gaggle of teams. It is a poorly kept secret that just a handful teams are tasked with carrying the NBA’s brand, using a combination of market size, on-court success and visibility, television market share, and historical presence to supersede the NBA as a corporate entity, and become bigger than the league as a whole. In this regard, the iconic “logo” featuring Jerry West, long employed to symbolize the NBA product, carries little weight unless there is a major team, or player, wearing an article of clothing or accessory with its red, white and blue insignia emblazoned on the front. However, while there is general agreement that major-market teams carry the weight for the others, there seems to be little agreement as to who, exactly, these major market teams are in the first place. Typically, the Celtics, Lakers, Knicks and Bulls are the first four out of the gate. But who else joins them, if anyone? The Heat, who boast stars, championships, and national television appearances? The Nets, who can trot out merchandise sales and television market worth? The Cavaliers, who feature two top-10 players and countless national television spots? Or even the “other” teams in Calfornia, the Clippers and Warriors, whose rivalry has been stoked by the arrival of bona fide stars, and the prospect of regular playoff meetings? There really is no clear definition as to what a major market team is, and by extension, how to become one.

As such, it’s hard not to look a bit askance at the NBA, and their attempt to put the Toronto Raptors back among the NBA’s untouchables, out of sight and out of mind. In the (stereotypical) lazy mind of the culturally-inept NBA fan from the lower 48, the Raptors have been a persona non grata ever since former All-Star swingman Vince Carter left for beautiful East Rutherford, New Jersey, leaving behind the closest thing the Raptors had had to “major market respectability” in their nearly 20-year history. In order to note the change in reception of the team, and the perception of their standing among other teams in the league, one would have to be playing very close attention. Kevin has already commented on the lack of national television exposure for the 47-35 squad, which finished with the 4th overall seed in the East, lost to the Nets in a memorable first round series this past spring, yet garnered zero national television appearances in the United States. Their talented team, headlined by guards DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry, forward/center Jonas Valanciunas, and head coach Dwane Casey was lead by relative unknowns, at least to anyone besides the most fervent NBA fan or native Toronto resident. And despite recent returns to on-court respectability, they’ve failed to make the mark in less tangible ways, including changes to uniforms or team iconography, splashy free agent signings or trades (with the obvious exception of Rudy Gay), or clear responses to free agents lost to ther teams. Looking at a timeline of the Raptors since the early 2000′s produces a nauseous feeling; a middling team, struggling with obscurity and relative cultural isolation from the rest of the NBA world.

In these cases, the presence of a cultural icon — a celebrity, a politician, a socialite — can go a long way towards making a previously invisible team tangible, knowable and eventually beloved. If the market is made major by those who make the very entity more marketable, one can’t ignore the moment when a notable figure starts showing up at their team’s once uncool games, and becomes linked to the existence and relevance of the team altogether. Like Bruce Willis at Nets games in 2001 and 2002, Snoop Dogg and Jessica Alba at Warriors games in 2007, and even Barack Obama at Wizards games throughout his time as President of the goddamned United States of America, the presence of Drake provided the 2014 Raptors with a certain sense of insistent modernism, that this was what I was supposed to be watching if I wanted to keep up with the kids-these-days. Though I am no paying fan of his music — although as a black Jew myself, I have always felt a strange connection to the man — I cannot totally divorce myself from the churning waters of pop culture, and avoid being transfixed by the actions of the global superstar shouting at the referee on the sidelines. Though the possibility of Kevin Durant wearing Raptors red (or white, or black, or…camouflage?) seems unlikely, the idea that Drake could be enough to convince him to consider it is exciting, modern, and frankly, new. As much as it pains skeptical fans like myself, the presence of cultural icons in our beloved league are tantamount to its popularity, as well as its potential to grow in influence and stature over time.

