A weekly dive into the NBA’s hottest topics.
David Stern running today’s league would have been fascinating
Former NBA commissioner David Stern, who died Wednesday, was ruthless, smart and stubborn. But he also understood kindness had its own leverage. He understood people, and with a series of carrots and sticks, he forced the egos and livelihoods of the millionaires and billionaires that ran the NBA during his tenure to coalesce with the larger mission of growing the game and serving NBA fans.
He wanted the players to be invested in the league’s growth, so he tied their income to the league’s basketball-related income. He also famously told reporters during the 2011 lockout that he knew where the bodies were buried. For decades, he regaled the likes of Michael Jordan, Larry Bird and Magic Johnson, and I can’t help but wonder, in an age where players are power brokers themselves, how Stern would have fared.
Stern always knew the NBA was best when the focus was on the game. That’s probably where his vision diverged most with what the modern NBA has become. Right now, the focus shifts from social-media spats to free agency to memes and most prominently this season to load management, a rest-based, injury-prevention tactic that positions the pursuit of winning a championship against playing regular-season games.
The term contaminated the season in November, when Kawhi Leonard sat out in the second half of a back-to-back against the Milwaukee Bucks, depriving fans of a nationally televised potential Finals preview between two MVP candidates. The NBA initially tried to provide Leonard some cover, stating that his right knee was indeed hurt and did need rest. But when Clippers head coach Doc Rivers, who apparently did not get the memo, told reporters Leonard “feels great,” the NBA deemed his comments inaccurate and inappropriate and fined him $50,000.
I appreciate the NBA is on the side of science, but contrast that with Stern, who fined the San Antonio Spurs $250,000 in 2012, when they sat their stars in a TNT matchup against the Heat, and he publicly apologized to NBA fans. Spurs coach Gregg Popovich often lives in open defiance of the machine that pays him. Leonard operates in a similar fashion. Certain stars, like LeBron James for example, understand entertainment has to be married with the pursuit of victory for the NBA to be successful. Leonard is not one of those stars.
There’s no way to tell whether Stern would have ruled with the same iron fist in 2019 as he did in 2012, but one thing is certain: Stern vs. Leonard and Rivers would have made delicious theater. The things Stern would have uttered to Clippers owner Steve Ballmer behind closed doors would have been the stuff of legend. The fines likely would have been larger and the science likely would have been ignored, at least when it came to nationally televised marquee matchups.
Leonard likely has fewer buried bodies to worry about than most, but it was reported that his uncle, Dennis Robertson, asked the Lakers, Clippers and Raptors for inappropriate financial rewards during Leonard’s free agency. You wonder how that might have been leveraged. Could Stern have been the only person in the NBA with the power to coerce Leonard into doing something he didn’t want to do? All these questions get to the heart of what so many people are eulogizing Stern for: Most of the time, the wheels turn on their own accord, and we give people credit for change because our culture mythologizes individualism. But Stern was a truly singular force, demanding and impatient. Occasionally, he was stubborn to a fault. Occasionally, he was stubborn enough to put the wind in the sails of one of the best sports leagues the world has seen.
It’s time for the Celtics to unleash Tacko Fall
On March 24, 2019, when UCF took on Duke, Tacko Fall, whose name alone begs for virality, sealed his fate as a cult favorite for basketball fans across America when he announced he wouldn’t let Zion Williamson — the guaranteed No. 1 pick in the upcoming 2019 NBA draft who dunked on everyone — dunk on him.
Duke snuck away with a close victory, but that didn’t prevent Fall from becoming an instant curiosity turned instant classic: 7-foot-7 with shoes on, an orchestra conductor who dunks without jumping and smiles all the time, with a name resembling a beloved food-delivery system.
He was a major source of intrigue for fans and scouts alike, and though he went undrafted, the Celtics ultimately signed him, and Fall’s notoriety has followed him to the TD Garden, where he inspires garbage-time chants. On Dec. 3, in a blowout against the Pistons, coach Brad Stevens opted, as he put it, to give the people what they want.
What the people want, however, might also be what’s good for the Celtics. If you want to take the air out of Boston’s unexpected rise to the No. 2 seed in the East, bat an eye toward its frontcourt depth. As the trade deadline approaches, doesn’t it behoove them to take a peek at what’s under their own hood before shopping for parts elsewhere?
Fall is undoubtedly a project, but he spent four years in college, developing an NBA body few players of his stature before him possessed. At the draft combine, he weighed 289 pounds, making him the NBA’s heaviest player yet somehow proportionate to his frame, with only 6.8 percent body fat. He simply looks like an NBA player.
Patient player development is a virtue, but early returns with the Maine Red Claws in the G League suggest he can chew a little more than he’s bitten off. He could be a destructive screener on a team full of ball-handling, and an easy target on lobs and rolls on one of the most well-spaced teams in the NBA. There’s also a chance he makes too many mistakes to stay on the floor, but it’s worth finding out.
Fans still like Kyrie Irving
Speaking of the game being about the game …
In the past 30 months, Kyrie Irving has demanded a trade from the Cavaliers Cavaliers, landed on the Celtics, and promised he’d stay before reneging and signing with the Brooklyn Nets this summer, leaving a trail of bad blood in his wake.
He has alienated two fanbases, lashed out at fans and the media, and floated conspiracy theories about the shape of the Earth. Basically, he has been going through it. And very publicly. One would presume he’d be one of the least-liked players in the NBA by now.
But the truth is, despite playing in just 11 games this season (in which the Nets had a worse record than they do with him injured), he’s currently ranked second in Eastern Conference All-Star voting.
It’s a down voting year for Eastern Conference guards in general, but Irving still has his own catchet. Consider the fact that Kemba Walker, despite being everything Irving should have been for the Celtics last year, has less votes than Irving has this year and just half the votes Irving had as a Celtic at the same time last year.
Irving may come off as a heel, but fans, in the end, care more about seeing crossovers and clutch shots in the All-Star Game.
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