From my perspective, the NBA has been content to anchor its marketing in the lower 48 as broadly as possible, trying to net as many interested eyes as possible to watch both their games, as well as the movies, television shows, sodas, cell phones, french fries and anti-itch creams who sponsor them. In order to do this, they draw from highly recognizable figures to push both products, and in theory, double the earnings. Often times these recognizable figures are the players themselves — that is, the vaunted superstars who both fill the stat sheet and sell cell phone plans — but other times they are actors, musicians, or anyone else who could potentially trend on Twitter. In this way, actors like Kevin Hart are propped to flourish as both the master of ceremonies for the All-Star game, as well as a box office darling, thanks to cross-marketing efforts from the NBA and the studios which produce his movies. In the cases of celebrities who choose to root for a specific team — the deranged stars who go to Knicks games, Jack Nicholson at a Lakers game, Jay-Z at whatever New York team he’s going for at that point in time, or even Billy Crystal at a Clippers game — the NBA seems to prefer that they remain seen but not heard, unless of course they’re willing to push the overall product. Team-specific marketing is frowned upon; silently discouraged and publicly reprimanded. For the NBA, there seems to be no room for anything besides the company line when it comes to global ambassadorship: recognition for all, and visibility for the very few.

The NBA’s ongoing battle with the Raptors, as well as their well-known global ambassador, seems to mark a new chapter in a larger war that will likely climax following the completion of the sport’s two impending cataclysms: the new television deal in 2016, and the (probable) new collective bargaining agreement in 2017. What will emerge from these two contentious negotiations — among many other things — will be a redefining of who deserves to be seen on the sport’s brightest stages, as well as the means they can employ to fight their way into that spotlight, whether they deserve to be there or not. The main players in these fights — the league, the teams, and the players — will all have different ideas about what they should be allowed to do as a way to gain a competitive advantage over their rivals. In this regard, it is interesting to look at the new NBA’s culture wars, and who they deem to be friends and foes, all in an effort to be noticed more than the person sitting next to them.

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Another Happy Bill Simmons Fist Pump

When you look at a list of current ESPN programs, the lack of NBA programming jumps out. NBA Countdown and NBA Shootaround are seen before and after NBA broadcasts. NBA Coast to Coast airs Tuesdays on ESPN2 opposite TNT’s NBA broadcast, which is why you’ve probably never watched it. There is also NBA Fastbreak, which I’ve honestly never watched and I don’t think is still on the air. For a sport that ESPN has an extensive investment in, that is the second or third most popular sport in the country, it is damn weak representation.

The NBA has never really been well-represented in Bristol and that continues to today. Chris Broussard and Brian Windhorst live in the NYC area. JA Adande, Ramona Shelburne and Bill Simmons live in LA. Israel Gutierrez and Tom Haberstroh live in Miami. Marc Stein lives in Dallas. Michael Wilbon lives outside of DC. Hell, the top two editors of ESPN.com’s NBA section don’t even live in Bristol. ESPN’s NBA presence has always been on-site at games, not emanating from the studio.

That all changes this season, sort of. Yesterday ESPN announced up to 18 episodes of The Grantland Basketball Show, of course hosted by Bill Simmons. Eight episodes each will air during the regular season and playoffs, with one-off specials around the trade deadline and free agency period. The only person officially attached to the show at this time is Simmons, with the press release noting a “rotating” panel of contributors.

The momentum for this show has been building since Grantland was launched three years ago. Its initial video offerings were video podcasts and low-budget productions—a bunch of Grantland writers sitting around a living room talking about March Madness. But in the last year it has executed much more ambitious documentary projects like its three part features on Steve Nash and the Sacramento Kings war room, and its 30 for 30 shorts.

Bill Simmons joined NBA Countdown two seasons ago and almost immediately began chafing at his (in his opinion) limited role. He reportedly (it has been denied by everybody involved) forced Magic Johnson and Mike Wilbon off after that first season, and didn’t mesh well with host Sage Steele during the second. I’d heard speculation (Jason McIntyre did too) that Simmons was looking to replace Steele with Beadle for a third season.

Mix one part frustrated but talented Bill Simmons with two parts beefed up Grantland video capabilities and, voila, Bill Simmons has his own show. If his oeuvre is any indication, The Grantland Basketball Show will be a success. Part of that is because the bar for success is pretty damn low: ESPN hasn’t had a good NBA show in a decade (maybe ever?). Simmons also has a very successful track record when given creative control over a project: his column, podcasts, 30 for 30, Grantland. It is when he is given a voice but not creative control—Page 2, NBA Countdown—where his star hasn’t shown as bright.

The main problem with NBA Countdown was that it had its feet in two different worlds. Simmons and Jalen Rose clearly desired a longer, more free form show like TNT’s standard-bearer Inside the NBA, but the other cast members (whether it be Magic Johnson, Michael Wilbon, Doug Collins or Avery Johnson) worked better in a more traditional, non-controversial setting. NBA Countdown did neither particularly well.

The most interesting unanswered question about The Grantland Basketball Show is who the rotating cast members will be. Jalen Rose is a pretty safe bet, but besides that it is anybody’s guess. Zach Lowe would seem to be a natural fit—and I really like his interviewing skills—but offering commentary is very different from interviewing, and Lowe doesn’t seem to be particularly interested in pursuing television opportunities. We know Kirk Goldsberry can make intriguing graphics, but can he offer insightful and entertaining opinions about the game? Will cast members solely come from Grantland, or will Simmons cast an ESPN-wide net?

The seeming lack of formality, contrasted with ESPN’s usually very buttoned-up presence, is also notable. The show doesn’t have a regular slot on the calendar, with eight regular season episodes across 20ish weeks of play and eight playoff episodes across 8ish weeks of the playoffs, and doesn’t have regular cast members. In that way it seems much more like a video podcast that is recorded whenever and thrown up on youtube…except a video podcast that will be given “prime time” billing and beamed into 100 million households.

When push comes to shove—and with Bill Simmons, it frequently comes to that—ESPN has almost always given him what he wants. It has been good for him, but also good for ESPN. The Grantland Basketball Show will be no different. ESPN dominates basketball coverage online but for the longest time curiously passed when it came to television, one of the reasons that the Turner Sports-partnered NBA TV has gained traction in recent years. That changes this season.

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We are More than Warriors: On Sexuality, Desire and Deviancy in NBA Commercials.

Between promising “a great time out” in a 19-win season, and depicting your franchise center running sprints and lifting weights on an ankle not-yet-healed-from-microfracture-surgery, there have been some incredible moments in Warriors commercial history. But my favorite moment happened this season; two parts of a year-long “We Are Warriors” campaign, which depicted the players interacting with season ticket holders in unique ways. In the spot, titled “Assist” (seen above) a season ticket-holder named Toni Marshall is shown dribbling a basketball down the Warriors practice court. She is not dressed in a uniform; instead, she is draped in flair and Warriors-themed jewelry. After crossing half-court, she whips a cross-court pass to Klay Thompson, who, true to form, is moving without the ball on an empty court, coming off of invisible screens with ease. He catches the ball in rhythm, squares up, and splashes one of his trademark treys. He points his index finger at Marshall after making the shot, the universal symbol for “nice assist,” and begins to backpedal on invisible defense. Marshall returns the point by pointing back herself, her eyes fixed on Klay intently, asking for more interaction. He responds enthusiastically by unleashing a battery of party gimmicks — he six-shoots his three-guns, brushes his shoulders off, and takes a deep bow, all in recognition of Marshall’s great assist. However, the commercial takes an interesting turn when Marshall extends that once innocuous finger, smiles coyly, and beckons Thompson in an overtly sexual way. Thompson’s response is true to his nature: a blank stare, accompanied by a facial expression that gives away no clues as to how he actually feels about her advances.

Considering that the other commercials in the series were more innocent — an ill-fated attempt at post-defense against Andrew Bogut, a delightful ice bath with Andre Iguodala — this advertisement stood out. Not only did it portray Klay Thompson, whose previous commercial acting involved him taking shots in a dark gym, in a way that seemed delightfully out of character. It also put Toni Marshall on full display, dropping dimes before dropping lines, all with an NBA player she clearly found sexually attractive. Portraying both Marshall and Thompson as jocular, and perhaps a bit frisky, was a delight. But at some point during the season, the commercial changed (seen above). It was a minor edit, but it was noticeable enough for those who watched the local broadcast regularly. The commercial essentially was the same; same assist, same repeated pointing, same Klay-faced gimmicks. Gone, however, was Marshall’s advance towards Klay. Any hint of flirting sexual desire was gone completely.

marshall point

On the one hand, it makes sense that the commercial was changed. No sexual advance should be trivialized, especially one that is unwanted by the object of sexual desire, and unasked for by the same person. In an era where catcalls are still sickeningly prevalent, and more and more individuals (almost exclusively women, combating aggressive heterosexual males) explicitly campaign against harassment delivered in the street in the name of “giving a compliment” or “just talking “, things like Marshall’s beckoning should be taken seriously, even if it’s being done in jest. Moreover, the Warriors, like any NBA team, is marketed to a wide audience, including families, many of whom have young children. The messages delivered in “Assist” — besides that you should pass it to the the shooter when he frees himself from a screen and has some daylight in one of his sweet spots — are murky at best, and the Warriors would hardly be the first team to “play it safe” when the product advances an unintended message. In that regard, changing the commercial from a “come here, you!” to a “take a bow, Klay” makes total sense, and warrants little further comment.

Furthermore, we might even nod our heads approvingly that the Warriors would proactively combat the notion that athletes are only regarded as objects of sexual desire for women. As I (and many others) have written on many occasions, athletes are often seen and described purely as “lusty bodies” — a highly racialized image of a person, reduced to a brilliant set of muscles and dashing looks worth millions of dollars, who replicate war on a limited scale for bloodthirsty men, and become eye candy for heart-eyed women. The Diss has championed efforts made by athletes, and more reluctantly, the corporations that market them, to portray a more nuanced image than what is assumed to be the sum of all their unique parts, and complicate the picture in a useful, instructional way. Along those lines, this commercial does some good in that battle to humanize the athlete. Portraying Thompson as a friendly but emotionally flat human being, who is receptive towards playful joshing, is a skilled shooter, and appreciates those who assist him in succeeding on-and-off the court, is perhaps preferable to the image we get in the first commercial. In these ways, Thompson is made safe, Marshall’s actions are made innocuous, and everyone can feel good about what they just saw: another dime-a-dozen “this is a metaphor in the hope that you buy lots of tickets for our games” ad spots. That’s NBA commercialism, in its most basic form, and the edited commercial joins its bloated, pudgy ranks.

klay stare

Yet, with all of that in mind, it doesn’t take away from the fact that the commercial was changed because it made some people feel uncomfortable, and that that discomfort may be misplaced in itself. Indeed, there are many aspects of the commercial that seem incongruous simply because they do not conform to our own prevailing notions of what is acceptable behavior for both men and women in this scenario. Toni Marshall does not present herself as a the stereotypical “thirsting woman” in this commercial; a full-figured individual, clearly not a barely-legal teenager, putting herself fully and unapologetically on display, driving down court, and trying to pick up Thompson at the end. Similarly, Thompson, himself, doesn’t exactly shut Marshall down once she beckons him hither. We don’t see him explicitly reject her, either politely or impolitely; the conclusion is open-ended, and we are unsure whether Klay is intrigued or put-off. Perhaps that was enough to raise eyebrows, the idea that a professional athlete would want to interact romantically with an individual who does not fit the mold of who we assume he would want to, and vice versa, for that matter. Perhaps just the idea that wow, this is not heteronormative enough for the average viewer was enough to modestly edit the beast.

In the end, it’s important to remember that this is just a commercial, not a position paper or policy statement. As such, our analysis can be restrained; saved from its own proclivity towards overreaction. The goal of the ad is not to offer different takes on modern ideas of sexuality and desire that don’t fit into outmoded notions of how intimacy and romance should work. As always, the goal of any NBA commercial is to get you to invest in the NBA, through tickets, merchandise, apps, or whatever product or person they’re dangling limply in front of your face. This is no different, except the players, message and motives within it seem playfully deviant; as if they know they’re pushing the envelope in a society that continually struggles with its outdated mores and morals. More so than in other ads, there is a different message being advanced about open expressions of sexuality, intimacy and desire, and one that shouldn’t be lost in the consumerist message being primarily imparted by the spot. In it’s original form, the commercial invites us to connect the dots, and come up with our own conclusions about what connection Thompson and Marshall share; what, exactly, it means to be “together” as “Warriors.” Such an adventure doesn’t exist in the edit, and in many ways, that reduces the power and impact of the commercial.

As the NBA basks in the positive press it is receiving for being seen as the most “progressive” league in the United States, given recent (and modest) victories in the realms of gender equality in the workplace, LGBTQ rights, anti-racism and transparency in officiating practices, it will be interesting to see what the league, and the teams within it, do with that wiggle room. It will be compelling to see if the NBA continues to advance messages that imply that it’s acceptable to push the envelope, and question the overarching structures that make the world the problematic place it is today, was yesterday, and likely will be tomorrow. And while this commercial doesn’t exactly put this issue on full display, the subsequent safe edit implies that any radical deviancy will be slow-arriving, or at the very least, edited for the benefit of sensitive eyes and antiquated minds.

klay bow

Editor’s note: The author thanks his much better half Cammie Dodson for helping him parse out many of these thoughts, and for being an awesome person in general. 

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How Sam Hinkie Makes the NBA Money

As has been amply written about, the 2014 NBA offseason has proceeded among fans at a speed not seen previously. The offseason has always embodied speculation and hope, but never has it felt as central to the NBA fan experience as it does today. Once upon a time fans wanted to know who was signed. Then who was being neogiated with. Then who was considered. Then what the backup plan was. Once upon a time fans wanted updates once a day. Then in the morning and at night. Then during every episode of SportsCenter. Now they want an update every minute.

The traditional understanding is that the quality of the product on the field, and how it is presented, is what drives sports popularity. If a league can attract and develop better and more interesting players—or can find innovative and improved ways for fans to watch—they will be more successful. But as this offseason helped make apparent, the potential exists for offcourt intrigue to indirectly drive league revenue. By generating more pageviews and clicks, and engaging fans for longer, offseason drama is a profitable endeavor.

And if that’s the case, couldn’t tanking be a net positive for the league?

Despite the league’s official stance, its unofficial stance is “of course tanking exists, you dolts”, which is why there is increased chatter around potential changes to the lottery. Tanking comes in the blatant multi-year tanking form (76ers), intentionally losing to hold onto a draft pick (2011-12 Warriors), or taking your sweet ass time to rebuild form (Jazz). The monetary argument against tanking is that a tanking team is terrible to watch, which will lead fans to stop watching and going to games involving that team.

Wins and losses are the biggest predictor of NBA attendance, as well as the biggest predictor of television ratings, along with market size. It also stands to reason that a competitive losing team is more attractive than a noncompetitive losing team; one of the biggest factors in the NFL’s success over the past decade is its extreme amount of parity. Thirteen teams have made the Super Bowl in the last decade, while only nine NBA teams have made it to the NBA Finals. It would be better for the NBA’s bottom line for every team to at least be somewhat competitive, and with this view in mind, tanking hurts revenue.

But if we take a more expansive view of what drives revenue, things are a bit murkier. I would contend that Sam Hinkie’s 76ers generate outsize interest for how bad they are. By my reading of basketball media, the 76ers are talked about more than the middling but still bad Magic, Celtics, Pistons, Jazz and Kings, and maybe more. Everything they do is talked about more because of clear-eyed and rigid strategy the team pursues.

The 76ers also serve to increase the amount of activity that goes on in the NBA transaction market. If every team pursues the same strategy, the homogeneity of opinions and values makes deals less likely to occur. But with the 76ers willing to make every single deal a threesome if they can acquire picks, young players and money, as well as simply valuing players differently than the rest of the league, they gin up the trade and free agency market.

Of course this benefit isn’t really measurable. We could count social media mentions of the team or something dumb like that, but any conventional measure of revenue would conclude that tanking is bad for attendance and television numbers, as well as for the perception of the league. That is all probably true. But to the extent that the draft, free agency and trades drum up fan interest and knock over the first domino that eventually leads to revenue, the 76ers play a large role. Tanking plays a large role.

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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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